A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part I: Wonder and Theory

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on July 25, 2020.)

Forty years ago this month, I had just finished reading Carl Sagan’s book, “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence,” a book for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. The David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University from 1976 to his death in 1996, Sagan was a famous scientist of many fields relating to the universe: astronomy, planetary science, astrophysics, and astrobiology.

He became best known for his research on extraterrestrial life. He was the author, co-author, or editor of over 600 scientific papers and over 20 books. He narrated and co-wrote the award-winning television series: Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  

As the sub-title suggests, Sagan takes the reader on a wonderful and stimulating journey around the brains of our ancestors—human and non-human—and our brains today. He then speculates on the growth of our intelligence by explaining the various parts of our brain, their functions, and why we think, speak, act, feel, and even dream the way we do.

The book is magisterial in its scope, its composition, and its readability. He casts a wide net in quoting from the ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, and important writers and thinkers of the past five centuries, like John Milton, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Sigmund Freud.

Among other things, the book gave me the gift of wonder. Many times throughout Sagan brings the reader to a certain point and then, he “wonders.” In his section dealing with human emotions, he wonders: “Do horses on occasion have glimmerings of patriotic fervor? Do dogs feel for humans something akin to religious ecstasy? What other strong or subtle emotions are felt by animals that do not communicate with us?”

He wonders: “Are our nighttime dreams of flying and daytime passions for flight … nostalgic reminiscences of those days gone by in the branches of the high forest?”

In his section on the competition among early smaller hominids and later humans, he wonders: “I sometimes wonder whether our myths about gnomes, trolls, giants, and dwarfs could possibly be a genetic or cultural memory of those times.”

Upon reading the book in 1980, I was so moved that I wrote him a long letter. Six months later, he wrote back and asked me two questions. The first: “What would be necessary to make the reader [of a possible book on international relations] consider not just what is best for one nation or power group in a single nation, but for the human species as a whole? I never answered him; this is my answer.

Dear Professor Sagan: This possible book would have to deal with how the world political system works and would therefore have to deal with the two major theories of the system. A theory or model of the system is necessary, as in your work, because the system is complicated with many moving parts and unknowns. It does not conform to a clear and definitive set of mathematical equations which exist, for example, in astrophysics or planetary science.

My own definition of “theory” is: a set of assumptions and descriptive statements about a field of study which explain and predict behavior. When I say “explain,” I mean that it must deal with the “Why?” the causality, of things. Leonardo Da Vinci said: “He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards a ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

The two major theories in world politics are: realism and liberalism. In very simple terms, political realism views the world political system as anarchy with no fixed, agreed-upon rules and no over-arching government or “watchman.” States are the most important actors, not humans or international organizations. In this environment, states are compelled to look after their own interests. They do this by seeking power and influence. Virtues, such as kindness and generosity, may be laudable for individuals, but they should have no place in a state’s decision-making. They will get you into trouble.

Political liberalism, on the other hand, emphasizes the unity and goodness of humankind. States may be the most important actors, but individuals make decisions for states, and they can make a difference. While it accepts that the system is one of anarchy, it has faith in people and in diplomacy to create institutions and to establish rules to lessen inequality and the use of violence to settle disputes.

You can see, Professor Sagan, that you—and I—both hope that more states conform and adhere to the principles of liberalism.

See also Part II (Nationalism and Liberalism)

and Part III (Disarmament)


Albright, Madeleine and Igor Ivanov. “A Plea to Save the Last Nuclear Arms Treaty.” The New York Times, February 10, 2020.

Blanton, Shannon L. and Charles W. Kegley. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 17th ed. US: Cengage, 2021.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “India and China Accuse Each Other of Firing Shots.” The New York Times, September 9, 2020.

Lubold, Gordon. “U.S. Adds Warhead to Nuclear Arsenal.” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas L. and Vipin Narang. “Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?” Foreign Affairs, December 30, 2019.

Myers, Steven Lee and Javier C. Hernandez. “As China Flexes, Taiwan Revamps Its Military. The New York Times, August 31, 2020.

Rich, Motoko. “A Fraught Proposal for a Pacifist Japan: Should It Acquire Missiles?” The New York Times, August 17, 2020.

Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. NY: Ballantine, 1977.

Simmons, Ann M. and James Marson. “Russia’s Exit Unravels Arms Agreement.” The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2019, A6.

Spindle, Bill and Ann Rajesh Roy. China and India Locked in High-Altitude Arms Race. The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2020, A7.

Walsh, Declan. “United Nations Effort to Limit Arms in Libya Is Flouted on All Sides.” The New York Times, February 3, 2020.

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3 Responses to A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part I: Wonder and Theory

  1. blessedlife says:

    Thank you! Can’t wait to read it! Wonderful to see you today! 😊🙏🏻❤️

    On Wed, Jul 29, 2020 at 4:12 PM Zilian Commentary wrote:

    > Fred Zilian posted: ” Forty years ago this month, I had just finished > reading Carl Sagan’s book, “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the > Evolution of Human Intelligence,” a book for which he earned a Pulitzer > Prize in 1978. The David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space ” >

  2. Pingback: A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part III: Disarmament | Zilian Commentary

  3. Pingback: A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part II: Nationalism over Liberalism | Zilian Commentary

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