Isaac Carpenter's Reviews > Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan
Rate this book
Clear rating

M 50x66
's review

really liked it

The subtitle of the book is "A Search for Who We Are". I am not altogether sure of the purpose of SFA. My best guess is that S/D seeks to give an account of humanity from their worldview. However, if this is their purpose, then I think it is woefully incomplete. However, the book is worth reading. The writing is compelling, interesting and accessible for the lay reader. This is the first I've read Sagan and I can easily see why he is so popular.

SFA begins with a brief overview of who humanity thinks it is and what S/D's worldview brings to the table. It then goes back in time to the beginning of all things -- the Big Bang and gives a brief account of our solar system and how it formed, then moves into focus on early planet earth. Here S/D paint a wonderfully written account of the early earth. They both transport you back into time where one is able to distantly observe the formation of the solar system and planets.

S/D follow this with a couple chapters on Darwin's biography and some of his thought. Then, they move into the very small -- a brief introduction into the genetic code and how they believe early organisms might have functioned on the young earth and then into how these early organisms will propagate, eventually leading into issues of biological life (sex) and death.

Then the authors take us into social structures of various animals, comparing and contrasting social hierarchies, which leads to the biological distinction of the sexes and an interesting and short chapter into what S/D perceive to be the thoughts of a chimp as it goes about its daily business. They then take the monkey theme and spend the next couple of chapters talking about chimp and baboon life while comparing them with human life. Finally, S/D ask the question of what it means to be human (ignoring what it means to `mean` anything). In their mind the answer is essentially a biological answer. Here they compare and contrast their worldview with various other answers to the question of what humanity's nature consists.

Oddly enough the Sagan and Druyan note that the book began in an politically existential crisis during the arms race of the 1980's. They write, "So we embarked on a study of the political and emotional roots of the nuclear arms race--which led us back to World War II, which of course had its origins in World War I, which was a consequence of the rise of the nation-state, which traces straight back to the very beginnings of civilization, which was a by-product of the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals, which crystallized out of a very long period in which we humans we hunters and foragers. There was no sharp division along the way, no point at which we could say: Here are the roots of our predicament . . . Events of remote ages, long before humans came to be, are critical, we concluded, for an understanding of the trap that our species seems to be setting for itself" (xiii).

Due to this beginning of their work I am expecting something that accounts for not only the biological fact of humanity, but also the existential fact. The very purpose of the book purports to account for not only biological descriptions of humanity and their ancestors, but the origination of our `problems.' However, S/D give no explanation of what `problems' are -- or how there can be such things as `problems.' The fundamental goal of the book is therefore confusing. It seeks a descriptive, biological explanation to answer deep existential and moral questions for humanity. Somewhere along the line we have slipped into prescriptive statements and questions without the explanation of why this occurred and why anyone should listen to these `problems' or why one should view the nuclear arms race (for example) as anything more than describing what happened.

Two big things are needed in this work: their belief on the origination of religion and morality. I say this because if one were to read the introduction, one would expect these things. Regardless of one's views on the nature of religion as a whole and morality, the atheist must give an accounting of these. And they are certainly `big enough' to need an accounting. Virtually the whole of humanity has overwhelmingly believed in some sort of religion and morality. And S/D's work actually begins here -- the existential question -- yet they in many ways largely ignore this question. Consider elsewhere: "Who are we? Where do we come from? . . . Can we improve our societies? Can we leave our children a world better than the one that was left to us? Can we free them from the demons that torment us and haunt our civilization?" (4). The metaphysical problem hinted at, but obviously outside the scope of a work like this is the tension between metaphysical necessity and biological freedom. S/D's position waffles between complete metaphysical necessity with spurts of randomness in places where we don't understand their function (a `randomness of the gaps' perhaps).

I'm not saying that S/D never touch on the subject of religion and morality, but I am saying that for the effect that both have had on our species, they get too little treatment in SFA. At one point in chapter twenty, they do mention that a proposed difference between humans and animals has been religion. They then ask the question, "But what is religion? How could we know whether animals have it? In The Descent of Man, Darwin cites the comment, `a dog looks on his master as a god.'" Of course this is just a quick dismissal with a rather awkward leap of faith into the unknown. "Perhaps if we were able to peer into the mind of the ape in a state of nature, we would find--among a flurry of other feelings--a sense of satisfaction about its apeness rivaling ours about our humanity." Perhaps apes and other animals are just rather quiet about their religious beliefs. I'm betting modern day liberals would love to give animals voting rights, then, seeing as they apparently agree to keep their extremely private religion out of the public square.

I do think this book should be on your shelf. It is a bit dated, but it's been so popular that it's very inexpensive and it's full of information. If you accept certain presuppositions and are comfortable straddling the fence of metaphysical necessity and randomness and comfortable reducing morality to biology (albeit when its convenient for you), then S/D's worldview has impressive explanatory scope. However, if you find it a bit odd that people seek to dismiss existential questions with biological answers (as the tension is never resolved in the book, nor is `morality' ever explained. Clearly the authors have moral frameworks. It is unclear why these moral frameworks aren't dismissed by biology as well), then you will find this book lacking in its answer as to who humanity is. But regardless, it is a trove of information worth owning.
2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 30, 2016 – Shelved

No comments have been added yet.