In 1980, when I was nine, for thirteen weeks running, I watched Cosmos on Sunday nights with my father. Recently I’ve been watching the episodes again with my own nine-year old and his younger siblings. Much of the show has stuck with me ever since I first watched it, although it’s clearer to me now that Sagan thought of religion as a misguided fable at best, at worst as the greatest tool of oppression and hindrance to progress in human history. It’s also clear that Sagan was awed by the beauty of the universe and that he revered the miracle of life.
One of the goals of Cosmosâ€”perhaps the goalâ€”was to show that the origin and present state of the universe, and the evolution of life on Earth, are imbued with wonder, mystery, grandeur, and meaning. Or as Hugh of St. Victor wrote a millennium ago, Omnis natura rationem parit, et nihil in universitate infecundum est: all nature is pregnant with sense, and nothing in all of the universe is sterile. While Hugh and Sagan would disagree on the source and significance of meaning in the universe, I think they might agree that on every scale, from the quantum mechanical to the intergalactic, the cosmos has a story to tell. Sagan was engaged, in other words, in myth-making.
What surprises me most on this viewing of Cosmos is how compatible Sagan’s myths are with my own belief. For Sagan, the rise and present moment of human life is intimately connected to the whole history of the Earth and of the entire universe: we are such stuff as stars are made of, we are children of the cosmos. Our views differ, in that Sagan believes in an impersonal universe rather than a personal godâ€”or does he regard the universe as personal to the extent that we are a part of it? If the latter, we still live on opposite sides of the street, but close enough to smile and wave hello from our front porches.
One story Sagan tells to explain the process of evolution involves the Heike crab in Japan, whose carapace resembles the face of a Samurai warrior. How did it get that way? Because generations of Japanese fishermen, influenced by tales of a lost Samurai army under the waves, threw back crabs with face-like carapaces, letting them breed and pass on their genes to later crab generations. This, for Sagan, is an example of artificial selection. Whether or not the story holds together as evolutionary biology is a matter of controversy, but it is a splendid explanatory myth, including in ways that Sagan probably didn’t intend.
If we are the universe and the cosmos is us, isn’t the distinction between natural and artificial selection itself a bit artificial? Sagan rejects the notion of a Watchmaker, but he seems to think that a creator must be something like a fisherman plunging his arm down into the ocean world of crabs and deciding whether a member of the species has a sufficiently Samuari-like shell pattern. But if the fisherman is intimately connected to the universe, is there a fundamental difference between a hand stirring about beneath the waves, and a current here, a gentle eddy in the water there, that pushes one crab in one direction, and a second crab in another?
To put it a bit more plainly, I don’t see any contradiction between Mormon belief and a Darwinian interpretation of the fossil record. The question, “Have you received my image in your countenance?” might apply both to personal salvation, and to human creation.