“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?”
The family tree of each of us is graced by all those great inventors: the beings who first tried out self-replication, the manufacture of protein machine tools, the cell, cooperation, predation, symbiosis, photosynthesis, breathing oxygen, sex, hormones, brains, and all the rest–inventions we use, some of them, minute-by-minute without ever wondering who devised them and how much we owe to these unknown benefactors, in a chain 100 billion links long.
…There we can also find friendship, altruism, love, fidelity, courage, intelligence, invention, curiosity, forethought, and a host of other characteristics that we humans should be glad to have in greater measure. Those who deny or decry our “animal” natures underestimate what those natures are.
We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. … The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.
Learning by doing is–in science and technology, as in many other human activities–much more effective than learning by rote. Knowing … that a problem exists and can be solved with the tools at hand is most of the battle.
If we have not much peered into the hearts and minds of other species and have not even studied them carefully, we may impute to them virtues and strengths as well as vices and deficiencies that in fact they lack. Consider this bit of verse by the poet Walt Whitman:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so
placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania
of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
On the basis of the evidence presented in this book, we doubt if any of Whitman’s six purported differences between other animals and humans is true–at least given a little poetic license; that is, in the spirit if not the letter of the poem.
When chimpanzees born in the wild were confronted with a full-length mirror, at first–like other animals–they thought the reflection was someone else. But within a few days they had it figured out. Then, they’d use the mirror to preen, and to examine inaccessible parts of themselves, looking over their shoulders to view their backs, for example. … Watching themselves in the mirror wearing hats is also a wildly popular and apparently gripping experience.
A deity responsible on a case-by-case basis for precision injection of souls into this immense host of tiny creatures over the full range of geological time would be a very fussy as well as a very inefficient creator. Why not design it right from the beginning, and let life run by itself? Would the god responsible for the subtle, elegant, and universally applicable laws of physics do such slapdash, error-ridden, journeyman work in biology–requiring hands-on attention to every pathetic little microbe when they already know perfectly well how to reproduce themselves and vast stores of information?
An early Algerian myth held that long ago apes could talk, but were rendered mute for their transgressions by the gods. There are many similar stories in Africa and elsewhere. In another widespread African story, apes can talk, but prudently refuse to do so–because talking apes, their intelligence in this way made manifest, will be put to work by humans. Their silence is proof of their intelligence.
Imo was a primate genius, an Archimedes or an Edison among the macaques. Her inventions spread slowly; macaque society, like traditional human societies, is very conservative. … As is usually true, adult males were the slowest to catch on, obstinate to the last; a female invented the process, other females copied her, and then it was taken up by youngsters of both sexes. Eventually, infants learned it at their mother’s knee. The reluctance of the adult males must tell us something. They are fiercely competitive and hierarchy-ridden. They are not much given to friendships or even to alliances. Perhaps they felt impending humiliation–if they were to imitate Imo, they would be following her lead, becoming in some sense subservient to her, and thereby losing dominance status. They would rather eat sand.