Length: 13 episodes of 60 minutes each. (This review only covers the first 9.)
Cosmos was a TV program from 1980 that described science for popular audiences, hosted by Carl Sagan, famous for astronomy and atheism. (An updated 2014 version was hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.) With satellite images, cutting-edge computer graphics (for its time, that is), detailed re-enactments, and visits to important places around the world, Sagan describes conventional scientific theories about the history of the universe and the clever ways scientists made important discoveries over the centuries. He focuses with infectious excitement on the recent satellite launches to other planets, and repeatedly drills, with tireless optimism, his great hopes that intelligent life exists throughout the universe.
Deep time content: Heavy. Episode 1 describes the “15 billion year” history of the universe through the famous analogy of the “cosmic calendar,” describing the gradual evolution of stars, planets, living things, and human beings at the correlating spots. The calendar notes the interestingly quick appearance of life on Earth as well as non-gradual jumps like the Cambrian explosion. Later episodes are sprinkled with references to this history, such as comet or asteroid impacts spread over billions of years, or the way constellations would have looked millions of years ago. He also says the lost Babylonian history of Berossus spanned 432,000 years, described as many times longer than the “Old Testament chronology.”
Evolution content: Heavy. Episode 2 admits the attraction of appealing to a “designer,” noting that cells are more complex than watches, but describes living outcomes as “accidents.” It includes a basic evolutionary walk-through via a simple cartoon outline that repeatedly morphs into different kinds of creatures, which may be misleading, due to its oversimplification of complex transformation, as well as its implicitly “gradual” pace, which conflicts somewhat with the claimed evidence from deep time for relatively rapid changes separated by long pauses. The episode also describes and optimistically interprets the Miller-Urey experiments on the natural origin of life from non-life. Episode 8 says that if the path of evolution had been “slightly different,” intelligence may have come from some other species. (The fact that Sagan assumes different paths would have led to “different” intelligent life, rather than none at all, is related to his great optimism in the existence of extraterrestrial life, and his assumptions that it is easy for life both to arise and develop.)
Environmental content: Light. The episodes have an undercurrent of concern for the future of humanity, but modern audiences will note the sign of its time in its primary concern for the threat of nuclear warfare rather than strictly environmental issues.
Climate change content: Light. Episode 4, which touches on Venus, briefly notes how humans are changing the atmosphere despite being “ignorant” of its potential effects. But, as the product of its time, it hazily suggests uncertain possibilities, treating the “increasing greenhouse effect” of Venus as equally plausible as increasing brightness leading to a Mars-like “ice age”. (A 10-yr update at the end of the episode says recent evidence has tilted scientists confidently towards the greenhouse effect, describing the risk of Venus unless we “change our ways” with concrete steps that involve replacing fossil fuels with alternatives, reforestation, and alleviating poverty to reduce population growth.)
Attitude toward religion: At first glance, Sagan appears to have a negative attitude toward religion, but it is fairly reserved, portraying Christianity more positively than some might expect, and it also leaves open an inviting potential for attentive educators to contextualize with a Christian worldview.
Overall, Sagan values those who pursue the “uncomfortable” truths that advance science over those with close-minded religious prejudices. Episode 6 praises Renaissance-era Holland for its openness toward science, crediting it for progress and quoting a figure who called “science” his “religion.” He largely criticizes non-Christian historical movements for their opposition to scientific progress, though he claims in Episode 7 that Christianity adopted Plato’s Pythagorean suppression of observation and experiment for the less useful, or even restrictive, focus on abstract thought.
Episode 3 briefly describes both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther as opposing Copernicus’s model that displaced the Earth from the center of the universe, but it mostly focuses on the more nuanced story of Johannes Kepler. Sagan describes Kepler’s view of God as the creative power of the universe; he saw all creation as expressing the mind of God. Kepler’s desire to “read the mind of God” through the “book of nature” is portrayed as leading to the scientific revolution. But Kepler’s discovery that planetary orbits were elliptical is said to have “shook his faith” in God, and his perfect circular geometry Kepler was expecting.
Sagan seems to view this as an example of a scientist choosing factual science over religion, but the Christian, noting that there is nothing strictly Biblical about circular orbits, can instead see the “precise” elliptical laws of motion as evidence of God’s ordered universe, and see Kepler’s story as a beautiful example of how God’s creation may not look exactly like we expect but can confirm his glorious majesty all the same. Indeed, this is a fitting description of the whole series, where Sagan marvels at the repeated and constant orderliness of the universe which allows us to discover the laws and rules behind it all. Sagan has a talent for telling stories of how scientists discovered these laws, but while he seems to think the laws let us “know the world without the god hypothesis” that credited Zeus for every fall, the Christian can ask why those orderly laws exist in the first place, and see them as pointing to a God who intentionally set them up. In this way, Sagan’s series reminds me of the quote from physicist Werner Heisenburg: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
Sagan also sees science as demolishing human significance. Episode 7 says our position in the Milky Way is “not important,” that we are an “insignificant planet of a hum drum star”. In Episode 8, Sagan thinks our planet arrangement is “typical,” and that Jupiter-sized planets close to the sun are probably rare. Episode 9 even describes humans and animals as “parasites” on the plants,” all orbiting the “ordinary mediocre” sun. Again, this all plays into Sagan’s worldview that there must be other life out there because there is nothing especially remarkable about us. Sagan correctly predicted we would find planets around other stars, but most of them have been far less life-friendly than he would have expected, including an abundance of close Jovians. And there are innumerable reasons that Earth’s position in the solar system and galaxy are actually incredibly significant and important for our existence (see Teaching Deep Time for a few hints of these). These factors may make life far rarer, and thus far more special, than optimistic atheists like Sagan have thought.
Other notable content: A Renassiance-style image of a constellation briefly features a naked woman in Episode 3. An illustration from a sci-fi Edgar Rice Burroughs book briefly features a voluptuous Martian princess.