Book Review: Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson

Book Review: Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson

All his life, Carl Sagan was troubled by grand dichotomies—between reason and irrationalism, between wonder and skepticism. The dichotomies clashed within him.

. . . In the final analysis, he was the dichotomy: the prophet and the hard-boiled skeptic, the boyish fantasist and the ultrarigorous analyst, the warm companion and the brusque colleague, the oracle whose smooth exterior concealed inner fissures, which, in the end, only one woman would heal.

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A life, p. 1

The contradiction

This theme of Sagan the great and fascinating contradiction was the running theme in his 1999 biography by Keay Davidson. And when I put the book down, I realized that there was a new contradiction: how I, as a fan of Sagan, feel about him as a person.

From when I first read Cosmos in July of 2020 until I really analyzed its flaws in August of 2021, I admired Sagan. I mean, really admired him. I even wrote an entire post about why:

[Sagan] does not just denounce religion, but he turns our attention toward something greater. He doesn’t leave us off on the sour note of why religion poisons everything, but he proposes a religion that is grander than any we have created so far. Thus, I think that rather than being “obsessed” with Carl Sagan for his own sake, I admire everything he admired, and I strive to think how he thinks, not in blind obedience, but because his attitude toward our Cosmos is exactly what my own has always strived to be.

Why Atheists Revere Carl Sagan, December 2020

I try my best not to idolize anyone. I know for a fact that no one is perfect, even if it feels like I haven’t yet found any flaws. During that period I knew I was in that phase. I hadn’t found any major flaws or red flags in who Sagan was, but I knew it was inevitable that I would find something. I had just become disillusioned with Dawkins and Harris, and Sagan felt like the perfect new hero. He remained my hero even when I dissected the inaccuracy, Eurocentrism, and antitheism in Cosmos.

Secular humanism is a worldview—it’s my worldview—but every worldview has its biases. As it is impossible not to have idols and emotions, it is impossible not to have biases. While Sagan initially appeared to be a great objective source, his blend of an atheistic and Eurocentric bias actually damaged his credibility.

. . .

I hold Carl Sagan to a high intellectual standard. I still look up to him. I truly hope, and optimistically believe, that he did not purposely mislead readers in what continues to be one of my favorite books of all time. This is not because he was a famous white man who was capable of no wrongdoing, but because he was so openly passionate about skepticism and the pursuit of truth.

Inaccuracy, Eurocentrism, and Antitheism in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, August 2021

The errors in Cosmos had upset me, but I still don’t think they were intentional. (As a matter of fact, Davidson’s biography takes writers into the Cosmos writers’ room with Sagan, Druyan, and Soter and tells of their grueling research. I just don’t think they were very good at historical research or had good sources.)

Errors in a book and TV show are one thing. I was still able to admire Sagan the person—and his timeless and poignant quotes—after that. But after reading this biography? It’s like being torn in two.

Lynn

Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis at their wedding

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan are one of those couples who are famous for their love and for being a dynamic duo, but I knew that Ann was Carl’s third wife going into the book. My first clue that Carl maybe wasn’t even a good person, let alone a hero, was when I learned about how he treated his first wife, Lynn Margulis.

Carl Sagan loved children, and naturally, he adored his newborn son. But according to Lynn Margulis, Sagan soon realized what every new father realizes: he is no longer number one. She recalls that Sagan quickly began to resent Dorion; he was getting all too much of Lynn’s attention. Sagan’s demands for attention added to Lynn’s burdens. For her, it was bad enough having to do all the housework (Sagan, she says, considered himself too good for domestic chores). And now, she had to satisfy two babies: Dorion and Carl! What about her needs, her ambitions? She watched, with growing anger, as he flew off to scientific meetings, leaving the diapers and laundry to her.

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, p. 97

As Davidson goes on to say, this wasn’t an unusual division of labor in the sixties, but it is beyond peculiar that Sagan spent his whole life self-identifying as an ardent feminist while he treated Lynn (and his second wife, Linda) like this.

It got worse. “He hit me a few times,” Margulis recalls. “My sister got furious when she found out. But I used to protect him—I would never tell. I wouldn’t! I was a good person; I [didn’t] believe a good person [would] tell things like that. And he did it out of his own total frustration—emotional ambivalence and frustration and lack of control and stuff like that. It was bad.”

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, p. 140

This domestic abuse was mentioned only once in the book, and I have never seen any mention of it anywhere else, ever. Lynn even seems to have forgiven Sagan and become closer to him later in life once he had matured. I won’t say that Lynn was wrong to forgive him, but I don’t see any evidence that he even apologized. One thing is for sure: I’m never going to see Sagan as a feminist again.

While discussing an instance of racism rather than sexism, Davidson addresses this contradiction between Sagan’s liberal beliefs and actions.

While Sagan was working in McDonald Observatory in Texas, he drove south of the border to see [Lynn in Mexico]. While he was there, Margulis recalls, he was astonishingly rude to her Mexican colleagues, acting like a prince disdainful of the serfs. . . .

How can we reconcile Sagan’s solidly liberal politics with his treatment of Margulis’s Mexican colleagues? Many people have political convictions that do not jibe with their personal behavior, of course. And the young Sagan’s liberalism, while sincere, had an abstract aspect; it was the clever, witty, after-dinner-speaker liberalism of Adlai Stevenson, not the passionate, heart-wrenching, take-to-the-streets liberalism of Martin Luther King Jr. Like so many aloof intellectuals, the young Sagan seemed to think in terms of People rather than people, of Humanity rather than humans.

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, p. 71

We could say that Sagan was young and didn’t yet understand the complexity and difficulty of living out antiracist and feminist values every day, but I worry that he never did reconcile his political feminism with his disdain for housework and his childish need for domestic servitude.

Linda

Carl Sagan at his wedding to Linda Salzman

Take Sagan’s second wife, Linda Salzman, for example. Davidson makes it clear that Linda and Carl were never a good match and that even their friends doubted whether they should have married. Of course, nowadays we can’t picture Carl with anyone but Ann Druyan, but it doesn’t require this 20/20 hindsight to know that Carl’s and Linda’s marriage was not a healthy one.

To their credit, Davidson explains that through the late sixties and seventies, Linda (and cannabis) helped Carl to loosen up personality-wise. She was the hippie artist and he was the aloof scientist, so surely her companionship was healthy for him. But he forced Linda to give her art a backseat in her life, just as he had done with Lynn and her science.

While Sagan’s fame soared, his marriage deteriorated. He and Linda fought over his absences, his refusal to do housework, his indifference to her wish to transcend housewifery. According to Lynda Obst, Sagan believed that Linda’s role in life was to cook and clean for him so that he could focus on science.

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, p. 285

Carl’s need to be served grew more intense the more famous he got.

[Carl’s and Linda’s] differences led to regular fights about “little things,” [their son] Nick says. “My mother would make my father breakfast before he would go off to work. . . . He would drink shakes because it was easier [for the food] to go down. She would make the shake and then she would put the toast in the toaster.

“And he said one day, ‘Well, if you put the toast in the toaster, then make the shake, they’ll be ready at the same time.’ She said, ‘You’re talking about twenty seconds.’ He said, ‘Yes, but twenty seconds every day‘—and he did this calculation to point out how much time he was losing [over the years].” Stunned by this display of husbandly hyper-rationalism, Linda exploded. “She just lost it—went berserk,” Nick recalls.

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, p. 287

Berserk or not, if I was Linda, that would have been the last shake I would have ever made.

But of course, it didn’t stop there. Not only did Carl mistreat his wives but he also mistreated waitstaff, which is a pretty universal clue that someone is a shitty person.

One time, for example, when he, Ann Druyan, and Gentry Lee were having dinner at a Chinese restaurant, Lee recalls, “He was very particular about the way he wanted his iced tea served, among other things.” Sagan was unhappy with the service, and “when he confronted the waitress about her mistakes, she was not apologetic, and became hostile when Carl felt compelled to badger her.” Sagan decided the woman was an idiot. “The bill was $49.43,” Lee recalls, “and he left her a 57-cent tip.” When Lee asked why he didn’t just leave her nothing, Sagan replied that by leaving only 57 cents, “then she’ll know I think she’s a fool.” Lester Grinspoon’s son, David . . . recalls how at hotels Sagan “would throw temper tantrums if he didn’t get the presidential suite. I saw him be very abusive to waiters in restaurants.” Once, at the Beverly Hilton, David saw him address a waiter “in a stern, angry voice” because he had brought one container of salad dressing instead of two. “Everybody in the room was aware of the severity of it.”

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, pp. 325-326

Interestingly, however, Davidson portrays Ann Druyan as “curing” Carl of his rudeness when she captured—and softened—his heart. Apparently this shift was stark and noticeable by everyone who knew him.

Annie

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

Druyan recalls to Davidson,

“The night before we were wed, there was a big party… [Guests] would get up, [one] after the other, and say, ‘You know Carl was [once] a real asshole before he met Annie; we couldn’t stand Carl in those days. I remember the time Carl really hurt my feelings’. . . . And then my brother got up and he said, Well, all I want to say is, I’m really glad I didn’t meet Carl before he met Annie.’ It brought the house down. Everybody was laughing—Carl most of all.”

Even so, Druyan cheerfully refuses to believe that Sagan was ever that bad: “All of this potential, all of this goodness, all of this brilliance at love was residing in Carl all the time. There’s no way you could turn a [mean] person into this man.”

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, pp. 344

While there were times that Ann would chide Carl to, for example, acknowledge the existence of his oldest sons, her denial of his rudeness baffles me. What’s worse is that she had been present at the iced tea fiasco not long before their wedding, so it’s not like she had miraculously never seen him be rude.

Sagan rarely helped out around the house, but to Druyan, this wasn’t a particularly troubling issue. “Could he cook? No, absolutely not,” she says. “Couldn’t fold a towel. And after a couple of years, I realized that I didn’t need him to fold towels. . . .Would he make a bed? Every once in a while he made the bed, because he knew how it made me happy. But it was such an alien thing for him to do. But I feel he would have absolutely died for me, and I would have died for him, in a second. One thing that Carl and I discovered together is that it is possible to stay in love forever.”

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, pp. 425-426

It seems to me that while Ann may have softened his heart, she didn’t really change him and his ways—not that it was her job. She was just so head over heels for him for the 15 years that they were married that she either didn’t notice or didn’t care that he could be a jerk.

Control

Even with Ann supposedly diluting his insufferableness, taking Davidson’s tour of the Cosmos TV set felt like taking a tour of a sausage factory. Carl was constantly fighting with the director, Adrian Malone, who had an ego comparable to Carl’s, which made it inevitable that they would not get along.

As an interesting side note, I found myself comparing Carl Sagan to no other than televangelist Jim Bakker at times. Both were the TV stars who simultaneously had to control every detail of the set, and both were more comfortable addressing TV audiences than the people they knew personally. Both were extraordinarily ambitious, always looking ahead, often at the expense of their wives who they often left to pick up the pieces they left behind in the rush.

Faith

Before reading this biography, I really only knew Sagan as an author and TV star, but at least earlier on in life, he was a bona fide scientist. Well, kind of. He was extremely smart but didn’t have the attention span to stick with any one topic. His true love, though—besides Ann—was his search for extraterrestrial life. Earlier on in his career, he desperately wanted to find anything from organic molecules on Venus to polar bears on Mars, or even balloon-shaped creatures on Jupiter.

The above clip is a great example of his passion for pure—but science-based—speculation on what could exist. Of course, Sagan would reject anything that didn’t pass the test of the scientific method, but what I hadn’t known was that he was prone to wildly speculate things for which there was no evidence up to and until they were disproven.

Davidson frequently makes the point that this hope, this faith, in the idea that there is life “out there” has very religious-sounding undertones. He posits that this faith in the unseen has an uncanny resemblance to that of traditional religions.

Carl Sagan, too, believed in superior beings in space, creatures so intelligent, so powerful as to resemble gods. They are superior partly because their civilizations are millions of years old and have developed technologies unimaginable to us. They have evolved far enough to outgrow their warlike ways. And they are benevolent; they will even share the secrets of the cosmos with us, if we’ll simply tune into their radio transmissions. In short, they are all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving. Is it any wonder that Sagan’s first son, science writer Dorion Sagan, scoffs that “the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a replacement for religion in a secular age”?

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, pp. 237

I personally can’t help but come out on the side of unbelief in extraterrestrial life. I know, thanks to Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, that it is statistically likely, but I don’t know why I wouldn’t apply to this question the same rule that I apply to the existence of God. Both are unseen. Both are innocent of the charge of existence until proven guilty.

Due to his rigid adherence to skepticism and science, Carl only believed in things because science led him to believe that they did or could exist. Admittedly, he was this way with extraterrestrial life. Even in the above Jupiter clip, he says, “Physics and chemistry permit such life forms” as the ones he had just described. As long as they were scientifically feasible, he would argue that they could exist.

My problem with this is that Sagan would tend to hide his own personal, deeply felt need for the existence of extraterrestrial life in scientific possibility. He argued that Venus could have organic microbes simply because science would allow it, but would rarely, if ever, let on how giddy the idea made him.

Hope

Further, he relied too heavily for my taste on these advanced civilizations to tells us how to fix the societal woes facing our world in his lifetime.

“With an extremely advanced technology . . . problems which beset emerging societies such as ours will be solved.” In his subsequent book Broca’s Brain (1979), Sagan said, “it is possible that among the first contents of such a [alien] message may be detailed prescriptions for the avoidance of technological disaster . . . It is difficult to think of another enterprise [besides SETI] within our capability and at a relatively modest cost that holds as much promise for the future of humanity.” (Never mind that our terrestrial problems have deep historical, social, and economic roots; they are amenable to technical “quick fixes” from the stars. It’s the New York World’s Fair vision all over again—social change via wonder toys, not via redistributions of power and wealth; social change that discomfits no one, especially the powerful and wealthy.)

. . .

Can one imagine a sadder symbol of American society, circa 1970, than this? The United States was passing through one of its dark nights of the soul, an era of self-doubt and despair. The Vietnam War dragged on, endlessly, brutally, pointlessly. Cities turned into abysses of crime and drug abuse. Soon the oil crisis would strike, along with Watergate, Abscam, and other shocks to national pride. In short, society was going to hell—and some of its finest minds were praying for celestial salvation.

Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, pp. 239

Several people (mostly women, if I remember correctly) would often urge Sagan to get his head out of the clouds and concern himself with what was happening right here on Earth. Is the search for life on Mars really more important than fighting the sexism, racism, and poverty that plague us?

Sagan’s obsession with the hope that extraterrestrials will solve our problems puts his position as the Anti-UFO Skeptic circa Demon-Haunted World into perspective. I had thought he was just a passionate skeptic. Now I know that it stems from his fervent wish that we really were being visited, and his disappointment when he watched missions to Venus, the Moon, and Mars prove him wrong. If he had to live with the grim fact that no one was contacting us, then so did everyone else. But at least he offered an optimistic scientific alternative instead of leaving the Universe lonely and joyless.

Aside from some sections that I found to be a little more technical than they needed to be, I thought that Davidson did a great job with this biography. Inevitably, the author’s opinions are always going to sneak in, especially as the story progresses. I didn’t mind too much though; as in Davidson’s assessment in the above quote, I think his analyses are more than fair. But all in all, with his rigorous research and detailed storytelling, Davidson did an outstanding job of honoring Sagan’s story by telling who he really was.

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