What are we celebrating?

Many faiths celebrate their religious narratives through all manor of festivities. They bring joy and a sense of belonging to billions of people.

A few years ago I witnessed one particular religious festivity - the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in Spain. At the time I was reading a book about the history of life (Richard Dawkins' Ancestor's Tale).

It was the combination of these two experiences that led to the Ancestor's Trail.

The BBC's 'who do you think you are?' takes its viewers in search of ancient ancestors, and this, along with an explosion of family tree websites has propelled ancestry into the big time. Our event does exactly the same thing, tracing ancestors back in time - only we go much much much MUCH further back - so far in fact that you wouldn't think of the stars of our show as 'relatives' at all - but they are - just VERY distant ones.
I'm a naturalist and one of my heroes is, naturally enough, David Attenborough. In championing the cause of wildlife conservation he recognised that once people see themselves as 'part' of nature they are far more likely to get directly involved in it's protection. The Ancestor's Trail celebrates exactly this message demonstrating our belonging in nature.Yet it is common for people to feel uneasy about our origins through evolution. Even putting aside the fact that many prefer alternative creation stories, survival of the fittest tends to leave us flinching at the cruelty and suffering we see in nature.
The trail aims to present a different view on these truths.

In darker moments it is not uncommon to hear people talking about us being 'just animals' underneath, cruel and hardened for survival over millions of years. Survival has been a struggle for sure, but there is no need for the adjective 'cruel'. Only a tiny minority of humans are intentionally cruel - we classify them as mentally ill or recognise they have been cruelly treated themselves, or a combination of the two.

Most of us are exceptionally compassionate and nurturing - far more so than our cousins in the rest of nature.
And even for animals it's unfair to describe them as 'cruel'. I once found my 6 month old daughter pulling the legs off a daddylonglegs. I stopped her but it was obvious she wasn't being intensionally cruel. 23 years later she's about to start work as a radiotherapist and, like so many others, hasn't got a cruel bone in her body.
Most of us also understand that animals are equally innocent in their actions - incapable of empathy but certainly not intentionally cruel. For most adults our empathy is so highly tuned that we assume others - even animals -must be acting intentionally when we see suffering. It hurts us to see this. We recoil and sometimes despair in our own nature.

We need to be kinder to ourselves here. If you've ever had the misfortune to have someone close become seriously ill you'll likely have received a huge outpouring of compassion from friends and family - even strangers. There is no doubt humans can be incredibly compassionate and phenomenally co-operative. It has been argued that our success as a species is primarily down to our capacity to intelligently collaborate and cooperate.

But what about crime, violence, terrorism and wars? Aren't they everywhere around us?

Yes, but the important question is are we getting more or less violent as a species - in the long term?
Much has been written about this and many now feel that the 'good old days' were in fact far from good. Like today's children, the adults of yesteryear were simply not yet educated in empathy and as a result horrible suffering was commonplace. 100,000's died accused of witchcraft with their deaths drawing enormous crowds to cheer on the action.

Going back several 1000 years, proportionally, the numbers dying violent deaths seems to have been even higher.

I know I may struggle to persuade some of you that we are becoming more peaceful, but please read 'The better angels of our nature' by the great thinker Stephen Pinker if I've failed to convince you. I should point out that he does not shirk from including the terrible genocides of the last century in his analysis.

So in conclusion, we feel our trail is fully justified in CELEBRATING our roots in nature and our cousin ship with the rest of the life on earth.

We also want to reach out and support Biodiversity because evolution is one big Biodiversity machine generating all Life on Earth, including ourselves. The human role in the current Biodiversity crisis is hardly a cause for celebration, but we can celebrate our efforts to conserve life.

Nor am I denying the enormous challenges facing humanity as our population approaches double figure billions, but let's not forget that, along with every other life form alive today - we've made it - unlike the vast majority of species now extinct. You and I are incredibly successful beings- not ONE SINGLE ancestor of yours died before s/he first successfully reproduced, thus bringing your next nearest ancestor into the world. Viewed this way, inescapably, you personally represent 4 billion years of uninterrupted survival success. It'd be a crime not to celebrate such an achievement and celebrate we do on the Ancestor's Trail. Hope to see you there.

© 2018 Ancestor's Trail

Background photograph by Martin Morris