Carl Sagan Sagan, Carl (Edward) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carl (Edward) Sagan 1934–

American nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, and editor.

Most widely known for his television series "Cosmos," Sagan is Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. While he has written many articles for scientific journals, Sagan is also concerned that scientific theory be accessible to the general public. Toward this end he has written books for nonscientists, contributed to popular magazines and encyclopedias, and made frequent appearances on television talk shows. Sagan's attempt at writing practical explanations is evident in The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973), The Dragons of Eden: A Speculative Essay on the Origin of Human Intelligence (1977), Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1979), and Cosmos (1981). In these works Sagan presents scientific theories and philosophizes about the effects of scientific inquiry on social, political, religious, and historical events. The Dragons of Eden was awarded the 1977 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. Sagan has received several other awards for his work, including two from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Sagan's interests center on the origins and evolution of life on earth, the nature of the physical universe, and the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. Convinced that there is life on other planets, Sagan advocates interplanetary communication; as a consultant to NASA, he helped design the plaque bearing a message to alien life which was launched with the spaceships Pioneers 10 and 11. Using information about the atmosphere on planets in our solar system and elsewhere, Sagan suggests that amid the "billions and billions" of stars and galaxies in the universe, millions of planets may support civilizations like our own. He outlines this probability in The Cosmic Connection, Cosmos, and some of the essays in the collection Broca's Brain. In these works he also emphasizes the importance of space travel. According to Sagan, humans require exploration for their psychological well-being, and since earth has been thoroughly searched, space offers the next frontier. In addition, Sagan believes that contact with extraterrestrials will give humans a wider, less egocentric outlook, an attitude which Sagan refers to as "the cosmic perspective."

In both The Dragons of Eden and Cosmos Sagan recounts the hypothesis of the triune brain, claiming that the human brain is an evolutionary combination of reptilian, prehuman mammalian, and uniquely human aspects. According to Sagan, each of these three parts, which are referred to as the R-complex, the limbic system, and the neocortex, accounts for certain aspects of human behavior: our aversion to reptiles, our base instincts, and our rational thoughts. Sagan also attributes human intelligence to the physical evolution of the brain. From his central arguments, Sagan goes on to speculate about the goals of past civilizations and the effects on future civilizations of potential scientific advances. Many critics conclude that Sagan's underlying message throughout his works, and especially in Cosmos, is that in order to continue evolving intelligently, humans must utilize scientific discovery.

Much controversy surrounds Sagan's theories and his presentation of them. Some critics object to Sagan's glorification of rationality and to his categorical dismissal of a godlike creator. Others find his factual information about evolution and psychology faulty or oversimplified. Many commentators are dissatisfied with Sagan's lack of distinction between assumption and fact, an absence which they judge misleading. The television series "Cosmos" has been criticized for its confusing structure and its emphasis on visual effects rather than argument. Nevertheless, Sagan is praised for his attempt to unite science and philosophy and for his ability to simplify complex concepts while preserving their awesome implications. Many critics consider Sagan's arguments both inspired and logical. With a direct, factual style, a dry wit, and an enthusiasm often described as "contagious," Sagan continues to provide thought-provoking material for scientific and general discussion.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 11; and Contemporary Issues Criticism, Vol. 2)

Edward Edelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carl Sagan is a scientist of quality who is also a writer of quality. He has often shown that he can write better than most science writers, and he proves it again with The Cosmic Connection, a book that is very nearly perfect.

If The Cosmic Connection has a fault, it is that it derives a good deal from Sagan's previous books…. This new book could be described as a carefully watered-down summary of the previous writings, arranged for a general audience.

But that description would be unfair. What Sagan has done is to leave out the mathematics, insert a good deal of philosophy and let himself roam freely. For a lesser writer, that could be a disastrous combination. But since Sagan is a man of great intelligence, wit and insight, it is a success on every level.

To illustrate this with specific quotes is difficult because of Sagan's style. He builds to his effects with care; his paragraphs, not his sentences, are the basic unit. A reviewer must paraphrase instead of quoting.

Sagan starts by describing his theme—the possibility of communicating with other intelligent civilizations in the universe. He defends the necessity of space exploration in the most convincing terms that I have encountered….

[His real point is that] space exploration is psychologically important for the human race, now that the earth has become a small, well-trodden enclave....

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Richard Berendzen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Numerous scientists have important ideas, some even more profound than Sagan's; yet he is probably the most famous astronomer since Hoyle or even Hubble. The Cosmic Connection shows why: His speculations provoke and stimulate on truly arresting topics, described in fluent prose, sprinkled with wit and sarcasm. Although his syntax is straightforward, his articulation easily rivals that of Asimov or Clark. In the art of making science understandable and enjoyable for specialist and lay person alike, he is a modern James Jeans.

This book's 39 brief chapters, delivered like fireside sermonettes, center on their author's principal professional interests—exploration of the solar system and search for extraterrestrial life. Sagan weds these pursuits as well as disparate disciplines, including astronomy, biology, chemistry and anthropology. Then he wisely steps back and appraises the synthesis, thereby perceiving mankind's symbiotic relationship with the whole. How we exist because of the arduous processes of stellar, chemical, and biological evolution and, reciprocally, how we affect the universe. Voila, the cosmic connection!…

Sagan warns that "although I am not by training a philosopher or sociologist or historian, I have not hesitated to draw philosophical or social or historical implications of astronomy and space exploration." That he does, opening himself to potential criticism. His forceful defense of space exploration, for instance, will inform and touch almost any reader, but it probably will not convince the thoughtful skeptic.

Sagan points out that the fraction of the gross...

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Peter Stoler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like squids, scientists protect themselves with clouds of impenetrable ink. Not Carl Sagan. His jargon-free book The Cosmic Connection … involved thousands of readers in the search for life beyond earth. Last year, during the Mars probe, he became a TV celebrity with plausible descriptions of the creatures that might be populating outer space. The Dragons of Eden should involve thousands more in the exploration of inner space—the human brain.

Sagan, 42, occupant of a chair in astronomy at Cornell University, is not a neuroscientist. But he writes about the brain with uncommon sense and even humor….

The Dragons of Eden begins with a summary of how and when intelligence developed in various terrestrial species. In detail, Sagan describes the process of natural selection working toward the emergence of the creature Shakespeare called "the paragon of animals." Sagan also explains differences in the structure of the paragon's brain and those of other animals. He offers some idiosyncratic thoughts on why man's neurological legacy makes him behave the way he does. The human brain, he points out, evolved from the brain of the reptile, one of whose species the Bible holds responsible for the Fall. According to Sagan, the reptilian brain, which forms the most primitive part of the human brain, still influences man's behavior and may help explain one of his oldest fears—the apparently inherent...

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Richard Restak

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A better understanding of the nature and evolution of human intelligence just possibly might help us to deal intelligently with our unknown and perilous future," writes Dr. Carl Sagan…. To help achieve this understanding Sagan begins ["The Dragons of Eden"] by looking at the evolution of intelligence in lower animals. Since larger brains can store more information, a critical point in evolutionary development occurred with the emergence of an organism that "for the first time in the history of the world had more information in its brain than in its genes." Subsequent development led to "the gradual (and certainly incomplete) dominance of brains over genes"; human intelligence resulted from "a particular property of...

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R. J. Herrnstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like many non-specialist popularizers of psychology, Professor Sagan [in The Dragons of Eden] overestimates our physiological knowledge and underestimates our psychological knowledge. I'll get back to this point later. First, I must acknowledge that Professor Sagan has taken the first hard step in learning psychology. The first step in studying psychology is to convince yourself that there is something to study, above and beyond common sense and common knowledge. Professor Sagan likes the theory of the "triune brain," as formulated by a neurophysiologist named Paul MacLean in the early 1950's. Not an active theory in the technical literature these days, it nevertheless appeals to popularizers…. The theory...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Versatile though he is, [Sagan] is simply not enough saturated in his subject [in "The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence"] to speculate; what he can do is summarize and, to a limited degree, correlate the results of scattered and tentative modern research on the human brain. The research, from electroencephalograms of dreamers to endocranial casts of fossil skulls, is in progress, and Mr. Sagan, like the rest of us, must wait for sweeping conclusions. "If this result is confirmed, it would be quite an important finding," he writes in one iffy spot, and, in another, complains, "Very little work has been done in this field to date." He speaks of "many potential near-term developments...

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Stephen C. Reingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In presenting [the theory of the triune brain in The Dragons of Eden], Sagan encourages the reader to examine human intelligence and behavior in terms of the elements they have in common with other living animals. While this is, in itself, appropriate, the association of our behavior with that of other living animals distorts the modern concept of evolution. Humans did not evolve from contemporary snakes (nor even from extinct dinosaurs). Rather, all currently living beasts had, in the unfathomable past, common ancestors who gave rise to many different evolutionary lines. Reptiles—extinct or alive—are not our evolutionary precursors. If anything, they are evolutionary siblings that have grown in a different...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Charles Weingartner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Subtitled "Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence," [The Dragons of Eden] is a superlative work: erudite, facile, fascinating, and eminently readable. In it, Sagan "speculates" about what is going on inside the human head. Fundamentalists had better not get into this book; it's liable to cause a fundamentalist fit. Central to Sagan's speculations (which qualify him as a latter-day "Renaissance man," so wide is his range of references) is the fact of human evolution from earlier forms of life on spaceship Earth.

In order to say anything about what might be going on between our ears, Sagan has to describe the process of brain evolution. (p. 88)

Sagan devotes...

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Edmund Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the verve and accessibility which have made Dr. Sagan one of the most widely known scientists of his time [the essays in "Broca's Brain"] range across such topics as planetary systems (which are his speciality), the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, pseudo-science, science fiction, and religion—something for everybody who is at all interested in science.

Dr. Sagan sees us as living at a "unique transitional moment." He thinks the past 50 years have raised questions that could not even have been asked before and that the next 50 years will have answered most of them…. Agreeing that the next 50 years will answer a vast range of questions, probably including whether we are living in a...

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Richard Berendzen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The subtitle of [Broca's Brain], "Reflections on the Romance of Science," encapsulates its blend of accepted fact with personal conjecture. In Sagan's world the romance is not monogamous; it is a flirtation with virtually every branch of thought and study. Science qua science lies at its heart, but other relationships provide zest and perspective. In the introduction, Sagan warns that, as is his wont, he has not hesitated to interject social, political, or historical remarks. If he had, this might become his last popular book. His core topics—planetary exploration, the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence, cosmic evolution—are intrinsically fascinating, but other writers address them too. Sagan's...

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Dewey Schwartzenburg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What can you say about a young civilization inhabiting the third planet of an ordinary G2 star found out in the sparse suburbs of the galaxy? What pictures would you show to wholly alien eyes, and what music would you play for alien ears? How would you go about packaging all this information so that it will last for millions of years?

These were the tasks facing a small group of persons with limited time and an even more limited budget when the opportunity arose to include something more than a plaque aboard the two Voyager spacecraft, bound for interstellar space via the outer planets. Murmurs of Earth is a beautiful and fascinating account both of the process of decision and of what was...

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James H. Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Broca's Brain is the most recent production of Sagan's brain, and after justifying the title (a reference to a French neuroanatomist's celebrated cerebrum), the remainder of the book tells more of Sagan's involvement in the scientific enterprise than it does of the late Paul Broca's…. [The coverage] on out-of-body type thanatological experiences seems far-fetched both factually and theoretically. On points of theology, his arguments from "higher criticism" are dated, and his archeology suffers from a similarly outdated singlemindedness. Nonetheless, the volume's strengths far surpass any weaknesses, making reading it a sheer vacation.

James H. Booth, in a review of...

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Isaac Asimov

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carl has a keen sense of humor, an incisive intelligence. He's just as intelligent in his speaking as he is in his writing….

I've learned a great deal from his articles. I like to think I have read just about everything he has written. Virtually everything I know about the possibility of extraterrestrial life was inspired by his writings on the subject. On that question our minds have the same set. I find it very easy to agree with Carl.

I don't agree with those who criticize him as a popularizer. I happen to think that the popularization of science is the most important thing a scientist can do, next to actually broadening science itself.


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David Roberts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a speculative skeptic, a lucid popularizer of science, and a belles-lettrist eager to bridge the gap between the humanities and science, Sagan stands as the latest practitioner in an illustrious tradition which, because it is fundamentally British, remains too little known among American readers. His forebears include Thomas Henry Huxley, Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, James Jeans, Arthur Stanley Eddington, Julian Huxley, J. B. S. Haldane, and Fred Hoyle. All shared the view that science was accessible to the common man and woman, intellectually both disturbing and exciting, yet emotionally and philosophically significant. All were capable of turning a popular prose essay into, at once, a work of art and...

(The entire section is 272 words.)

William J. O'Malley, S.J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Cosmos Carl Sagan] is an enormously gifted juggler, at one time keeping aloft a dizzying melange of balls, dishes, Indian clubs, dinosaurs, and Dopplered red shifts. His ability to explain the complex in terms of the commonplace is mesmerizing; his encyclopedic knowledge is humbling; his articulateness captivates. His staff of illustrators and technicians is skilled and inventive. On camera or in print, Dr. Sagan is artfully at ease with the arcane and his love affair with the cosmos is infectious. He is an irresistibly stimulating teacher.

And there's the rub.

Dr. Sagan and the televised "Cosmos" series reached a vast audience. He intrigued adults, who since college have...

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Jeffrey Marsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In dispensing [Cosmos's] heady intellectual mixture on TV, Sagan displays a virtuoso command of audio-visual techniques. During his comparatively straight exposition of scientific, historical, or philosophical topics, he exploits the full gamut of histrionics of the popular TV lecturer…. (p. 65)

Not all these techniques are successful. For his tours of remote regions of the universe, for example, Sagan takes viewers aboard his "spaceship of the imagination." This is a spare construction, windowed and arched like a cathedral designed by a Bauhaus architect, bare except for a chair and a futuristic control console over which he waves his hands mysteriously. It is an apparently pointless...

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David Paul Rebovich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Cosmos" and Sagan did not disappoint viewers' desires for a serious discussion of science and astronomy from a person so qualified to offer one. Indeed, a fair criticism of "Cosmos" is that the scientific material presented—the theory of relativity, the lives of the stars, the conjecture of a fourth dimension—was too difficult for television discussion. Nonetheless, Sagan's skill as a teacher, as someone able to make the complex understandable, was always evident. It is doubtful that viewers could learn more about science in 13 hours than they did from "Cosmos." This is the triumph of the series, and Sagan's performance is far superior to the travelogue narrations of many science-nature shows….


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