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Demolishing the final pedestal
on 17 October 2005
Who will ever replace him? Carl Sagan's writings range from excellent to outstanding, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors ranks at the zenith of his efforts. Taking us along the history of life, he vividly explains how close we are to the other animals inhabiting this planet. The theme rests on the continuity of life, from the simplest cells through the complex creatures. Since zoology for so long focused on the 'special place' of humanity in nature, Sagan builds an exceptional case for returning us to our true origins. With the prejudices we've inherited from our various cultures, the task is daunting, but he manages it with irrefutable logic. His prose brings our associates in the animal kingdom into distinct focus, overcoming human penchants for uniqueness with clarity and wit. Copernicus removed us from the centre of the universe. Darwin showed life as an evolutionary process. Sagan removes the final veil of our self aggrandizement.
After a description of DNA's development over the ages, he brings us to our nearest genetic neighbours, the primates. His section titled 'Some Sketches from Life' points up numerous behaviour patterns shared among us all. Communication, grief, vulnerability to illnesses, raising young - the list seems almost endless. The result is the replacement of our 'special status' by a clearer identity as a community of primates. Tell your friends that only 0.4% of our working genes and that of chimpanzees are different. If they dispute you, buy them a copy of this book and sit them down to read it. From the first page they will encounter mind opening ideas. Sagan stresses our kinship with other animals, and begs us all to 'stop pretending we're something we're not' - a dominant species with a mandate to rule the planet and its occupants.
Sagan handles the 'god' question with delicacy. Surprisingly, he makes no assault on deities, but gently goes over the history of life and what we've learned of its mechanisms. Humans who argue that 'consciousness' and the idea of a 'soul' are shown to be illusory. His final analysis simply outlines in brief detail how the process of life has evolved, concluding that deities are simply unnecessary [p. 472]. Read the book and suggest it to friends. Don't let it go, make them buy it. It belongs on your bookshelves. It belongs in everyone's library. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]