Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors:
The Search for Who We Are
I love books that elucidate scientific thinking in terms that I can understand. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, written by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, begins discussing genealogy, a popular subject in this State. How many preceding generations do you have personal knowledge of? Do you know even the names of your progenitors three generations removed? Five generations? Some of us might be able to answer affirmatively, but how about 50 generations or 500 generations? We do not remember these ancestors but they are part of us, our genetic code comes directly from them and their forebears.
Our DNA contains the history of millions of years of evolution. Only a small fraction of our genetic code is actually used to define us as individuals. About 97% of our DNA is “throw-away”, evidence of past tried and failed or no longer necessary experiments. All animals have about the same percentage of nonsense DNA and all share large common sequences of functional nucleotide. This is compelling evidence all organisms can be judged by similarity of current DNA sequences. Modern human’s closest relative is the chimpanzee. “If the sequences of humans and chimpanzees are compared nucleotide by nucleotide, they differ only by l.7%. Humans and gorillas differ by 1.8%; humans and orangutans, 3.3%; humans and gibbons, 4.3%; humans and rhesus monkeys, 7%; humans and lemurs, 22.6%.
There are some very interesting insights into the character and life of Charles Darwin in the book. Included are some of Darwin’s contemporary’s criticisms of his work. They rejected his ideas “…not because the evidence was against it, but because of where it led: seemingly, to a world in which humans were degraded, souls denied, God and morality scorned, and monkeys, worms, and primeval ooze elevated; ‘a system uncaring of man.’ Thomas Carlyle called it ‘a Gospel of dirt.'” (p.63)
A large portion of the book deals with Psychological and Sociological studies of animals. In the middle of this section there is a fascinating chapter told from the point of view of a young female animal. She describes a typical day for her group that includes a mixture of fear and respect for the dominant male leader. Illicit liaisons with other males are acceptable as long as they are discrete. Indeed, when patrolling near their “borders” an occasional tryst with a male from a rival group is exciting and not particularly dangerous as long as one displays a reasonable amount of discretion. By the end of the chapter I was sure the subject was a modern day big-city gang and it’s social structure. Actually, the basis for the story was behavior of a wild troop of chimpanzees. The implication is clear. Group or gang behavior can be described in a large measure as a throw back to feelings and actions we all possess but have forgotten; a kind of reverse civilization.
The book is a wonderful marriage of traditional and social scientific knowledge presented in terms that most people can comprehend. It is well documented with extensive footnotes and a useful index. There are many quotes from intellectual luminaries spread throughout the work. I highly recommend the book as a pleasurable and informative experience.
Is There Anything Else You’d Like To Tell Us?
In the course of an extensive investigation designed, planned, and implemented with the cooperation of my colleagues from the Division of Medical Ethics at the LDS Hospital and University of Utah School of Medicine, we learned some surprising things about how family members feel treated during the course of their relative’s final illness. We set out to determine how the relatives of patients who died in Utah in 1992 believed their family member would have responded to an offer of physician-assisted death or euthanasia. The last question in our structured telephone interview was: “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”
Over 80% of the informants we contacted agreed to participate in our study. We interviewed over 1,400 survivors of patients who had died at least six months before our interview. While 90% of the individuals we talked to were satisfied with the medical care that their relative had received, their answers to our final question alerted us to a different issue that we had not systematically investigated. When we categorized these spontaneous responses under the headings: Involvement in Medical Care, Emotional Support for the Family, and Communication About the Patient’s Illness, we found that more of the responses were negative than positive. This is important, we believe, because family members help shape public opinion about medical care, and they may project some of the concerns they feel as relatives to a future situation in which they may be patients themselves.
We were pleased that many of them even offered constructive suggestions about how to solve some of the problems they experienced. They recognized that families need to be better educated about the medical facts of a patient’s case, that they need more frequent and more straight-forward communication from the medical professionals, and that they should be able to get some emotional support near the time of the patient’s death, and for some time thereafter.
We plan to share this information and insight with our fellow health professionals, and hope that it will lead to improvement in the care we give to patients and to a significant change in the care and attention we direct to their family members.
–Jay A. Jacobson, M.D.
Dr. Jacobson’s presentation was sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council.
How Does One Live Without Belief in a Hereafter?
The following was prepared from the article Afterlife, by Gerald A. Larue, Ph.D., published in Humanism Today, the Journal of the North American Committee for Humanism
If one observes everyday existence, the non-believer lives a life not too dissimilar from that of a believing neighbor. Non-believers make the same sort of choice in terms of life style. It is often assumed that without the restraints of the threat of punishment in an afterlife that a person would probably live a to-hell-with-everything-and-everybody life, greedily absorbing pleasures, ruthlessly exploiting others, indifferent to the future of humankind and the environment. Of course anyone can choose such a way of life, whether or not one believes in an afterlife.
On the other hand, a non-believer, a humanist, can choose to live this life to the full, seeking that which enhances the human spirit and contributes to the future. Art, music, the dance, the theater, great literature, glorious sunsets, magnificent forests, amazing wild life, beautiful fauna, and so on to enrich the soul and the mind. Warm companionship, love and friendship, work that contributes to human welfare enliven and give meaning to the precious moments of existence. Where there is pain and suffering, the caring person, whether or not he or she entertains belief in a future life, reaches out in compassion. Where others hunger and are in poverty, the full human responds as best he or she can. Morals, values and ethical principles are drawn from the highest and noblest dreams of philosophers, psychologists, poets and painters, realists and dreamers, theologians and skeptics, and most of all, lovers. The non-believer, the humanist, chooses, not out of fear of punishment but out of love and commitment to life, to living so that one feels within the self a sense of achievement and fulfillment, believing that because one is here and is committed, the world will, at death, be just a little better than it was at the individual’s birth.
What is different is that although the humanist path parallels that of the highest ethical concepts entertained by the great religions, the path is freely chosen because it is good and satisfying, rather than out of fear of consequences.
In other words, one may live a fine, meaning-filled life without belief in a hereafter. One chooses so to live with the only reward being an internal awareness and satisfaction experienced in the here and now.
Awaken Old Men!
A poem written in response to the talk by Paul and Margaret Toscano at a meeting of The Unitarian Fellowship of Provo last February. Paul’s story of his excommunication from the LDS Church was so touching, Nancy felt inclined to write this poem.
The old men grope for power that will never
be theirs again (save for the fading
faces of those who defer out of habit,
or a numbness of spirit).
They stumble over their own words and
Banishing the faithful who cry to be heard.
Awaken, old men of worn out creeds
and myopic myths!
Hear what your people are saying!
Feel what your people are feeling!
Do not silence them with your merciless decrees,
Or command blind obedience
like the fearful god of Abraham.
Listen to your soul!
Rebirth yourselves in the true wombs of humanity.
Mingle among those who love enough to be
critical of the stagnant ways of the past.
Dance with democracy,
for she is the mother of freedom,
and the daughter of equality.
Sing with the mixed chorus of humanity,
for its harmony will bring you joy!