This Labor Day weekend I started watching the Cosmos series that first aired in March of this year and is now available on Netflix. As an artist, I get inspiration from learning about the natural world, and for a long time science has provided, and continues to provide that for me. The Cosmos series itself is a work of art–visually and aurally brilliant. But after watching the second episode, I became keenly aware of an all-too-familiar habit of those propounding the wonders of evolution: that of speaking about natural selection or nature as a powerful agent or even quasi-conscious entity.
The second episode, entitled “Some of the Things that Molecules Do,” explores the evolution of life of earth, and opens with an introduction by the narrator, Neil Tyson. In the intro, he asks: “Where did all the different kinds of living creatures come from? The answer is: a transforming power that sounds like something straight out of a fairy-tale of myth,” and warns gravely, “but it’s no such thing.” Later he speaks of the “awesome power of evolution” and the things that natural selection can “do,” such as account for “all the beauty and diversity of life.”
Tyson, as many with and before him, uses active verbs to describe the many exploits of natural selection. The “environment itself selects“ genetic changes; or “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant,” and “science reveals that all life on earth is one.” The terms “environment,” “evolution,” and “science” could be replaced with someone’s name–such as Joe, Timmy, Dagon, or Zarathustra–and retain the same syntactical logic.
Isaac Asimov, my personal tutor on the history of science (through 1984), explains the pitfalls of such language from the point of view of “scientific purism”:
“Humans, as creatures who behave in a purposeful, motivated way, naturally tend to attribute purpose even to inanimate nature. Scientists call this attitude teleological, and try to avoid such a way of thinking and speaking as much as they can. But in describing the results of evolution, it is so convenient to speak in terms of development toward more efficient ends that even among scientists all but the most fanatical purists occasionally lapse into teleology.”
He continues to confess his own “sin” in falling short of this Puritan standard, and proceeds to discuss the evolution of the brain as the result of a “long series of evolutionary accidents.”
But is the alternative expedient? Consider again the line from Cosmos, “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant, or a plant as an animal.” How might it be re-phrased? Perhaps “evolution can result in an animal’s being disguised as a plant, and vice-versa,” or “evolutionary accidents can in effect disguise an animal as a plant.” This is cumbersome. Refining words to a nicety tends to reduce their emotional impact and thus alienate broader audiences. Thus, teleological language frankly makes better business sense. If the producers of the film want to maximize ROI, they did well to avoid anything that might smack of academicism or strict technical accuracy.
However, there may be more to it that this. Throughout the video, Tyson uses religious imagery. DNA, he says, is the”ancient scripture” of life (and it is universal too, not exclusive to believers!). The realization that all living things are related is a “spiritual” revelation. The Halls of Extinction even, in the film, are depicted as a temple or sanctuary for dead species. And the opening line, cited above, attributes all the “beauty and diversity of life” to (what he later calls) the “power of evolution.” This imagery is not accidental. It reflects certain perceived philosophical implications of the discoveries of science.
In Cosmos, the traditional religious view which evolution is purported to supplant–that a provident God created the heavens and the earth–is not replaced by pure atheism, in all its genuine fatalism, but by another religion, to wit, the Religion of Nature, or of Evolution. Throughout the episode, Tyson sings the praises of Natural Selection. It is “awesome,” has “power,” and yields, “masterpieces of complexity,” like the human eye.
This religion is not new. It is essentially pantheism and dates back to prehistoric times. But a religion it is. It attributes agency to Nature, blind though it may be, and ascribes all the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of the biological world to its power. It is also responsible for the fate of every species on on earth–their survival or damnation.
There is therefore a distinction between the actual science and the religious language in which it is clothed. Now: whether one favors the “scientific purism” of Asimov or the theism of tradition is another question. I personally believe it is possible to reconcile Divine Providence with the discoveries of science including the Principle of Contingency and that of Evolution, but leave that for another time. Watching Cosmos, I simply savor the meat and spit out the bones. The meat is delicious enough and the bones can be thrown to the wolves.