Happenstance may play a role in biology, as it does in history,” writes Carl Sagan in the Cosmos, the great saga of cosmic evolution. “The farther back the critical events occur, the more powerfully they can influence the present.” Which sounds a tad inexplicable, until you take into account that the tiniest changes in the atmosphere and biological composition of the earth a few billion years ago, and the tiniest mutations in the earliest life forms actually led to the origin of Homo Sapiens on this planet.
Picture this for instance: What we might have looked like and lived like, had we, as given by Darwinian theory, not descended from apes? “Perhaps if one less dragonfly had drowned in the carboniferous swamps the intelligent organisms on our planet today would have feathers and teach their young in rookeries.” To imagine the human existence as a winged one with buzzing intelligence, quite literally, is to lend an entirely parallel dimension to your thoughts, to bring the non-human into the sphere of the ‘assumed’ human. It is to bring every speck of the world in perspective with your self-absorbed existence.
Though Sagan first published Cosmos in 1980 it is, to this day, one of the most profound books on the planet, revealing just how intimately connected every portion of the universe is — despite the limitlessness of its expanse.
“The pattern of evolutionary causality is a web of astonishing complexity; the incompleteness of our understanding humbles us.” But the incompleteness of our understanding pushes us forward too, ever-thirsty, ever-seeking. It is the search for origins and connections that leads the desire for exploration. In truth, with our self-absorption, all quests for knowledge are in some way connected to the quest for knowledge of the self.
And the universe itself feeds this desire for knowledge, in the particular ways that it functions. The world isn’t entirely static and entirely predictable, for that would lead to a dead-end to knowledge seeking. And it’s not entirely unpredictable either, for if things around us changed in entirely random ways with no underlying pattern, we would have no means of figuring them out. The world is just perfectly poised in balance between predictability and unpredictability, a universe that is dynamic and evolving, but every transformation has an underlying pattern to it, a set of laws—the laws of nature. As the great scientist Johannes Kepler wrote: “The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in nourishment.” It’s like an endless cosmic challenge thrown open by the universe to humankind: keep exploring, keep seeking, keep discovering — and I’ll keep throwing new things your way to discover.
The underlying subtext of Cosmos is the naked truth that most of us fail to see: the interconnectedness of everything in the entire, endless, unfathomable universe — the simple truth of us being part of the great cosmic family; the great thrill of the fact that we are alive to feel it, to witness it, to know it. To be a seemingly inconsequential part of the Great Cosmic Force, and yet to be bestowed with the endless opportunity to explore it all.
“Were the Earth to start over again with all its physical features identical, it is extremely unlikely that anything closely resembling a human being would ever again emerge.”
That it did once, and we came to exist, is a wondrous occurrence in itself.