Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are

4.6 9
by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

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Cosmos, the widely acclaimed book and television series by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, was about where we are in the vastness of space and time. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an exploration of who we are. How were we shaped by life's adventure on this planet, by a mysterious past that we are only just beginning to piece together? "We humans are like a newborn baby… See more details below


Cosmos, the widely acclaimed book and television series by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, was about where we are in the vastness of space and time. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an exploration of who we are. How were we shaped by life's adventure on this planet, by a mysterious past that we are only just beginning to piece together? "We humans are like a newborn baby left on a doorstep," they write, "with no note explaining who it is, where it came from, what hereditary cargo of attributes and disabilities it might be carrying, or who its antecedents might be." This book is one version of the orphan's file. Sagan and Druyan take us back to the birth of the Sun and its planets and the first stirrings of life; to the origins of traits central to our current predicament: sex and violence, love and altruism, hierarchy, consciousness, language, technology, and morality. Many thoughtful people fear that our problems have become too big for us, that we are for reasons at the heart of human nature unable to deal with them, that we have lost our way. How did we get into this mess? How can we get out? Why are we so quick to mistrust those different from ourselves, so given to unquestioning obedience to authority? What is male and female? Why are we so anxious to distance ourselves from the other animals? What obligations, if any, do we owe to them? Is there something within us that condemns us to selfishness and violence? When Sagan and Druyan first undertook this exploration it was "almost with a sense of dread. We found instead reason for hope." This book presents important ideas with the clarity for which the authors are famous. Daring, passionate, with a breathtaking sweep. Shadows is a quest for a new perspective - one that integrates the insights of science into a vision of where we came from, who we are, and what our fate might be.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a leisurely, lyrical meditation on the roughly four-million-year span since life dawned on Earth, Sagan and Druyan ( Comet ) argue that territoriality, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, occasional outbreeding and a preference for small, semi-isolated groups are elements in a survival strategy common to many species, including Homo sapiens. Yet society's problems, they assert, increasingly demand global solutions and require a dramatic, strategic shift which the authors optimistically believe humankind is capable of achieving. This engaging, humane odyssey offers a stunning refutation of the behavioristic worldview with its mechanistic notion that animals (except for humans) lack conscious awareness. Writing with awe and a command of their material, the husband-wife team cover well-trod terrain while they discuss the evolution of Earth's atmosphere and life forms, the genetic code, the advantages of sexual reproduction. The last third of the book, dealing with chimpanzees, baboons and apes, is the most interesting. Sagan and Druyan find chimps' social life ``hauntingly familiar'' with its hierarchy, combat, suppression of females and chimps' remarkable ability to communicate through symbols. First serial to Parade. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Astronomer Sagan is probably the biggest name in popular science writing, a fact that should assure that his latest book--written with his wife, Druyan--will find a wide audience. Sagan's goal is to explain how luck and natural selection combined to produce human beings after three and a half billion years of life on earth. Human behavior, he stresses, results more from similarities with our animal ancestors than from any unique qualities we may possess. Sagan flounders a bit early on in his effort to explain molecular evolution, but he picks up speed later when the focus shifts to primate behavior. Despite a preference for the overly dramatic phrase at the expense of scientific clarity, the argument is coherent throughout. While this is hardly one of the best books on human evolution, it will likely be very popular, especially in public libraries. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/92.-- Eric Hinsdale, Trinity Univ. Lib., San Antonio
Donna Seaman
The Sagan-Druyan household must be a lively place as they ponder the big questions: "What does it mean to be human?" "Can we improve our societies?" "Can we be trusted with our own futures?" To answer these consciousness-old queries, Sagan and Druyan decided to trace the roots of the "Homo sapiens" family tree down to life at its tiniest. Declaring that "all life is kin," they explain how we are related to everything from the nutrients percolating in the soils of our vital earth to chimpanzees. The visionary authors of the best-selling "Cosmos" have shifted their focus from the vastness of space to the minuteness of the molecular world, creating powerfully imagined and animated descriptions of what, in most texts, remain flat chemical interactions. The astonishing and formidable sequencing of DNA and the infinite subtlety of genetic language are expressively conveyed and linked to the invaluable diversity of Earth's life forms. As Sagan and Druyan move up the evolutionary ladder from microorganisms to more complex creatures including insects, snakes, fish, birds, and primates, they track the emergence of sexuality, survival tactics, instinct, and thinking, all sparked by the basic interplay between heredity and environment. This inquiring, eloquent writing duo will continue to feed their (and our) curiosity about the innumerable traits shared by our busy, bossy species and those we call animals, as well as give evidence for some form of ethics in biological reality, in a forthcoming volume chronicling human evolution.
Kirkus Reviews
A BIG book about BIG questions—"Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we this way and not some other? What does it mean to be human?"—with all the Sagan/Druyan trademarks: crystal-clear scientific exposition, a dash of pseudotheology, and lots of big numbers. Sagan and wife Druyan begin with a standard recital of the origins of sun, planets, and life on earth, but soon move on to their central theme: the triumph of evolutionary theory and the truths unveiled through study of our animal kin. An enjoyable brief life of Darwin sets the tone: enraptured regard for scientific orthodoxy, couched in lucid prose with playful asides (an imagined Hollywood version of the classic Wilberforce-Huxley debates on the origin of species). When the authors turn to the role of DNA in speciation, those big numbers start cropping up: "ten trillion or so cells of your body"; "perhaps a billion AGCT nucleotide pairs." And so does the amateur theology, in which Sagan and Druyan plump hard for deism, the notion of a God who created the universe and then absconded. Things rocket forward when the authors focus on the gaudy canvas of sexuality, consciousness, language, and so on in the animal kingdom. A barrage of eye-popping anecdotes leaves the impression that animal social life is a perpetual power play, with dominant males on top and submissive females on the bottom. Many parallels are drawn with humans—e.g., teenage boys playing "chicken" to establish a pecking order. Since the authors contend that no sharp line divides animals and humans, this leads to troubling conclusions about human nature. But Sagan and Druyan think we can overcome our animalistic impulses, althoughthey never quite explain how: The "shadows of forgotten ancestors" weigh heavily on us all. Too long and preachy, but, still, crack science-writing for the masses, and the Sagan name will vault it onto the charts.

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