Cosmos 2014: Some of the Things That Molecules Do

The March 16 episode focuses on the principles of the theory of evolution.  When I was little, Sagan’s original Cosmos on this subject, the episode / chapter entitled “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” taught me why a grandmother might kill her own grandchild.  

In order to demonstrate the effect of artificial selection, Sagan related the story of the Heike crabs, the crabs traditionally believed to be the reincarnations of Heike samurai killed at the Battle of Danno-ura.

The Heike were badly outnumbered and outmaneuvered.  With their cause clearly lost the surviving Heike warriors threw themselves into the sea and drowned.
The emperor’s grandmother, the Lady Nii, resolved that they would not be captured by the enemy.
What happened next is related in “The Tale of the Heike”: “The young emperor [only seven years old at the time of the battle] asked the Lady Nii, ‘Where are you to take me?’ She turned to the youthful sovereign with tears streaming down her cheeks and comforted him. . .  The Lady Nii took him in her arms, and with the words: ‘In the depths of the ocean is our capital,’ sank with him at last beneath the waves.

Sagan recounted the hypothesis that these crabs came to resemble samurai because crabs that resembled samurai were thrown back by fishermen, rather than killed and eaten, and that therefore their accidental resemblance to samurai was developed through artificial selection.  This hypothesis has since been shown to be very unlikely.  But I never forgot it.  More than that, I never forgot the notion that a grandmother might love something else – an idea, a principle, a throne – more than the life of her own grandchild.

Since the story of the crabs no longer holds water, Tyson explains the theory of artificial selection using the story of domestic dogs, which is much more solid, and certainly cuter.  It lacks the little horror of Lady Nii at the Battle of Danno-ura, but the universe is full of little horrors, and this one may be allowed to pass by.

Tyson recapitulates the theory of evolution with a joyful clarity, borrowing strongly from Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable.  But it is no accident that Tyson hosts this show and not Dawkins.  Unlike Dawkins, who is clearly on the edge of exasperation at every moment at the very idea that some idiot has the audacity to disagree with him, Tyson speaks with patience and kindness.  When I was little, I did not understand that there was still war between science and God; and I listened to Sagan with open wonder, and no siege mentality.  If I were little now, I could listen to Tyson in the same way.

The #cosmos hashtag, as widely mocked, will show you many young-earth creationists and other know-nothings sneering at Tyson’s explanations of cosmology, geology and evolution.  And yet, I no longer feel irritation to see the tweets of such people; instead, I feel warm sadness, even a kind of kinship.  They too are creatures that are behaving in an adaptive fashion.  They use the hashtag and the snark to signal to their packmates that they are part of a social network (as it were), that they share beliefs and are willing to defend a common territory against interlopers.  How else do complex organisms maintain their societies? 

But the interlopers here are nothing less than the depth and breadth of Time itself, the immensity of the universe.  And so it is that some people, even now, are willing to throw themselves and their children overboard and say, “In the depths of the ocean is our capital,” rather than contemplate the totality of our existence.

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