Along with Machiavelli's trust in the masses comes his contention that every person left to his or her own devices will do evil. This is more or less what I was taught in ninth grade about William Golding's Lord of the Flies: that it stood Thoreau and company on their heads, and asserted that civilization makes people good and that stripped of it, they become brutes. So I decided to have another look at it, given that my reactions to most works of art have changed since I was twelve. This time around, I was much less impressed with the book (at the time, a book full of so many capital-S Symbols was a nifty new thing.) For one thing, I've learned that Flies's long, impenetrable descriptive passages are not endemic to all literature. I was also surprised to note how shallow and unsubtle the themes were — I'd remembered the conversation between Simon and the pig's head to be more involved than what's actually there, and hadn't noticed the extent to which Golding's message is explicitly spelled out in many places (Roger and the rocks, say.) Feh, I say.
Casting about for what to read next, I decided to continue on the theme of human behavior and the extent to which "evil" is hardwired — and if so, why — and reread Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Now, this, this is a book. Humbly beginning with the formation of the solar system, this book traces the history of Earth life from the origin of nucleotides to the development of sex a billion years ago all the way up through the primates, including an extended look at humanity's closest kin, the chimpanzee. And I don't think there's a sentence in the book that's less than fascinating. Sagan's greatness lay in the fact that, one, he was genuinely concerned with conveying the ideas to his audience, wanting them to thoroughly understand the topics he was discussing rather than just bundling up the information for the readers to puzzle out (as is so often the case in academia), and two, he was absolutely brilliant at doing so. His explanations are at once lyrical and lucid, so that we understand him effortlessly without once feeling as if we're being talked down to. So as you read one of his books, you both learn stuff and feel like you're really good at picking up this difficult stuff, and come away feeling really smart. Contrast this to the regrettably large number of authors who seem intent on having you come away from their books feeling like they're really smart.
But Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors has a greater purpose than just filling in the public on some of zoology's greatest hits; Sagan and Druyan return again and again to the question of how the phenomena they're discussing affect the behavior of the organisms the phenomena are working upon. And of course it's hard to miss that we are also organisms acted upon by the same phenomena, every bit as much a product of natural selection as any other lifeform on the planet, and that many of our drives and desires are the products of statistical sifting. The book also takes up the questions of what it means to be conscious, what it means to be sentient, and what if anything sets humans apart from the other animals; one of the most wonderful chapters is that in which Sagan and Druyan offer up page after page of the things philosophers have asserted that humans do and animals don't (ask questions, remember and refer to past experiences, recognize their reflections, and on and on), calmly knocking each one down with an avalanche of scientific evidence that at least some animals do every one of those things. All these wannabe Aristotles, making stuff up in their living rooms instead of actually going out and researching the subjects they're declaiming upon, and all of them just flat-out wrong — it's a beautiful thing.
And this is a marvelous book. It's truly a shame that Sagan's untimely death prevented its planned sequels — one about the genus Homo from its origin to the beginnings of civilization, another about the earliest human civilizations — will now never see print.