What are we celebrating?

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

A few years ago I witnessed one particular religious festivity - the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in Spain - I was moved and yet saddened because as a non believer I didn't feel I belonged.

At the time I was reading a book about the history of life and it was the combination of these two experiences that led to the Ancestor's Trail.

Even If you haven't seen the BBC's 'who do you think you are?', you'll be aware how popular ancestry has become.The show takes its viewers in search of ancient ancestors. 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 of course David Attenborough. In championing the cause of wildlife conservation he noted that once people see themselves as part of nature they are far more likely to get directly involved in it's protection.
This event builds on exactly that premise.
When we see nature in action - a lion killing a zebra, or a spider eating a fly - it can seem cruel. The Ancestor's Trail celebrates 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 many, 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 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 are 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 not so good at all. In fact they were worse - much worse. Like today's children, the adults of yesteryear were simply not yet educated in empathy and as a result horrible suffering was commonplace with for instance 100,000 dying accused of witchcraft, their deaths drawing enormous crowds to cheer on the action.

Going back to even earlier history, proportionally, the numbers dying violent deaths was probablyeven 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 and human charities - given that 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.