Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS traces human ancestry back to the beginning of life, and even before. Sagan, an astronomer who has successfully brought the discoveries of science to a wide public, and his coauthor Druyan believe that a better understanding of human origins will help us to cope with the desperate challenges—political, social, and environmental—facing the earth’s populations in the late twentieth century.

The first installment of a projected multivolume work, and written for a general audience, SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS begins with a description of the birth of our solar system, postulating how life began on Earth. Noting that all life has much in common, the authors relate the saga of humanity’s ancestors from the single cell to the primates, culminating in an extended discussion of the chimpanzee— which, according to DNA findings, is the nonhuman life form most closely allied to us. We exist in the shadows of all other life, and we cannot escape that heritage.

Appropriately in a work which is an explication of biological evolution there is a useful segment on the father of evolution, Charles Darwin. At times the authors digress into tangential matters, and they too often repeat their main contention that humans are merely animals on the evolutionary ladder. Hopefully in the next volume Sagan and Druyan will focus not only upon what allies us with all other life but also on what is unique about humanity. If, as the authors hope, by knowing who we are we can better adapt to the challenges of the future, we should also know how we differ from our ancestors. All humans are primates, but not all primates—nor all life forms—are human.