Thursday, 19 April 2007

Book: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan

Lowdown: How did we, humans, get to where we are now?
Having recently read The Selfish Gene I didn't expect to read yet another book of the type that is a good read and also a great mind opener so soon, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors certainly did the job and did it well. Surprisingly enough, I chose to read it at this time not because I expected it to be as good as it was, but rather because of all the books I haven't read in my bookshelf this one seemed the one best suited for a soon to be parent. The fact Sagan was quoted saying Shadows was his favorite out of the books he wrote made the choice easier.
The purpose of the book is to explain why we, humans, are the way we are. As in, why do we behave and act in certain ways, why our societies are structured in certain ways, why do we believe certain things, why are our lives going in certain ways, etc. In short, what is it that makes us tick the way we do? These are all very deep questions that many books have tried to analyze before by utilizing many different approaches, but Shadows is unique: it treats it all the way a historian analyzes ancient Rome. It makes its point and draws its conclusions by analyzing how we people came to be; but it doesn't start with ancient Babylon or something similar, it goes back all the way to the creation of the solar system.
Sagan & Druyan clearly demonstrate how crucial the way the solar system has evolved was to the evolution of humans. I invite you to read the book for more information, but just think about the most basic of examples - the comet hitting the earth some 60 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and clearing the path for us mammals to rise into dominance. The book then continues to explain the basics of evolution and show how life on earth has slowly evolved to eventually create us humans, and more importantly show how we humans carry the weight of all that evolution in us: we are very much the sum of everything that has been there before us and next to us, and that history is what makes us what we are today. I am doing great injustice to this point with this brief summary, because this summary is full of examples on how and why we have inherited a lot of our behaviors from our ancient relatives.
Special attention is given to our closest relatives, the primates, the monkeys and the apes. As they are the closest thing to our closest ancestors, having only recently strayed off our mutual ancestors, the assumption is that by looking at them we can learn something about ourselves. And indeed, the book shows just how similar we are to apes; not just physically, but also in the way we behave and think. I admit that I wasn't aware just how similar we are (and also how different we are, in certain respects) to apes, and how much of a variety of behaviors you can get in apes in the first place.
So far I have discussed the way the book performs its analysis, but the main interest is not the way but rather the conclusions the books draws on who we are. And I have to say it rather bluntly: Those conclusions can be rather scary. We think that we are thinking creatures, and that this thinking capacity of ours makes us what we are - the superiors to everything else on earth. However, the book clearly demonstrates that most of what we consider to be thinking is actually a set of hard wired reactions; complicated reactions, sure, yet hard wired. For example, a lot of our reactions and a lot of the reasons why we act in a certain way are to do with us seeking dominance over fellow humans. You don't need to look too hard into reality to see how true these conclusions are: when I think of myself, for a start, it is easy for me to see I hardly get to really think; I certainly don't think much at work, for a start. Maybe twice a week, at best. I think thinking is an operation that is limited with me to the times when I think of what I am about to blog about and to my limited reading time. And as for the quest for dominance, that is evident if you look at another relic of our contemporary culture: porn. It might pretend to be dealing with sex, but most of what porn has to offer is to do with dominancy and not what I would call "making love". For other examples of animal instincts in action - say, tribalism or xenophobia - just visit your nearest football ground.
Given man's ability to destroy itself, man's inability to really think - or rather, this having a hard time when it comes to thinking - is rather dangerous; a source of major pessimism. Yet Sagan and Druyan are not all that pessimistic: they point out at two things that are a major source of hope for us. The first is our intellect, which is something where we humans seem to be unique as far as levels are concerned: we're the only species who seem to have discussions on the level of their awareness. Using this intellect of ours, we can recognize the dangers that are in our way and mitigate them. The key is in creating awareness and generating a discussion. Second, comparisons with animals shouldn't only make us despair; there is a lot in animals that is good and noble: altruism, friendliness, sacrifice. Being an animal is not all that bad after all!
As far as the experience of reading is concerned, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an incredibly easy book to read (not that you expect much else from Sagan). Coming from The Selfish Gene I have found the repeated reading about the basics of evolution rather tiresome and redundant (in fact, there are many direct quotes from The Selfish Gene in the book), but that has nothing to do with Shadows being bad and all to do with my rather too narrowly focused reading of late. One thing that did take me by surprise is a few chapters that are written as a street punk's diary, incorporating phrases such as "fuck" way too often; it turns out that these were written from a chimpanzee's point of view, but still - you don't expect to find such language in a Carl Sagan book. Which, as far as I am concerned, only shows how original and varied the guy can be.
Overall: 4.5 illuminating stars.

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