Cosmos Asks If Humanity Has What It Takes To Survive

Tonight's episode of Cosmos is about the fragility and durability of life. Our story starts in the cradle of civilization, Iraq, with the development of written language and the recorded legends of the Mesopotamian goddess Innana, the hero Gilgamesh and the flood myth that found its final form in the Old Testament and the Aronofsky oeuvre.

More than any other trait, the written word is what distinguishes humans from other forms of life. Any given human can document their thoughts, feelings and experiences and communicate directly with any other human at any time in the future. The written word makes us effectively one big immortal being.

But the talent that makes us so immensely powerful also makes us immensely vulnerable. As each generation climbs further up the ladder of giant's shoulders to reach new heights, our civilization becomes more and more dependent on knowledge of the past. Any interruption in the chain of generational communication and we will topple back to the days of Gilgamesh and Innana, or earlier. Far from a hypothetical threat, the collapse of civilizations is something humanity has seen many times in thousands of years.

Cosmos Asks If Humanity Has What It Takes To Survive

From hard times in Mesopotamia, we move on to our modern creation narratives. Science, of course, has no definitive theory of the origin of life, but we do have some hypotheses to give us an idea of where to start looking for answers.

According to the primordial soup hypothesis, complex carbon molecules emerged in the primordial soup and some eventually gained the ability to replicate themselves by means as yet unknown. Replicators slowly became more complex, eventually forming cells which combined into multicellular lifeforms until, well, here we are.

According to the panspermia hypothesis, life originated elsewhere in the solar system, or perhaps elsewhere in the galaxy, and traveled to Earth in meteorites. During the period of heavy bombardment, Earth, Venus and Mars exchanged large amounts of matter. Any life present on one planet was likely to make it to the other two eventually. Tyson suggests that Earth could even have reinoculated itself periodically after massive asteroid impacts when bacteria rich ejecta fell back to a sterilized Earth.

The paradox, of course, is while simple bacteria can survive these extreme, planet altering disasters, entire civilizations can be wiped out by exposure to simple pathogens or by droughts that begin and end in a geological blink of an eye. It has always been one of the most disheartening proposed answers to the Fermi paradox that civilizations are simply too delicate to survive long enough make the journey into space.

And so we return once again to climate change. While it's true that the climate has changed naturally over the eons, sometimes radically, it is also true that the natural processes that led to some of the most radical shifts are now being replicated by human activity. And while it's true that life managed to survive all along, it's also true that civilizations have been wiped out by far milder shifts in climate than we anticipate from current global warming.

As a species, our intelligence and our capacity for deep knowledge of our past is our wheelhouse. It's so core to who we are that we sometimes take it for granted, assuming that we will simply always know how to build a city or bounce radar off the moon.

But as the evidence for human impact on climate change mounts, the hour has come for us decide if we're going to apply that intelligence to the preservation the resources we all rely on or if, as the Architect suggested in Matrix: Reloaded, there are levels of survival we are simply going to have to be prepared to accept.