Culture and “parenthood”: Thoughts on the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s passing

Today is the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, and some folks have organized a “blogathon” to honor Sagan, his accomplishments, and his significance to several generations of students and scholars. Sagan was, and remains, a major influence for me, and so I thought I’d take a few minutes on this day and talk a bit about his impact on my life.

I first encountered Carl Sagan in 1980, when the Cosmos series played for the first time on public television. At the time, I was 14 years old, and I was pretty obsessive about being home each evening a new episode was broadcast. I don’t quite know how I got the rest of the family to cede control over the TV to me for that hour each week, but I suspect that a great deal of whining and possibly bribery may have been involved. The series was a revelation. Not in terms of the science, since I’d been science-nerdy ever since kindergarten (a story for another day), but one finished each episode of Cosmos with an amazing feeling of inspiration: here was someone who so obviously loved science and history and could communicate its results, its processes, and the habits of thought it required with eloquence and with (at the time) great special effects.

In those pre-Tivo, and for us pre-VCR days, once Cosmos ended I had only the book to remind me of Sagan’s inspiration and impact. Later, I videotaped the 1986 “Cosmos: A special edition,” and eventually bought the VHS and then DVD boxed sets of the remastered series. Even today, I occasionally pop in a disc and kick back for a delightful combination of edification, entertainment, and inspiration. The series is still well worth watching, even if its chief effects seem campy to modern eyes jaded by the inexorable march of Moore’s Law.

As an anthropologist, I study formal models of how culture is transmitted and evolves. Elaborating on this is a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that this subject constantly reminds me that we each possess many “parents” — those individuals from whom we learn our personal and unique combination of inclinations, attitudes, values, and skills. For most of us, our biological parents are also cultural parents — especially during our early childhood we use mothers and fathers, and to some extent older siblings, as role models not just for language but behavior, skills, and values. That process does not stop as we get older, although “parents” become rarer and “peers” predominate in the process. Increasingly, we become role models and cultural parents for others, in addition to continuing to learn and change ourselves. The process becomes much more complex and rich, while at the same time building upon the more fundamental, and often hard to change, early acquisitions from a select group of “parents.”

I was lucky as a child. My biological parents were also quite good in their role as cultural parents. They encouraged many good habits in me, not the least of which has been a lifelong obsession with books, education, and learning. And in doing so, they set me up to include my best teachers and several scientists as important cultural “parents” along the way.

Among the most important of these, though I never met him, was Carl Sagan. The impact which Cosmos and Sagan himself had upon an impressionable science-obsessed 14 year old nerd child simply cannot be overstated. I see echoes of him in later cultural parents, down to graduate school advisors and role models. And thus, when I watch an episode of the series, most particularly the opening 10 minutes of episode #1, it’s less like watching TV than exploring the archaeology of my childhood, reveling again in one of the experiences that make me most deeply who I am today. Or perhaps more accurately, who I hope to become.

Thank you, Dr. Sagan, for your life and works, and for being a role model to a generation of folks like me. We miss you.

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