Who Are We

Who are we?
The answer to this question is not only one of the tasks, but the task of science.

Erwin Schrodinger
Science and Humanism

Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we this way and not some other? What does it mean to be human? Are we capable, if need be, of fundamental change, or do the dead hands of forgotten ancestors impel us in some direction, indiscriminately for good or ill, and beyond our control? Can we alter our character? Can we improve our societies? Can we leave our children a world better than the one that was left to us? Can we free them from the demons that torment us and haunt our civilization? In the long run, are we wise enough to know what changes to make? Can we be trusted with our own future?

Many thoughtful people fear that our problems have become too big for us, that we are for reasons at the heart of human nature unable to deal with them, that we have lost our way, that the dominant political and religious ideologies are unable to halt an ominous, long-term drift in human affairs, – indeed, that they have helped cause that drift through rigidity, incompetence, and the inevitable corruption of power. Is this true; and if it is, can we do anything about it?

In attempting to understand who we are, every human culture has invented a corpus of myth. The contradictions within us are ascribed to a struggle between contending but equally matched deities; or to an imperfect Creator; or paradoxically, to a rebellious angel and the Almighty; or to an even more unequal struggle between an omnipotent being and disobedient humans. There are also those who hold that the gods have nothing to do with it. One of them, Nanrei Kobori, late Abbot of the Temple of the Shining Dragon, a Buddhist sanctuary in Kyoto, said to us

God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.

Had life and humans first come to be hundreds or even thousands of years ago, we might know most of what is important about our past. Bu instead our species is hundreds of thousands of years old. A vast chain of beings, human and non-human, connects each of us with our earliest predecessors. Only the most recent links are illuminated by the feeble searchlight of living memory. All of the others are plunged into varying degrees of darkness, more impenetrable the further from us they are in time.

Why concentrate on the past? Why upset ourselves with painful analogies between humans and beasts? Why not simply look to the future? These questions have an answer. If we do not know what we are capable of, – and not just a few celebrity saints and notorious war criminals, – then we do not know what to watch out for, which human propensities to encourage, and which to guard against. Then we haven’t a clue about which proposed courses of human action are realistic, and which are impractical and dangerous sentimentality.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan