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Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
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71 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2000
Let's begin with this: Carl Sagan was a master of popular science writing. Nobody wrote more compelling about science for the non-scientific reader. This book is a brief history of the universe as it relates to the development of mankind. It covers a lot of territory and the history of the universe is necessarily cursory. His introduction to genetics is basic, but very readable for the non-scientist. This book really begins to "cook" when Sagan begins to discuss the behavioral and societal charactistic of our close relatives, the primates. Read it and draw your own conclusions, but I was astounded by the parallels between human society and the behavior of the other primate species. So much of our behavior, good and bad, is exhibited in primate socialization. I notice another reviewer somehow saw this as evidence of God's creation but I think that this strains the evidence that Sagan has carefully assembled.
This is a book that will cause you to reassess what you believe being human means.
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72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon September 15, 2000
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.
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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2000
From DNA, Darwin, and Huxley to dominance, submission, and primates this book has it all. Carl Sagan was simply a shaman of words and wisdom, while being a prophet of science and rational thought. Shadow's of forgotten ancestors is Sagan's finest hour with unwavering skepticism and a passion unparalleled in the scientific community. I have read this book cover to cover twice, and still feel as though it will have more insight to offer as I begin to read it a third time. The book reveals the egocentric nature of man and his attitudes toward animals as lesser organisms based on ancient fears of his own past . Animals are very complex and intelligent, a sentiment that is for some a deplorable idea with atheist and Darwinian connotations. Sagan simply diffuses the idea to his readers that animals have the ability to feel complex emotions and acquire learned behaviors from parents, just as humans. It is not the author's intention to drag humans through the mud of the animal world, but, rather, lift the animals up to the level of humans by showing our similarities which include: reproductive strategies, behavior patterns, altruism, love, and the perpetuation of the species. Sagan offers an alternative view of the world, a world in which man shares the Earth with other organisms and accepts their differences rather than condemning them. Such an optimistic belief in a world that breeds hate, bias, and indifference. Anyone who reads this book and still believes man is superior to animals and holds a special place in the world, missed the entire point and needs their compassion spoon fed to them.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2004
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan state that this book began as "a study of the political and emotional roots of the nuclear arms race." While tracing back those aspects of human nature that nearly brought civilization to the brink of destruction, they found themselves delving deep into the origins of man and into the evolutionary heritage of life itself. Apparently the book's scope grew in the telling, yet the authors still manage to address the primary issue and support their case with an abundance of examples, analogies, and anecdotes.

The book has the following basic structure:

First the authors attempt to demonstrate the intrinsic relationship of all life forms. They explain the basic mechanisms of evolution and genetics, along with the pros and cons of sexual reproduction. The authors also spend a decent amount of time on the idea of group (kin) selection, especially in relation to altruism and overcrowding.

After the basics, Sagan and Druyan spend a number of chapters examining the social behaviors of our closest relatives: the non-human primates. They focus primarily on the sexual oppression, dominance hierarchies, xenophobia, and incest taboos which are found in many non-human primates; however, the authors also include a few examples that most people would find commendable.

Finally, the authors consider what it means to be human and attempt to support the claim that humans differ from other animals more in the degree of our particular aptitudes, rather than by possessing a truly unique set of abilities. In the process they refute a wide variety of objections held by critics of this notion.

The book ends with an admonition that, as a species, we must take care not to allow our "ancient primate algorithms" to endanger the long-term survival prospects of the species.

Overall I enjoyed this book. The authors have a candid and highly entertaining writing style and provide a wealth of information, yet at times I felt that the authors lost sight of their primary agenda. For instance, some of the behavioral examples seem to be given simply because they are shocking rather than as supporting evidence and the little "on impermanence" quotes that ended many of the chapters were annoying. Still, my complaints are minor, and I would certainly recommend this book.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 1999
In Cosmos, Sagan wrote that the best way for an alien to measure our science was to see how much we know about ourselves. This book is just about it. Sagan and Druyan shows the evolution from the first organic sign to the man, and help to explain WHY we are the way we are. It is a very well written book and, above all, a book of science. One of the best I ever read.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 1999
In this, Carl Sagan's greatest, along with Cosmos, he teaches not to feel ashamed, but humbled by our ancestors who paved the path, millions of years in the making, for us! He teaches us to have the same attitudes for our descendents as our ascendants had for us. The book attempts to distinguish the differences between us and other species on earth, one that shows that we, especially as humans, are not as different as we thought. Do not be deceived by people who try to tell you humans are the god given species on this planet, for Carl points out that we are actually the lucky one's, and we should not take it for granted. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a must read for anyone who wishes to find out who they really are and why.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 1998
This was one of the best books I have ever read. Starting with the formation of the earth and planets, going through the structure of DNA, and ending with our relationship to primates and where we are headed, this book kept my attention on every page. I'm not a huge science fan, but I was able to understand everything that Sagan and Druyan wrote about, and at the end of this book I was not only more educated and informed, but I had new perspective with which to view the world. Everyone should read this book.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2006
"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" takes as its subject nothing less than the origin of life on Earth. The book is epic in scope, ranging from the gravitational collapse of interstellar clouds and the evolution of solar systems to the first appearance of self-replicating molecules on Earth. Probably starting between 4 and 3.5 billion years ago, the initial self-replicating molecules - having arisen by a chain of random processes - initiated the essentially non-random processes of natural selection and the story goes on from there.

The story that Sagan and Druyan are telling is about us, the human animal: where we come from and what ancestral `shadows' follow us and as a result of these considerations, where we are headed. Instead of portraying a nature `red in tooth and claw', Sagan and Druyan show how cooperation is a key feature of life, beginning with the earliest stromatolite colonies. This theme is carried forward and explored in later chapters which examine the bases of ethics, altruism, compassion and caring in our primate relatives. The book also examines the roots of aggression, xenophobia, and dominance hierarchies and the prevalence of these phenomena in the primate world especially.

This is an engaging and educational read, well worth the reader's effort. However, there are also several drawbacks that deserve to be mentioned. Sagan and Druyan go to considerable lengths to convince the reader of the similarities between humans and the other primate species. They especially stress the close genetic relationship between humans and chimpanzees and point out that while humans have consistently tried to erect barriers between themselves and the nonhuman animals, these barriers are illusory. For example, language is often mentioned as the sole preserve of Homo sapiens. And yet, studies with vervet monkeys and experiments with chimpanzees and bonobos have demonstrated that a rudimentary capacity for language (including the ability to perform abstractions) exist in species besides humans. The point that Sagan and Druyan are trying to make is that we humans vary from the other animals not so much in kind (quality), but rather in degree (quantity). This point is well taken but in emphasizing the similarities between humans and other animals (including our close primate relatives) we should not be overly zealous in the other direction. There are many similarities between humans and chimpanzees, sure, but there are also obvious, non-trivial differences that likewise deserve to be mentioned. After all, unlike the chimpanzees, who to present day inhabit the same environments that their million-year old ancestors have inhabited, humans have spread to just about every part of the globe and are actively exploring the near reaches of the universe. The tendency to emphasize the close genetic relationship between humans and chimpanzees while glossing over the differences is rampant in popular books about human evolution (for example, Jared Diamond's "The Third Chimpanzee").

"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is subtitled as a `Search for Who We Are', aiming to give an account of the `orphan's file' (the orphan being the human race). However, the book is primarily devoted to the discussion of nonhuman animals, with no mention of important human landmarks such as the discovery of agriculture, for example, and the rise of civilizations and states. To be fair, the authors acknowledge this in the book's epilogue, with the promise that the story remains to be continued. Another drawback is that the book's first few chapters, which give an account of the birth of our sun and the emergence of our planet, are not quite convincing - emphasizing poetic eloquence perhaps somewhat to the detriment of giving a clear account.

Despite the drawbacks this is recommended reading, along with Sagan's "The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence." Sagan may have his share of detractors but his ability in making science accessible was commendable.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2001
I read through some of the other reviews and the negative ones are correct in that this is not a text book. But unlike my biology text books from college, I read this book in three days flat. Why? Because Druyan and Sagan's style is so enthralling, once you pick it up, you can't put it down. No, this is not a text book in any sense of the word. What it is, is enlightening and I recommend it for anyone with three digits in their IQ. You have to love these two authors for being at the vanguard of those who believe all life is sacred. "Partly because of the perceived difficulty of doing clean, controlled, non-anecdotal experiments on so emotional a being as a chimpanzee, finanacial support for many of these stuidies has nearly disappeared. In one case, the colony where apes had been taught Ameslan had fallen on hard times. Years had passed. Support was drying up. No one seemed interested in conversing with the chimps anymore. ... The inmates were about to be shipped to laboratories for medical experimentation. Before the end, they were vistied by two people who had known them in the old days. 'What do you want?' the visitors asked in Amselan. 'Key,' two chimps ... signed back from behind the bars, one after another. 'Key.' They wanted out They wanted to escape. Their request was not granted."
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
It seems unlikely that any reader of these words can be unfamiliar with Carl Sagan's extensive body of work. He was virtually without peer as a popularizer of scientific thought in our era. His public television presence as a highbrow Mr. Wizard, will be in re-runs long into the future. CONTACT, the movie version of his novel concerning a future link to other intelligences has given his thinking a pop-cultural spin. Less visible to the lay public is his brilliant scientific career, with expertise in biology and astronomy that made him a key player in NASA's Mariner, Viking and Voyager space missions -- searching for evidence of life out there. This volume is just one more piece of his puzzle, and a wonderful one. Writing with Ann Druyan, who also co-wrote the Cosmos television series, Sagan here explores the story of our beginnings. From life's emergence the authors trace the threads of chemistry and biology that have come together as the human species. The emphasis is everywhere on transition -- the constancy of change. Numerous chapters conclude with boxed quotes labelled "On Impermanence," eloquent reminders of that theme. We are too short-lived and too little informed of our parentage beyond a few or several generations back to be much more than orphans in a basket on the planet's doorstep, the authors posit. This is their exploration for roots. Intriguing hints fly in from the past. Testosterone, androgen and estrogen have the same effects on birds, ants, lizards, mice and men and women. Old, old hormones, cooked up by DNA way back where all our family trees unite. Dominance and submission are the tools of social organization in chickens, komodo dragons and elk. A little xenophobia is good for genetic diversity, but too much brings failure due to incest, so the mating of occasional Romeos and Juliets is excellent for both family's gene pools. Over-specialization is every bit as hazardous as over-generalization in the game of survival. If you are too perfectly suited to your niche your kind can be wiped out by small changes -- if you are too widely adaptable you may never find a niche in which to prosper. Yin and Yang. SHADOWS contains the clearest explanation I have encountered of why and how evolution works its relentless magic. (This book should be required reading for members of the Kansas School Board. Assumption of literacy on their part is just a wild guess -- maybe a hireling could read it aloud at their meetings?) A short summation will suffer from brevity, but here goes: The genetic codes which control development are incredibly long sequences composed of just four different molecular building blocks which are read-off in groups of three. It is the order of the molecules that creates the message (just as in our language where the orderly arrangement of any of 26 letters creates meaningful words.) Only a small portion of the genetic information in a cell is actually used; a lot of it is ignored (again due to parts of the message which say "read this" or "ignore this.") Mutations involve accidental re-ordering of the letters, and again, as in language, most produce nonsense words. Mutations in "read this" sections usually result in failure of an organism but very occasionally make it more fit for survival and the improvement is passed on. Mutations in the "ignore this" sections can persist for generations without harm until a mutation in the instruction to "read this" occurs. Suddenly new possibilities are made available (rediscovery of an ancient text), again with some successful and many failing. This results in what is now called "punctuated equilibrium" which suggests that evolution occurs in fits and starts, triggered most often by large scale environmental change and modification of the "read this" instruction set. Okay, I tried. Read the book. Excellent. Far deeper and lots wider than I can adequately describe in a brief review.
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