Cosmos and Culture, Initial Reading

I mentioned that I’ve been reading Cosmos and Culture, a book published by NASA in 2009 about “considering culture in the context of the cosmos”, and I’d really like to recommend it again to anyone interested. 

The book begins by prefacing the idea of the cosmos in its relation to cultural theory with the concept of cosmic evolution: the idea that the universe and its constituent parts are constantly evolving. It’s something we haven’t always been aware of - in fact, it had taken us just until the last century to really solidify our acceptance of such a belief. Today, we take the evolution of the universe for granted - stars are dying out, the universe is expanding, billions of years ago planets begun to form, atmospheres were generated, life began. But centuries ago, many assumed that activity in the universe was stagnant (especially where religious beliefs are concerned, wherein many religions claimed that their creator made the world impeccably from the beginning, ruling out many cosmological possibilities: constant change of stellar bodies, the existence of intelligent life on other planets, and more).

It’s important that we understand how our own cultural beliefs shape our understanding and our expectations of the universe, to which this book offers “authors with diverse backgrounds in science, history, and anthropology [who] consider culture in the context of the cosmos, including the implications of the cosmos for our own culture”. It also seeks to explore more general and theoretical ways of thinking about the origin and evolution of cultures in all forms, and to better grasp "how our expanding knowledge of the cosmos impacts culture and cultural evolution".

The work does not seek to achieve the impossible, however, and does not attempt to provide the reader with an oversimplified definition of what it means to be a “culture”. They offer a possibly controversial belief instead: that “imperfect definitions should not prevent exploratory analysis”. In their defense of such ambiguity, they suggest that a stronger sense of what culture is may arise from the combination of the articles to follow. The authors invoke many different senses of the term at hand, but share some core similarities worth investigating.

Some notable figures exploring such a broad concept that appear in the work are philosopher Dan Dennett speaking on models of cultural evolution, and skeptic Susan Blackmore discussing cultural extinction at the pattern that contagious cultural ideas take.

Cosmos and Culture sets out four general statements to exemplify the intent of the novel: 1) Long-term cosmic perspectives can be theoretically and practically illuminating for reflecting on culture; 2) cosmology deeply affects and informs culture; 3) culture may have surprising significance in overall cosmic evolution; and 4) expansion into the wider universe is an important, perhaps critical, endeavor.

Being a rather humanistic text, they also issue a note of caution as to their apparent biases: "The material is biased toward natural and scientific perspectives, and arguably toward mechanistic and perhaps reductionist views". And, it’s pretty clear for those who know my own biases that I agree with such an exploration of this topic. There is little room for pseudo-scientific or spiritual explanations to arise in categories of exobiology, or evolution, or any of the matters practically discussed by these authors. Mentions of such beliefs should only be from an historical or anthropological viewpoint, and not encouraging them as substitutes for natural and scientific perspectives.

A brief commentary on "Cosmos and Culture: Speaking in Defense of Science" (Marcelo Gleiser, NPR Cosmos and Culture Blog)


When I taught freshmen, some of them seemed convinced that academic and federally-funded scientists were part of a conspiratorial cabal making massive profits in exchange for telling us that human-influenced global climate change, and in some cases even fundamental biological principles like evolution, exist. If this were true, I’M convinced that O'Reilly and his ilk would WANT us to believe in science. And wouldn’t there be a glut of scientific literacy, since it would be so profitable?

What DO they teach our children in school these days?