One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

(The Chemistry of Evolution)
by Carl Sagan
A Personal Journey
13 episodes
See below for
DVD purchasing options
(Carl Sagan's Cosmos episode no. 2)
  • written by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan & Steven Soter
  • series director & executive producer Adrian Malone
  • Spaceship & studio directed by Rob McCain
  • other sequences directed by David F. Oyster, David Kennard, & Richard J. Wells.

  • Main Title Theme by Vangelis
  • Music by Vangelis, Johann David Heinichen, Antonio Vivaldi,
    Johann Pachelbel, Wm. Jeffery Boydstun, and others...
  • 1 documentary @ 60 minutes

Data Capsule Review

by Martin Izsak

It is very hard to guess what this episode is about from the title alone. "Cosmos" will continue this style for naming its episodes, where the titles only make some sense AFTER you've seen the episode and have an idea how Carl Sagan, his wife Ann Druyan, and their fellow writers and contributors view the subject matter. My own summation of the subject matter for this episode would be "The Chemistry of Evolution".
Participants include:

Dr. Carl Sagan

Astronomer, host, narrator

Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences,
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

The episode begins with two "grabbers", to put viewers in their seats and generate interest in today's topic. First is a short poetic tour of space in the ship of the imagination, showcasing the then-groundbreaking special effects (quite cool, but a bit of a re-run), while the narration this time emphasizes how a search for life in space requires us to be on top of all of the scientific requirements for life.

The second grabber is more memorable, but not something many of us will want to re-watch too many times. A morbid tale of ancient Japanese politics leads into the concept of artificial selection, and how a species of tiny crabs came to have something resembling the face of a Samurai warrior on their backs. I'll be skipping the morbid politics section of this most times I re-watch this episode.

Central Excellence

After this, the bulk of the episode focuses primarily on evolution, and the backbone of chemistry at its heart. It's particularly good at taking us through the entire timeline of evolution, plotted out on the Cosmic Calendar introduced in the previous episode. Firstly we get fascinating detail of the formation of the Earth and its early chemical make-up, with some nicely atmospheric audio/visuals. Then we go through all the various forms that led from the earliest examples of life all the way to Human beings, noting along the way some of the alternate branches that led to plants, reptiles, birds, insects, etc. Some of the visuals here may seem fairly basic, but they get the job done, and it is good that the episode attempts to go through all the details of the complete chain as known by science at that time.

Other excellent highlights include an exploration of the grounds and central "hothouse" of the Kew Botanical Gardens in England, to highlight the variety of life on Earth, and the similarities still shared by all life forms we currently know.

We also get to experience a fascinating journey into the world of a blood cell, all the way down to a DNA molecule in the process of replicating itself. The visual effects techniques here used every known trick in the book at that time, up to and including early computer generated imagery, and is therefore fascinating both for the content being delivered and for making a bit of history with the style and method of delivery. Super stuff.

Niggling Caveat

If there's any one thing that bothers me during this mostly excellent center to the episode, it is the occasional mentions by Sagan that evolutionary variations arise "randomly", "quite by accident", "purely by chance"... especially when he expects his audience to swoon over that explanation as he is doing himself. Has science proven that these things are random, or has it merely assumed them to be so in the absence of any other mechanism having met their publicly acknowledged approval yet, at the time this was made?

What I really want to draw attention to here, is the tendency all of us seem to share when making a new discovery. Often, when we figure out one piece of any particular puzzle of nature, we tend to jump to the conclusion that we've solved the entire puzzle. Yes, Sagan's got his finger on a fascinating piece in this episode, but it does bother me when he portrays it as the whole deal and gets all excited about this being "it".

Let me draw for you an expanded picture of evolution. Firstly, there are two phases to the process - the origin of variations, and the filters through which variations must pass to get from one generation to the next.

In this episode, Sagan promotes the concept of the natural selection filter, while also using the tale of the Japanese crabs to demonstrate a not-so-natural version he labels "artificial selection". I'm not so sure the difference between the two is really worth anything, as it would imply that there is something somehow unnatural about Humans and Human decision-making. Folding our own species back into our concept of nature is, I think, one of the challenges we face if we are to evolve into Fourth Density. But for all his examination of the DNA molecule and its component parts, natural and artificial selection are about the only parts of the mechanisms of evolutionary change that he really covers or acknowledges here. These are great for minor variations of appearance or function WITHIN any one species.

The Need for Kickstarter Genepools

However, studies of evolution often butt up against another filter, which has baffled scientists and caused much debate. If the defining attribute of a species is the ability of its members to procreate with each other, and only when the DNA of two organisms is incompatible can we say that they are of truly different species, a new species cannot arise slowly. One new member of a new species, created randomly all on his lonesome, will have no one he can procreate with. He will die out, without passing anything to a new generation, and this species won't ever get started. An entire kickstarter gene pool has to appear within one generation, such that the new species can procreate and continue.

How big a gene pool would a new species need to get a healthy foothold and continue on and on? If there were only one Adam and one Eve, the next generation would require brothers and sisters to mate with each other. Incest generally isn't too healthy, genetically speaking. The film The Matrix: Reloaded seemed to suggest that seven males and sixteen females constituted a good kickstarter genepool for the rebirth of Zion, but whether this works as a bare minimum might yet be questionable.

Just how likely is it that an entire kickstarter genepool can appear in one generation, to allow a whole new species to branch out of another, get a solid foothold, and continue on down through time? To answer that we have to look at the complementary phase of evolution, the mechanisms that create the variations in the first place.

And this is where Cosmos is disappointing and unfulfilling. Sagan only looks at the simplest and least powerful mechanism of all - radiation making a random "copying mistake" on a DNA molecule. Adding to the incredulity of the odds that need to be overcome, remember that every cell in an organism has its own DNA in the nucleus. If one of my cells gets hit and mutates and changes, the rest of my cells carry on as normal. Radiation would have to hit a sperm or egg cell prior to procreation, or a newly formed being before its very first cell division - when it is only one cell in size - to have any lasting impact. And incidentally, much as I think the morphing cartoon outlines showing one species evolving into another in this episode are cool, perhaps this visual encourages us to forget that one whole planet or animal doesn't morph into something new when zapped by radiation. If he's zapped, and it's not fatal, it's his children that might look different.

This single mechanism for the creation of variation seems woefully inadequate, all things considered, and philosophically speaking, it is very much the product of the billiard ball winding-down-clockwork physics that dominated western science for several centuries. Pardon me if I'm not quite as thrilled by it as Sagan and his colleagues, particularly in light of the fact that the existence of other mechanisms for creation of variation is now scientifically rock-solid.

Pieces of the Evolution Puzzle
Origin of VARIATIONS Filters
  • Random Radiation Mutation
  • Stress rewriting genes
  • deliberate genetic modifications
  • ?????
  • Natural Selection
  • Artificial Selection
  • Interspecies Gene-pool Barrier
(Anything written in green text represents something
Cosmos largely left out which I believe is vitally important.)

Additional Mechanisms

We can increase the number of mechanisms for creation of variations... personally I tend to think of at least four of them. Of them, radiation mutation is the most random and displays the least intelligence. As we work through the others, each of them in turn will be less random and display a greater application of intelligence. In other words, less chaos, and more cosmos.

The second of these is a fairly recent discovery, heavily promoted by Dr. Bruce Lipton, who has done extensive laboratory research into cell biology and behaviours. Apparently, most cells have genes whose sole function is to re-write the other genes. This rewriting process is activated by environmental stresses, and only after several other biological mechanisms for dealing with stress have been found to be insufficient in overcoming the challenge. Now, it still seems to be a bit of a crap-shoot as to what you get from a gene rewriting another gene - the likelihood is still that you'll get something either useless or even harmful. But the fact that this mechanism even exists goes a long way to increasing the likelihood that, when a species is suddenly really under the gun for survival, vast numbers of variations will be produced quickly, increasing the likelihood of creating a kickstarter genepool for a new species. And because an individual of that new species got there via a gene-rewriting-gene process, the odds are astronomically improved that the exact same variation was made to other individuals within the same stressful environment. In other words, if you adapt into a new species via this method, chances are you're not alone, and you might have fellow adapters in this new species with whom you can have offspring.

Option three seems to be undeniable these days, and indeed gets a brief tossed off mention in Cosmos episode two as "disquieting and awesome" before being forgotten. Human beings are intelligent and manipulative enough that the power to deliberately sequence genes however we might want, in as large a kickstarter genepool as we would want, gives us a method of creating new species that actually looks to be the most rock-solid of all scientifically. It overcomes all the technical problems of evolution, and only leaves us with ethical questions to consider. But if evolution is to have this largely non-random mechanism at its disposal from now on, do we really want to latch onto theories that don't allow for this mechanism to be at play in our past? Though it may uncomfortably complicate things for many scientists, I think this mechanism needs to be considered in our look at our past. Ancient aliens, and their possible genetic experiments, cannot be adequately disproven without adequate open study.

Interestingly, Astrophysics professor Adam Frank of the University of Rochester has just recently co-authored a new paper which takes recent statistics concerning all that we've now learned from our discoveries of thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars, and plugs all that into the infamous Drake Equation, which "Cosmos" will cover in episode 12. His findings suggest that even the most conservative estimates for the remaining unknowns in the equations still insist that vast numbers of technologically advanced civilizations must have existed at some point. How many of them discovered deliberate genetic manipulation? Can we be sure they didn't use any of that knowledge to affect the Earth at any point in our history?
Adam Frank in "The Universe"
episode 63: Total Eclipse

And finally, there may be yet a fourth mechanism for variation, the one displaying the highest level of intelligence and the least amount of randomness. Is the entire universe alive with consciousness? Does that consciousness affect the very assembly of molecules? To what degree do emotions indicate the quality of our thoughts, and the quality of molecular and chemical interactions? Will a mind under stress rewrite a gene in ways to express that stress, whereas a mind emotionally focused on a solution will rewrite a gene to express a glorious new variation with improved ability? Have perhaps various species, even life itself, come about because the universe at large, in some way fundamental to the very vibrations of subatomic strings, willed them into being? This is perhaps still a question dominated by the various disciplines of spirituality more than those of science, but how many scientists really want to rule such things out?

This second episode of Cosmos recreates the Miller-Urey experiment, where the raw chemistry of life, receiving sufficient electrical charge, comes together to form proteins and amino acids - the basics required for the alphabet of DNA. It is left open to interpretation, and may be for much time to come, to what degree this process is just random, or whether such circumstances are windows through which life is keen to will itself into ever more tangible and complex forms of expression.

Finally this episode speculates on the very different kinds of life that might inhabit the atmosphere of a gas giant planet such as Jupiter, an awesome segment that helps stretch the imagination and test the limits of our sense of accepting new ideas into science. Two thumbs way up!

Then we get our first Cosmos Update section from 1990, which focuses on a few odd molecular details and isn't all that interesting quite frankly. Meh.

This is an episode that has ups and downs of varying quality, and covers its subject matter in ways that are a bit glaringly lacking today. Though it remains a good primer for many aspects of biological chemistry and evolution, it remains a bit dangerous in painting its great pieces of the puzzle as the whole picture, and may leave its audience a bit too content in not searching for the unmentioned remainders....

The Music - Episode 2

(Anything written in green text represents a name I made up to help keep some music better identified in my own head.)
Selections in golden yellow appear on Voyager's Golden Record, launched into interstellar space as a time capsule of Human culture.
VangelisSymphony to the Powers B, Movement Three
also known as "Theme from Cosmos"
Title Music
VangelisEntends-Tu Les Chiens Aboyer? #1
(Can you hear the dogs barking?)
Main Theme (~4 min.)
Traditional JapaneseDepicting the Cranes in Their Nest
?? unknowndrum & drone soundmixed in with "Cranes" cue above
throughout the political-warrior-crab tale
Johann David HeinichenConcerto S233 for 2 Horns and 2 Flutes in F Major
Movement 2 - Andante poco Allegro
Wolfgang MozartClarinet Concerto K622 in A Major
Movement 2
Wm. Jeffery BoydstunMetamorphosisCosmic Calendar sequence
VangelisAlpha (remastered)
VangelisEntends-Tu Les Chiens Aboyer? #1
?? Vangelis?Movement 11
VangelisEntends-Tu Les Chiens Aboyer? #1intro only
J.S. BachPartita No. 3full length piece
Antonio VivaldiSpring No. 3(final 90 seconds only)
Antonio VivaldiMandolin Concerto, Final MovementEvolution summary: (last 40 seconds only)
?? unknown?? unknownpossibly J.L. Krebs Suite (Sonata) in G (1972)
Polonaise (2 cues?)
Johann PachelbelCanon in D
Wm. Jeffery BoydstunIn Motion Delta 03 What's this? Let's listen...
Johann PachelbelCanon in D
Gustav MahlerSymphony 2 - Mvmt. 5 - Ritardando...MaestosoMiller-Urey experiment begins...
Gustav MahlerSymphony 2 - Mvmt. 5 - Im Tempo Des ScherzoMiller-Urey experiment
Nikolai Rimsky-KorsakovSymphony No. 2 "Antar", Movement 1Miller-Urey experiment - quiet bits
Gustav MahlerSymphony 2 - Mvmt. 5 - Wieder Sehr BreitMiller-Urey experiment succeeds!
VangelisAlpha (remastered)
VangelisEntends-Tu Les Chiens Aboyer? #1
VangelisHimalayaCosmos Update
VangelisEntends-Tu Les Chiens Aboyer? #1end credits
VangelisComet 16Collector's Edition 2000 Credits

Symphonic Orchestral
Baroque Favourites
mp3 album featuring:

Johann David Heinichen
Concerto S233

Concerto for 2 Horns and
2 Flutes in F Major



Concerto for 2 Horns and 2 Flutes in F Major S233
Movement 2: Andante [più tosto un] poco Allegro

also listed as
Heinichen: Concerto for 2 Corrni de Caccia - Andante
mp3 track performed by Max Pommer

Well, we're coming to this mp3 album primarily for track #8, the exquisitely beautiful Johann David Heinichen piece. Max Pommer's rendition of it here is a remarkably good match to the recording that features in Cosmos episodes 2, 7, and 9 - in fact it's close enough that it could even be the very same.

And, though I can't vouch for the other recordings, one will also find on this album such pieces also used in "Cosmos" as:

  • Pachelbel: Canon in D (episodes 2 & 11)
  • Bach: Air on G (strings) (episode 7)
  • Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E Flat (episode 9 - the theme is recognizable, though this may not be the exact movement)

China (1979)

Original music
composed by

Audio CD

"Cosmos" uses the track "Himalaya" extensively, plus the track "Summit" once or twice.




All Tracks by Vangelis
This album available on CD, mp3, vinyl, and cassette.

Track Listing:

1. Chung Kuo (5:31)
2. The Long March (2:01)
3. The Dragon (4:15)
4. The Plum Blossom (2:38)
5. The Tao of Love (2:46)
6. The Little Fete (3:04)
7. Yin & Yang (5:52)
8. Himalaya (10:54)
9. Summit (4:30)

This documentary has become available on DVD.
Cosmos - by Carl Sagan: A Personal Journey

13 hour-long episodes, 1980



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Read the data capsule review for the next episode: "Harmony of the Worlds"

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