"Why is God telling me to stop asking questions?": Meet the woman behind Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Cosmos"

Ann Druyan, "Cosmos" creator and widow of Carl Sagan, on science vs. religion--and men getting credit for her work

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 18, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Ann Druyan, the writer and executive producer of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)
Ann Druyan, the writer and executive producer of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)

As the host of the recently concluded series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”now available on home video, if you missed it – Neil deGrasse Tyson became, along with America’s most prominent astrophysicist, the public face of science in its effort to recapture the public imagination. But although Tyson is an important author in his own right, he didn’t conceive, write or produce “Cosmos.” He essentially served the role of an actor or a news anchor, a charismatic and credible figure reading someone else’s words off a Teleprompter. Those words, and damn near everything else about the show, were the work of Ann Druyan, the writer and executive producer who also co-created the original “Cosmos” series with her late husband, Carl Sagan, more than 30 years ago.

Druyan does not personally seek the limelight and is not a celebrity, but in her own way she’s a key cultural figure in the struggle against the popular antagonism to science and the spread of anti-scientific claptrap about climate change and evolution. Those on the creationist or anti-evolutionist fringe who understood the unstinting scientific arguments of “Cosmos” as a direct attack on their beliefs were entirely correct, but Druyan’s critique of religion goes well beyond the literal-minded idiocy of the Answers in Genesis crowd. She describes herself as an agnostic rather than an atheist – based on the premise that science must withhold judgment on questions it cannot answer – but she has also described religious faith as “antithetical to the values of science” and religion in general as “a statement of contempt for nature and reality.”

Druyan is well aware that many religious people would reject those characterizations, and those snippets may make her philosophical approach sound less generous and open-minded than it really is. While she is profoundly uncomfortable with the artificial wall between the domains of science and religion erected by Stephen Jay Gould’s famous pronouncement that they are “non-overlapping magisteria,” she welcomes discussion of seemingly indefinable and unscientific concepts like sacredness and spirituality. Those things are to be found at a capacious and more evolved level, she argues, by leaving behind “our infantile sense of centrality in the universe,” in which we are the precious offspring of a benevolent protector, and instead shifting our focus to the profound and immense mysteries presented by “13 billion years of cosmic evolution and four and a half billion years of the story of life on this planet.”

During my all-too-brief phone conversation with Druyan, we also discussed her brilliant rereading of the story of the Garden of Eden, which she sees as the story of humanity's escape from “a maximum-security prison with 24-hour surveillance.” Adam and Eve’s capital offense is that they seek knowledge and ask questions, precisely the qualities that define the human species. At least in that story, God appears to demand a subservient and doctrinaire incuriosity, and many of his followers continue to insist on that path to this day. There are certainly currents within the major religious traditions that resist such a simple-minded negation of science – Buddhism, Judaism and the Catholic Church are now OK, generally speaking, with both evolution and cosmology – but Druyan’s provocative critique of religion as a distorting social force is well worth considering even if you think her argument is too sweeping.

One mistake Druyan never makes, either in “Cosmos” or anywhere else, is the arrogant historicism sometimes displayed by Richard Dawkins and other prominent scientific atheists. By that I mean the quasi-religious assumption that we stand at a uniquely privileged position of near-perfect scientific knowledge, with just a few blanks to fill in before we understand everything about the universe. “I'm sure most of what we all hold dearest and cherish most, believing at this very moment,” Druyan has said, “will be revealed at some future time to be merely a product of our age and our history and our understanding of reality.” Science as a process, as “the never-ending search for truth,” is sacred. But what we now know, or think we know, is always a matter for humility and doubt.

Ann, I know I’m not the first person to bring this up, but you’ve done two versions of this show where, you know, a prominent male scientist was on-screen and you were behind the scenes. The first time around, of course, it was your husband, and this time it’s Neil Tyson. Because he’s standing in front of the cameras, everybody thinks of him as the creator of the show. What’s going on with that?

That is a funny thing, isn’t that? I am a little bit surprised when critics, who I think are more likely to read the credits with some degree of attention, talk about the show as if Neil has had something to do with its conception or its writing. In the case of Carl it was different. Obviously Carl was the senior partner in conceiving the show with me and [astronomer] Steven Soter. And so, I mean, I am kind of taken aback. But then I look at the brilliance of Neil’s performance, and how unexpectedly he has taken what I wrote and given it its best possible expression on the show. So I love the guy. I guess that’s the plight of the writer. It is coming out of someone else’s mouth; people think it must be theirs. It’s a natural reaction.

It’s funny, though. I mean, I’m a movie critic, and I don’t think people are confused when they go to see a movie and Johnny Depp is up there playing a character. They pretty much get the concept that somebody wrote those lines for him. But they don’t seem to understand that in this case.

They don’t, and that’s because, you know, Neil is a scientist and a writer also. So it’s not that great a leap to think that this is his material. And of course, it was true for Carl too, in a much greater degree. So it all makes sense. I’m happy. I mean, look, I can’t get the fact that this show has played in something like 181 countries, and in the vast majority of them it’s been an off-the-scale success. For someone who started out on this road seven years ago, this is the best possible outcome I could have imagined.

How have you felt about the degree of pushback from religious folks? You’ve been very clear about embracing the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity, that evolution by natural selection is a fact, and that the age of the universe is not in dispute. I’m sure you were expecting some resistance to all that.

Actually, it’s been the relative meekness of the reaction that has really surprised me. I thought that, you know, taking on the human origins of global warming or even evolution via natural selection, that saying it so frontally would result in a big pushback. But it hasn’t come to that. I guess I expected, never having worked with Fox and National Geographic before, I was expecting when I submitted my script that, you know, the vice president of Standards & Practices or whoever would come back with some issues. And yet it was just the opposite. It was, you know, letters in all caps saying, “I cannot wait to see this show on television. Thank you!” So, you know, life is so rarely what I expect it to be.

The things that I was steeling myself for just didn’t happen. I mean, you know, the negative reaction to the scientific ideas that are at the heart of the series was really different and very mild. I have to be honest. I have read a smattering of those from sources where I could sort of anticipate what the reaction would be. I did go there. And, you know, it seemed like it was more in sorrow than in anger. [Laughter.] I didn’t see anything personally that was disturbing. Mostly, it was just people who disagreed.

You’ve been pretty outspoken over the years about your views of religious myth and its relationship to science. You’ve talked at times about the desire to reclaim some of the sense of mystery or daring or even spirituality that could hypothetically be associated with science. Is this show to be considered as part of that struggle, as an attempt to recapture the mystery and power of science in the public imagination?

That’s beautifully said. And you know, I could speak to that. Yes, I mean, what always has surprised me personally is that the revelations about nature and the universe that science has presented to us are not just, you know, more likely to be better approximations of natural reality than we’ve gotten from any other source, but they’re also way more spiritually satisfying than anything we’ve ever been able to make up. You know, our interpretations of nature that are not rooted in nature at all and that are anthropocentric are kind of the infantile idealized visions of us as the center of the universe. As the children of a very disappointed father. [Laughter.]

You know, that stuff just leaves me cold. I’m sorry; it doesn’t really do anything for me. But the idea, you know, that we are, in my view, a species in search of fulfillment is something very real. And we used to get it from theory, you know, that we were literally special. That we were created apart from all of nature. We can’t get that anymore once you understand a mountain of evidence from DNA and many other independent causalities, which seems to create our oneness with all of life. I think we’re being brave. We’re looking at reality as it really is, we’re being brave enough and grown-up enough to know how tiny we truly are. “Cosmos,” in the original and in this incarnation, is intended to teach and familiarize the broadest possible audience with some of the insights and methods of science and some of its heroes, but also to make you feel what science is telling us. Personally, I think that’s important. We’re embracing these challenges that can only be solved through science. We’re looking at the universe and trying to understand how it’s put together, and you can’t see that without science. There’s only one way to see that.

This is too big a topic for a phone conversation, maybe, but you personally seem not to feel any need for the kind of — I don’t know — consolation or mystical fulfillment that myth and religion traditionally supplied. Is it that you don’t feel or understand that need, or is it that you think science can ultimately provide the same sense of largeness and mystery, the same space for asking what may be unanswerable questions?

Yeah, yeah. And you see, I have no problem asking the unanswerable questions, or in asking the as-yet-unanswerable questions. I have no problem with asking them, and I certainly have no issue with how we get through those dark nights of the soul by answering them. I would never presume to tell anyone how to answer them for themselves, not even my own children. I wouldn’t even think of it. I can only speak for myself when I say, “Yeah, asking questions – the more the better.” It’s just that if you come up with answers that make no adjustment to the scale of space and time that we find ourselves in, we see a failure of the imagination. But, you know, in terms of asking those questions, yeah, I think that is the origin of so much of what we as human beings are capable of.

Well, I think people still look to religion as a zone for certain questions that science has no way to approach. You know, does the universe have some pattern or meaning behind it, even if we cannot discern it? Why is there something instead of nothing at all?

Oh, yes. Yes, that is Leibniz. That’s his favorite question. In “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” [a memoir co-authored by Druyan and Sagan], in the introduction, I wrote about that in the context of a note that I found in Carl’s handwriting. He had taken that paragraph [from Leibniz], summarized it and then written something in the margins. You know, Leibniz goes on to say, and I’m paraphrasing, “What would happen if we did not, you know, stop asking that question? Where would we go? We’d have to say God, because that’s the only place we could stop asking that question.”

So Carl wrote, in his beautiful Brooklyn public school handwriting, “So don’t stop.” I found that after his death, and it was like hearing his voice. And it was like, exactly, I couldn’t agree more. Why is God telling me to stop asking questions? When we defied God by tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that’s how we became ourselves. You know, God may not like that part of us, but I do.

You’ve written a lot about the public mistrust of science or estrangement from science. But surely you must understand it pretty well. I’ve read your brilliant exegesis on the Garden of Eden as a totalitarian prison with 24-hour surveillance, which actually parallels an account by the German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Their subject is the relationship between myth and enlightenment, and they see that story as an ironic parable that exposes the dangers of both. But they were writing in the late 1940s, in the wake of the Holocaust and the Hiroshima bombing. So the downside of the Enlightenment tradition that produced modern science was pretty obvious.

Absolutely. You know, in every episode of “Cosmos,” we have been very insistent about putting every part of science out for scrutiny, of course. You see the explosion of Tsar Bomba [in 1961], which was the largest thermonuclear explosion on the surface of the earth. Has science known sin? Absolutely. We’ve misused everything that we have at our disposal. How could we not misuse science?

Like everything else that we have, science has known sin. I mean, there is no such thing as a human enterprise that is not riddled with error and crime. We carry that evolutionary baggage with us wherever we go. Carl often used to say that the question is which of those tendencies that we have -- the tendency to nurture, to collaborate, to share, or the tendency to dominate – is likely to win out. Do we really want to use technology for cruelty? It all depends on what kind of society we live in: one that really tries to actualize cooperation, or one that wants to return the highest reward? That part is up to us; we have the capacity to optimize for one set of traits or the other. And, you know, that’s the real substance of it: Which part of ourselves will win?

"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, in an expanded edition box set with many extras. The original episodes can also be viewed on Hulu.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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