Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Cosmos 3.0 Revisits Themes of the Past, with Familiar Historical Mythmaking


With its ode to the superior rationality of the modern secular mind, last night’s debut of the third season of Cosmos 3.0 came amid a full-scale national panic attack about a virus. As David Klinghoffer commented here yesterday, the timing could be better.

The first two episodes, with Neil deGrasse Tyson returning as host, have now aired on Fox and National Geographic. In contrast to Cosmos 2.0, the President of the United States does not introduce this remake. The overall theme of these episodes is our eventual exploration and colonization of other planets.

All Neil, All the Time

Episode 1 is titled “Ladder to the Stars.” We learn that this ladder is the DNA molecule. Very poetic. Great visuals. The episode begins with Carl Sagan admonishing us to follow the evidence wherever it leads and to question everything. If only the show’s writers and producers would take these lessons to heart. Apart from a couple of sermonettes from St. Carl, it’s all Neil all the time.

We are told that the first DNA molecule somehow formed and evolved by natural selection. As with Cosmos 2.0, when the topic is life, we get sprinkles of fact mixed with heaps of speculation. But only the rare TV viewer, who has read Signature in the Cell perhaps, will know how to separate these. Tyson goes quickly from the origin of life to the first mammals to the origin of big brains. On the former, for a sober view, listen to a podcast released coincidentally the same day with chemist James Tour, “Why Science Cannot Explain the Origin of Life.”

According to Tyson, all our thoughts, feelings, and achievements are explained by one random mutation in a single rung of 13 atoms in DNA. That change lead to the growth in brain size in mammals over millions of years and to the origin of mind. Is that all there is to the origin of mind? Tyson’s own thoughts, too, would then owe their origin to this and many other accidents. If so, why should we believe that Neil Tyson, or anyone else, is a being capable of deriving rational conclusions, about the origin of mind or anything else? Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” shows that the naturalist cannot justify his reason and beliefs.

Science Good, Religion Bad

One common theme in almost every episode of Cosmos 2.0 was “science good, religion bad.” So too with this third season. Thus a jarring transition in episode 1 of the new season leaps from the origin and growth of cities to free thinkers to … you guessed it, Giordano Bruno! He’s back, but only briefly this time. He made his first lengthy appearance in episode 1 of Cosmos 2.0. See Jay Richards’s comments here, “Cosmos Revives the Scientific Martyr Myth of Giordano Bruno.” Tyson uses him to set the mood for the historical interlude that follows. The scientifically intolerant Catholic Church executes free thinking Bruno in 1600 for daring to believe that the stars are other suns with planets around them.

Blessed Baruch Spinoza

Tyson then skips forward to Christiaan Huygens, the great Dutch astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and inventor. He links him to Bruno by noting that Huygens also believed stars were other suns orbited by their own systems of planets. He briefly mentions Van Leeuwenhoek and his early work with microscopes. Unsurprisingly, Tyson never mentions the Christian faith of these great scientists. It seems curious that Tyson would skip over the better known astronomers Kepler and Galileo without any mention. But it soon becomes clear why he does so. Huygens was a friend of Baruch Spinoza, the patron saint of modern skeptics. We are then treated to one of those historical animated segments showing the brave Spinoza rejecting the faith of his Jewish community. Somehow, his rejection of the miracles narrated in the Bible leads him to become a great thinker.

At one point, the animation shows Spinoza being attacked by a knife-wielding assailant, presumably one of the synagogue worshipers Tyson had just talked about. The problem is, the attack, if it ever actually occurred, may not have been from one of the Jewish worshipers. Indeed, this appears to be more mythmaking on the part of Cosmos. Historian and biographer Steven Nadler is the author of Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press). He concludes about the knife episode:

It seems quite possible, then, that the attempt on Spinoza’s life…was (if it happened) not a zealous attack on a dangerous heretic. More likely, it was a simple case of vengeance by unscrupulous, thuggish businessmen.

Tyson also notes that Spinoza ground lenses for microscopes and telescopes. This, combined with his friendship with Huygens, leads the casual viewer to infer that Spinoza was a scientist of the caliber of Huygens. Just to clinch the connection, the segment ends with a visit by Einstein to Spinoza’s home in Leiden in 1920. But Spinoza, like Bruno, was not a scientist. He was an early Enlightenment philosopher.

The Book of Nature

At a couple of points in this episode, Tyson employs the “Book of Nature” metaphor, but he never gives its proper historical context. It’s actually a Christian concept, going back at least to Augustine. It was widely believed by the scientists of the period that they were studying the “Book of Nature” to learn about God, as an act of worship.

There is a segment on the flowers and the bees. This is revisiting a topic from Cosmos 2.0 where they had mistakenly argued for the coevolution of insects and flowers based on timing. As an explanation for true biological novelties, coevolution is a favored evolutionary chestnut. As Brian Miller has remarked here, though, “Such scenarios may sound plausible, but they only result in trivial adjustments to preexisting structures.” See, “Conservation of Information and Coevolution: New BIO-Complexity Article by Ewert and Marks.”

And so it goes with Cosmos. There is, admittedly, less to object to in episode 2. More on that, perhaps, another time.

Overall, despite the sharp graphics, as with many of the Cosmos 2.0 episodes, there is a certain shapelessness to the production. The transitions between topics are weak. They seem haphazard. The fanfare leading up to the release of Cosmos 3.0 was much more subdued than with its predecessor. Maybe the producers are content to settle for low viewership on its release, reasoning that it will go straight into the public schools anyway.

Image: Screenshot from the trailer for Cosmos 3.0, “Possible Worlds.”