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  • Writer's pictureBryan Jun

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for who We are

One of the pillars of my "life thesis" is that it's crucial to constantly test and challenge one's own beliefs, through conversations with others that disagree with you and resources that counter where you stand. Unless you strive to either change your "wrong" opinions or further solidify them, what you believe to be true becomes rusty or unsupported, both of which continue to deteriorate your self being (or at least I tell myself so to excuse my obsession with engaging in conflicting dialogue).

Central to my faith and worldview as a Christian, specifically Presbyterian for those who are rather familiar with the various denominations and broadly "conservative" for those interested in which side of the aisle I stand, is the idea that human beings are special. Not only are we special, but we are set apart, created in His image with a purpose. As someone who takes Genesis literally, I strongly believe that we were "given" the Earth and its inhabitants (other than us) to use for our benefit (note that this does not mean exploit - my views on environmental science and other related topics are a work in progress, more on that later). Simply put, I don't think we're just another animal and to put it more straightforwardly (at the gasp of those who don't me well), I don't think I'm an animal at all.

But as mentioned above, I think it's quite important to constantly challenge your own views and practice actual "open-mindedness," which is why I was very excited to read Carl Sagan's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The book was a lot more famous than I knew it to be, introduced to me by one of my closest friends (and roommate) who is very well aware of my world views (and is also obsessed with challenging his own views). I was under the notion that the book was a survey of human beings in an animal kingdom context, serving almost as a "Bible" for the scientific community. I have heard of Sagan before and his brilliance, but not much more than a bird's eye view.

Regardless of my views or how they've been affected by this book (and to my own surprise, I actually agreed with a lot of what was said in the book in terms of how humans behave), this may be one of the controversial yet engaging books I've ever read. What's even more fascinating is that many of the individuals who would consider my world views to be ridiculous and outright insane in 2021, who theoretically should side with the overall thesis of this book, would actually be offended by some of the material covered in its second half. Sagan almost seems to suggest that if we are indeed not much different from apes and monkeys, only by a few degrees, than much of our behavior (especially regarding sex) is a function of nature as opposed to nurture. Furthermore, he alludes that the way that "traditional" forms of gender dynamics break down as society becomes "worse" (an oversimplification here) and there are "norms" that are indeed set by what is supposed to be. It's difficult to summarize the wide variety of examples he gives throughout the read, but essentially Sagan poses the question - "what sets us apart from other primates, and if nothing does, what does that say about us?"

My favorite aspect of this book and Sagan's writing style (and his life philosophy) is that he merely poses evidence and questions rather than putting his foot down on life/species-defining claims. This is further supported by his view that the number of coincidences that must align for us to exist rather "peacefully" on planet Earth are countless, which poses the question - could this really be by coincidence? As much as I believe I have the answer for that question (it's not a coincidence Carl!), I think it's quite admirable that he's able to have such ample evidence for humans just being another primate but is refusing to let go of the alternative as a completely impossible position. I fully recognize that this is shying away from my typical stance on worldviews and beliefs (I think people should challenge their beliefs but stand firm on them when they're not being challenged actively), but considering the fact that I find this admirable perhaps my stance will change in the future. I could also find it admirable because the alternative that he considers is my worldview and I'm unsure if I'd feel the same way if the stances were flipped.

If you're an active atheist and subscribe to "we're just another monkey that's been developed as a long chain of coincidences and all of our actions are a result of hormone imbalances," then this book will most likely be very affirmatory for you and be a breeze in the park. If you believe that "I'm special and God placed me here to rule over all the animals and I'm rational and have culture and no other living being outside of my species (don't even call human beings a specie) can say that" school of thought, this will be rough after the first five pages. But I highly urge everyone, especially the second group, to give this a try as I think it's always important to chug down what hurts to make you stronger.

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