Two Cosmic Explorers Investigate the World Within Us

17:25 minutes

Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan. Photo by Tony Korody, courtesy of Druyan-Sagan Associates, Inc.
Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan. Photo by Tony Korody, courtesy of Druyan-Sagan Associates, Inc.

In this archival interview from October 9, 1992, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan talk about their book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are, an investigation of our human origins. Sagan and Druyan discussed human prejudice and distrust of other cultures in the context of the Cold War and the presidential election of 1992. But many of the conversation’s themes about fear and xenophobia seem just as applicable today.

Segment Guests

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan authored The Demon-Haunted World (Random House, 1995), among other books, and was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Ann Druyan

Ann Druyan was the Creative Director of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project. She’s a co-writer for COSMOS: A Personal Voyage and creator of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey. She’s based in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. For the rest of the hour, we’re going back to October 9, 1992 to revisit an interview with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. They join me to talk about their book “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: a Search for Who We Are.” And in it, they explore the origins of our human nature, our prejudices, and why we fear– and sometimes despise– other cultures.

And even though this conversation is almost 25 years old, it’s a conversation that seems to fit right in today, and gives a little insight– scientific insight– about why we humans act the way that we do. One of our pet topics of discussion on Science Friday is origins. Where do we come from, who our ancestral parents were. In that vain, we’ve enjoyed the company of guests such as Niles Eldridge, Jared Diamond, E. O. Wilson, Barbara Smuts.

In this hour, we add two more. They’re authors of a new book entitled “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: a Search for Who We Are,” published by Random House. I think you might recognize their names. Let me introduce them. Dr. Carl Sagan is the David Duncan professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University. He’s also the director of the university’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies.

Dr. Sagan has played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking, and Voyager spacecraft expeditions to the planets. He wrote the book “Cosmos” and, along with his wife Ann Druyan, turned it into an Emmy Award-winning television series. Dr. Sagan joins us from member station KUSC. Welcome to the program.

CARL SAGAN: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: With him in the studio is Ann Druyan, the Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists. Ms. Druyan was the creative director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Record Project. You may remember that record that was put on the Voyager. And so, she’s responsible for sending rock-and-roll to the stars, and she has served as a writer-producer of PBS’s NOVA. Welcome to you, Ms. Druyan.

ANN DRUYAN: Ira, it’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, goodness. So early in the program– thank you very, very much– it would be an understatement to say that you two have really taken a large ambition with this book, “The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.” It encompasses cosmology, evolutionary biology, anthropology. Give us a little background. What did you set out to do, when you first started researching this book?

CARL SAGAN: This book came out of a frustration and a sense of worry that Annie and I had in the early 1980s. Not just a world in which the United States and Soviet Union were at each other’s throats, with 60,000 nuclear weapons at the ready, but also spreading ethnic hostilities, and the incompetent leaders, and declining educational standards, and a sense that the world was getting to be too much for us humans. That some catastrophe might be around the corner.

And we set out, in part, just for our own curiosity and concern, to try to understand the origins of these circumstances. And maybe we thought we would go back, I don’t know, to the time of the origin of the United States and the former Soviet Union. But we found that, the further back we went, we still didn’t find a moment when these propensities came into circulation in the human species.

We went back to early recorded history, but we were the same people then. We went back to the before the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals, the beginning of civilization, but we were the same people then. And indeed, as far as we can tell, back to the earliest human beings on earth. And that still wasn’t the time that these propensities came into us.

We found that we had to get into deep time, into a time before humans had ever set foot on the earth. To look at our primate, and even earlier, ancestors to understand how we got into this mess.

IRA FLATOW: And these ancestors, then, are the shadows that you talk about in the title “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors?”

ANN DRUYAN: Well, exactly. They are the influences and the forces that we carry within us, without any consciousness of their effect upon us. We do not say that their influence is our destiny. We feel that we have many capabilities to overcome, in some cases, those inheritances which do not service anymore. And in other instances, there are some very valuable traits– the traits of compassion, of ethics, of consciousness– that we’ve inherited from them, and that we’re not cognizant of our debt to them, in that sense.

CARL SAGAN: Just to amplify a little bit more, almost everywhere we look on the earth, especially the dominant human societies, we can see ethnocentrism. Our group, whichever it is, is terrific and wonderful, the Apple of God’s eye. Xenophobia. Those other groups, they are disgusting, beneath contempt. They deserve hostility. Sexism. Women should be kept in their place, and they have no right being uppity, and they should do whatever we men say. Dominance hierarchies, which especially fascinate men. The alpha male, we should show reverence and obedience to, but those lower down in the hierarchy from me I can kick around all I want.

That mix, which seems so prevalent, so human, it didn’t have to be. You could very well imagine a species without those feelings and propensities. The question that we tried to address is how did those propensities get in us? What role do they serve, and how pre-determining are they? And that, as we say, took us back well before the origin of the human species.

IRA FLATOW: You say many of these things, then, are hardwired into us.

CARL SAGAN: Hardwired, but not in the sense, Ira, of being pre-determining. A way of looking at is we have a variety of different inclinations and propensities, and the most superficial introspection shows that we have warring tendencies. And society places a kind of a stencil on this range of propensities, and where the little cut-outs are in the stencils, some propensities are permitted to be expressed. Where there are no cut-outs, other propensities are suppressed.

Different society lays a difference stencil down, different set of cut-outs, different set of permissible propensities. And our job is not to wipe out propensities, but to arrange the stencils, to design societies so that the best in us is brought out, and those propensities that served their role 100,000 or a million years ago, but that are archaic and counterproductive now, do not take over.

IRA FLATOW: You spend a lot of time in the book showing just how similar we are to our ancestors or other animals that are still around today. We’ve had other anthropologists coming on the program who’ve told us how closely we are related to chimpanzees, and I think you pointed out in your book the same. 1.6% difference in the genetic material between we and the chimpanzees.

And you also point out that we have to look at, maybe, possible normal behavior in these other animals as maybe being normal behavior in ourselves too. Would that be fair?

ANN DRUYAN: That is fair. But, of course, there are some differences between us and the chimpanzees. We are a little smarter. Our brains are a little larger. And so there’s room for, I think, somewhat more ad-libbing. But yes, we would be foolish– some figures say that we share as high as 99.6% of our active genes with chimpanzees. We are closer to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas, than horses are to donkeys.

And so, while there’s some traditional human repugnance at recognizing our similarities and what we have in common, it’s the height of foolishness not to want to study them closely, to get better insight into why we do the things we do. And once you do begin to study them, everything, all human enterprises, become so dramatically different, and you have a wholly different perspective on who we are.

I found this very, very true in this recent political season. Watching how some candidates are trying to push those ancient primate buttons, to get us to be more concerned about team spirit, for instance, and patriotism than the challenges that we face. So unless we’re aware of how those buttons work and the cynicism of those who push them, then we’re just putty in their hands.

IRA FLATOW: And there’s a chapter in your book called “What is Human?” And there’s an interesting– you throw out sort of a rhetorical question that says, is there anything we do that’s uniquely human, that all or almost all of us, of every culture throughout history, do that no other animal does? You might think something along these lines would be easy to find, but the subject is redolent self-deception. We have too much at stake in this answer to be unbiased.

Do I take that to mean that you really could not find anything uniquely human, that us as animals do, that other animals don’t do?

ANN DRUYAN: Yes, that’s what we’ve found. Every philosopher judged great in our tradition, going back to Plato and Aristotle, Kant, Rousseau, everyone in between, they all agreed on one thing. They said man is the measure of all things, man is the only species that has politics, religion, ethics, art. And these vaunted claims for superiority all fall, in the face of scientific study, and so we’re left with differences in degree rather than differences in kind. A close, dispassionate study of our fellow primates reveals them to be rich in many of the qualities that we are so proud of.

IRA FLATOW: Give me an example. For example, religion. Do primates create gods and religions and idols, and things like that?

CARL SAGAN: Well, you have to ask, what are we talking about when we say religion? Certainly the dominance hierarchy, which so transfixes chimp society, involves something very akin to worship of the alpha male. Abasement before him, willingness to do anything to please him.

IRA FLATOW: But you could say that about your boss, also.

CARL SAGAN: If only he will touch me, I will be reassured. And this is a degree of groveling and abasement that is even beyond what most religions today require of their adherents. Although, back in earlier times, this kind of institutionalized submission was much more common, not just in religion but in secular life, before the absolute monarch.

Religions, certainly, are more than abasement before a powerful being. But it’s hard not to ask the question about whether beings who are geared and pre-wired for such a dominance hierarchy, who, moreover, live in circumstances in which there’s an enormous disparity in power, do not feel something akin to religious impulses. And in any case, it’s very hard– until we’re able to interrogate chimpanzees to a much better degree than we are today– to be sure that they don’t have something like religion.

IRA FLATOW: We’re listening to an archival interview with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, recorded on Science Friday in October of 1992. I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

Your critics will– and some of them already have– said that you’re in danger, here, of anthropomorphizing these animals.

CARL SAGAN: Yeah, but there’s a bigger danger of neglecting our close relationships. The fear of anthropomorphizing– that is, putting human characteristics on other animals who are, in fact, very different– there is such a danger. But the opposite danger, of pretending that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and the other animals, seems to us more serious. It plays into human vanity, our wish to be special, our wish to be different, our wish to be the Apple of God’s eye. And that kind of conceit and arrogance has caused us– not just in the global-ecological catastrophe, but in many other areas– has caused us great mischief.

And we have– in going through the pronouncements of the great philosophers and many, many other scientists on this issue– have been astonished how often, with absolute authority and assurance, we’ve been told that we humans are different, better, superior than the other animals, only to find the data shows something just the opposite. Tool using, tool making, self-consciousness, propensity for language, the widest range of capabilities that we have imagined only we had and you didn’t have a smidgen of in other animals, all that turns out to be wrong.

IRA FLATOW: My guests this hour are Dr. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. They’re authors of a new book, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: a Search for Who We Are.” Let’s go to the phones to Bob in California. Go ahead, Bob.

BOB: Yeah, howdy.


BOB: For a long, long time, there’s been an argument, what’s pre-determined? What does society do to a person? How do you change that? But I was just interested in finding out what the authors views was, OK, now what? What are we going to do with this information?

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s ask them. Who wants to take a crack on, now what do we do with this knowledge?

ANN DRUYAN: Well, knowledge is power. And when we’re, let’s say, in the election right now, when we are appealed to, when those ancient components in ourselves are appealed to in an effort to distract us from the real problems that we face, we can have one of many reactions. We can say yes, we can look at Pat Buchanan, for instance, when he’s telling us that we should put women back in their place, and we should hate homosexuals, and we should be proud of our particular little troop and have disdain for the other troops.

We can either say, way to go, Pat, this is something God-given, and it’s the way it’s got to be, or we can understand that this is a kind of attempt to manipulate us, to divide us, to distract us from the real issues that we face. I think that what we discovered, in the course of researching and writing this book, has really affected our way of thinking, and has given us not only a sense that we now recognize the Pat Buchanan within ourselves, and those impulses, but also that we come away with it with a much greater sense of hope that human beings have the capacity, as Carl’s stencil analogy illustrates, to encourage some of these predispositions and to discourage others of them.

And so when you say, so what? Well, you can say so what if we get a message from a distant civilization? There’s a kind of “so what” component or response to any answer. But I think it’s more likely that you’re going to feel, wow, there’s more life in the universe. There are other beings out there. It’s possible for civilizations to survive their technological adolescence. And the same with what we’ve discovered, that it’s possible to know ourselves, to see ourselves as a part of the fabric of nature, and to act– with that knowledge– to act with wisdom and perspective.

IRA FLATOW: That’s about the last comment we have for today. I want to thank my guests, Dr. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. They’re authors of a new book entitled “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: a Search for Who We Are.” That was Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan recorded on Science Friday on October 9, 1992. We’re going to be revisiting more of these historic conversations throughout the year. It’s our 25th anniversary year, and we’re going to be bringing some of these old gems back to life.

That’s about all the time we have. BJ Leiderman composed our theme music. Our thanks to our production partners at the studios of the City University of New York. If you like us, like us on Facebook, and you can continue a week-long discussion on Twitter, @SciFri. If you’d like to write us, please send your letters to Science Friday, 19 West 44th Street, room 412, New York, New York, 10036. And you can email us, of course. The address is scifri@sciencefriday.com. Have a happy new year. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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