2007-01-26: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

A Search for Who We Are (1992)

by Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and Ann Druyan (1949-)

I might have read this book before I started writing these reports; much of the content is familiar to me.

For someone just becoming curious, but with a bit of science background, it is a good introduction to the evolutionary background for human nature.

They invoke Niels Bohr’s aphorism: “Clarity through breadth.” However, once they get past cosmology, their breadth is primarily in the biological realm. They also have this good cautionary advice: “We urge the reader to bear in mind the imperfection of our current knowledge. Science is never finished. It proceeds by successive approximations, edging closer and closer to a complete and accurate understanding of Nature, but is never fully there.”

For those of a mystical bent, they provide: “Nanrei Kobori, late Abbot of the Temple of the Shining Dragon, a Buddhist sanctuary in Kyoto, said to us ‘God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.’”

Regarding the reaction to Darwin they provide two quotes:

I detest all systems that depreciate human nature. If it be a delusion that there is something in the constitution of man that is venerable and worthy of its author, let me live and die in that delusion, rather than have my eyes opened to see my species in a humiliating and disgusting light. Every good man feels his indignation rise against those who disparage his kindred or his country; why should it not rise against those who disparage his kind? – Thomas Reid, letter of 1775

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian [geological] system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. – Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species, Chapter XV

Another quote:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his sense a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land,; after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one thing alone: the love of knowledge. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, On Impermanence

Regarding the animal sources of much of human nature:

We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. You can glimpse the denial in the shaving of men’s faces; in clothing and other adornments; in the great lengths gone to in the preparation of meat to disguise the fact that an animal is being killed, flayed, and eaten. The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

In the notes to chapter ten, there is a fascinating story of using close observation of nature to get close to birds for watching. Anyone who reads the book should not miss it.


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