Length: 13 episode of approximately 45 minutes each. (This review covers only the first 11.)
Astronomer and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts a reboot of Carl Sagan’s captivating 1980 Cosmos series. The new series covers similar topics, but with improved special effects, updated science, stories of different historical figures, and an abundance of obvious commercial-break fade-outs. Accompanied by animated sequences and visits to historical landmarks, Tyson skillfully tells many fascinating stories about scientists throughout the ages (including some underappreciated minds from the Orient and the Middle East), and how they discovered everything from the orbits of comets to the dangers of lead. Tyson isn’t quite as enthusiastic as Sagan was about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, but he takes a few more calculated broadsides against religion while sounding a little more religious about the “wonders” of science. For the most part, though, Tyson simply focuses on uncovering truth no matter where it leads, and appreciating the wonders of the universe – even if it requires questioning accepted authorities – and there’s plenty here for discerning Christians to enjoy.
Deep time content: Heavy. Tyson updates the famous “cosmic calendar,” compressing the standard 13-billion-year history of the universe into a single year. The tour highlights the relative recency of human civilization in ecumenical fashion (“Moses was born seven seconds ago, Buddha six, Jesus five”), but it doesn’t highlight the fascinating rapidity of earlier events like the origin of life or the Cambrian explosion the way Sagan did. Episode 4 takes direct aim at young-earth creationists with Tyson’s commentary on the Crab Nebula sending light from 6,500 light years away. Episode 7 says that the Bible was once considered “authoritative,” and that Ussher’s calculation of the age of the Earth was accepted as “gospel” until “we turned to another book” in “the rocks themselves.” (Despite Tyson’s presentation of a conflict, many Christians would argue that the response to Ussher’s calculation, which was performed over fifteen centuries past Christ’s resurrection, might have had more to do with turning away from a late, Westernized, over-rigid interpretation of authoritative Scripture, than turning from the authoritative Scripture itself.)
Evolution content: Heavy. Episode 2 confidently asserts that humans share ancestry with all life, dismissing the “traditional belief” of separate creation to a “twinge of discomfort” that we might be related to apes. He says the “theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a fact,” yet also a “soaring spiritual experience.” Episode 11 says every life is a “masterpiece… written by nature and edited by evolution”. Episode 2 says the “tenacity of life,” over billions of years and through multiple extinctions events, “is mind-boggling.” Rather than viewing evolution as diminishing human value, Tyson grandly proclaims in Episode 10 that “we are descended from the hardy survivors of unimaginable catastrophes.”
Episode 2 notes the complexity of the cell with quality animations (“we are each of us a little universe”), and Tyson takes intelligent design head-on. Mentioning that the eye is more complex than any human invention, he nonetheless narrates a fairly speculative animation of the eye’s gradual evolution through different creatures over billions of years, even arguing that some of the eye’s “imperfections” in land animals are due to its historical evolution through watery creatures.
Tyson is confident that we know “what our world looked like” four billion years ago when life began, but says “nobody knows” how it happened. Noting the challenge of asteroid impacts on early Earth, Episode 11 speculatively suggests that asteroids might have served as “interplanetary arks” to re-seed Earth and even scatter life into new planets in interstellar clouds!
Environmental content: Moderate. Episode 7 tells the story of Clair Patterson, whose research into using radioactive elements to measure the age of the Earth also led him to discover the dangers of lead, and we see the opposition he faced from lead industries. Today, Tyson says ambiguously, scientists sound the alarm about “other environmental issues,” while “vested interests” still hire scientists to oppose it. Episode 11 discusses threats to human civilization, saying (again ambiguously, but with images of oil spills) that some are preventable but “profit-driven” for “short-term gain” by our “prevailing economic systems.” Without naming climate change directly, but strongly suggesting it, Tyson says there’s a “scientific consensus,” but we’re in the “grip of denial.”
Climate change content: Moderate. During the history tour of the “cosmic calendar,” Episode 1 mentions how coal formed from plants in previous ages is now being burned to “power and imperil our civilization.” When discussing the evolution of polar bears via fur color mutation, Episode 2 hints at the consequences of arctic ice disappearing “due to global warming.” Episode 6 claims that “artificial photosynthesis” could reduce climate change. Episode 10 attributes the “Great Dying” of the ancient Permian extinction event to “greenhouse gases” that led to “radical” climate swings too fast for animals to adapt, and suggests that “dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere” will “bring back a climate” that led to “mass extinctions” in the past.
Attitude toward religion: Tyson explicitly challenges religion, and specifically Christianity, not only specific beliefs (as mentioned above) but the connection of those beliefs to “authoritative” Scripture as opposed to the discoveries of science. No believer in revelation, Tyson says in Episode 3 that “we’ve had to figure it all out for ourselves.” (Episode 11 says the story of Gilgamesh was “retold” as Noah.)
However, Tyson also depicts many Christians favorably – as long as they didn’t let their beliefs interfere with their scientific practice. Similar to Sagan, he mentions in Episode 1 that Luther considered Copernicus’s universe an “affront to Scripture,” but he focuses on another scientific character whom he presents as a sincere Christian. Instead of Johannes Kepler, this time it’s Giordano Bruno who “hungered to know everything of God’s creation,” telling those who rejected his theories that “your God is too small.” (Following Tyson’s focus on authority and conflict, he says if Bruno was right, “sacred books” would be “open to question”)
Episode 4 describes Isaac Newton as a “God-loving man who was also a genius,” discovering “laws the Bible hadn’t mentioned.” (Tyson says Newton “swept away the need for a master clockmaker” since “gravity was the clockmaker,” though I thought Newton’s laws led to the notions of a divine clockmaker, as opposed to a God who actively sent every thunderstorm, and while this later influenced the impersonal god of Deism, gravity didn’t sweep away the need for a creator of gravity.) Episode 9 later describes Newton as the “greatest genius who ever lived.” It also describes Michael Faraday as taking his “fundamentalist Christian faith to heart,” always finding it a source of “strength, comfort, and humility.”
What I found fascinating was the extent to which science seems to be its own religion for Tyson, who can’t help borrowing the culturally foundational language of Christianity to describe the universe’s “wonder.” In addition to the evolutionary praises noted above, Episode 2 describes DNA as “ancient scripture.” Episode 6 inspirationally declares (“Neutrinos from creation are within you”) and commands (“Thou shalt not create or destroy energy.”) Describing the consequences of stellar explosions, Episode 8 says ancestors weren’t foolish to worship the sun, since “we are their children,” and every thing on earth was originally “stardust.” Tyson says, “How lucky we are to have clean energy, manna from heaven falling on us.” In Episode 3, Halley’s comet presents scientific “prophecy” that can actually predict the future better than unreliable “mystics.” In Episode 11, the invention of writing unlocks a sort of secular afterlife: “Death could no longer silence us.” Tyson even imagines a utopian second cosmic calendar of the future, when our evolved descendants will have “more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses.” Yet, ultimately, this secular religion offers no eternal life, as Episode 8 darkly admits: “Nothing lasts forever. Even stars die.”
Tyson’s view has a form of sin: “Scientists are humans” who have “blind spots and prejudices,” and “aren’t always faithful” to the principles of science (Episode 10). He emphasizes that scientific advancement needs the “free questioning of authority” and the “open exchange of ideas” (Episode 5), and he depicts inspirational figures challenging not only prevailing religious dogma but prevailing scientific dogma as well. Alfred Wegener was “ridiculed” but ultimately vindicated for his theory of continental drift (Episode 10). Cecylia Payne “carefully gathered evidence” about the proportions of hydrogen and helium in stars that “flew in the face of conventional scientific wisdom” (Episode 8). Such victorious stories are often encouraging to Christians who hope to make similar impacts on present scientific consensus. The relentless pursuit of truth in the face of resistance should serve as a source of agreement for all honest seekers, regardless of current views.
Other notable content: Some animated historical figures curse (the phrase “duck soup, my ass” is played for laughs). In Episode 1, Tyson says the early earth took “one hell of a beating.” In Episode 3, Robert Hooke is said to have “experimented with cannabis,” and it was “no cause of fear” but maybe of “laughter.” In Episode 9, an animated Humphrey Davy has blood flow from his eyes after a botched experiment.