Bakari's Reviews > Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2010-books-read, science

This is the fourteenth book I've read for my 52 in 52 project, and it's the only one so far that I finished reading in about one day. Saying that I could hardly put the book down is pretty accurate. But the authors, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan made their writing and analysis so engaging and fairly easy to understand, that getting through was not a laborious task.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, as I wrote in one of my tweets tonight, puts the Bible to shame. The book is not a parody of the Bible, but it is a million times better and more plausible of a story about the origins of the universe (which the Bible doesn’t touch on) and who we are as Homo Sapiens.

If you ever watched Sagan’s classic PBS series Cosmos, then you have an idea of what Shadows is all about. I’m not going to go into detail about what their book is about (there’s plenty reviews on and other places), but what struck me most about his book is the conclusion it makes. By comparing humans to our closest ancestors, the chimpanzees, babons and other primates, they contend we need to realize that we, though of higher “intelligence” are simply not that far removed from our cousins, and they/we are seriously not that special. This is not meant to be a put down on the human species, but it’s to put in perspective about who we are what our potential is.

It’s interesting that they quote a bit of verse from Walt Whitman, whom I was considering reading a biography about for my next book, before reading this one. Walt wrote:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so
placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania
of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, or to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
Not one respectful or unhappy over the whole earth.

Whitman takes some poetic license in his critique of his fellow man, but the point of his and the authors’ analysis is that there are two sides to human beings. We are humbled by our existence, but we are also conceited, vicious, greedy, and selfish. On the one hand, we have great potential for love for one another; but on the other hand, we continue to do some very barbaric things to one another.

The authors say it better than I do:

“We must stop pretending we’re something we’re not. Somewhere between romantic, uncritical anthropomorphizing of the animals and an anxious, obdurate refusal to recognize our kinship with them—the latter made tellingly clear in the still-widespread notion of “special” creation—there is a broad middle ground on which we humans can take our stand.”

Sagan and Druyan use essentially the second half of their book to develop the above conclusion. I think they take a little too long to prove their case, but I can understand the challenge to do so, given that most of humanity is still mucked and mired in religious mythology and in denial of our essential human nature, that it’s not inconceivable that were headed for destruction—not destruction of the planet, mind you, but of our ourselves and other living organisms.

We would do ourselves a great service by holding weekly meetings discussing books like this one rather than further deluding about some great omnipotent being that is supposed to be controlling everything. It’s really time we move past all that.


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Reading Progress

March 27, 2010 – Shelved
March 27, 2010 – Shelved as: 2010-books-read
March 27, 2010 – Shelved as: science
Started Reading
March 29, 2010 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-1 of 1 (1 new)

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Robert Maier Ha, I spent 2 months reading and thinking through this book. And I come to the exact same conclusions as you. Congratulations on describing it so well.

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