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Carl Sagan - Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

"Another domesticated chimp, Viki Hayes, was given two piles of pictures, one of humans, the other of nonhumans, and then handed a stack of additional pictures and invited to categorize. Her performance was perfect, with one small exception: She placed the picture of herself among the humans." -- p. 355
After letting this book sit on my shelf for about a decade, I finally got around to reading it. I shouldn't have waited so long. It is absolutely fantastic. Even though the references are now dated, it is a timeless work that can be enjoyed and learned from for decades to come. In fact, many of the arguments the authors make have been reinforced by subsequent studies.

In typical Saganian prose, Shadows is both easy and pleasurable to read. The only exception is near the beginning of the book for a couple of chapters. If those chapters start to discourage you, press on and wade through them so that you don't miss the gems that are in the middle and end of the book.

Much of the book deals with the similarities between humans and chimpanzees and the intelligence of chimpanzees in general. Even though this wasn't a new topic to me, as I've read many other books on the subject, it was still a good read. That's not usually the case for subjects that I'm already very familiar with.

Don't wait ten years, as I did, to pick this book up. You'll be glad you did.

from the publisher:
World renowned scientist Carl Sagan and acclaimed author Ann Druyan have written a Roots for the human species, a lucid and riveting account of how humans got to be the way we are. It shows with humor and drama that many of our key traits--self-awareness, technology, family ties, submission to authority, hatred for those a little different from ourselves, reason, and ethics--are rooted in the deep past, and illuminated by our kinship with other animals. Astonishing in its scope, brilliant in its insights, and an absolutely compelling read, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a triumph of popular science.

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. [an error occurred while processing this directive]