Review of The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal
by Jared Diamond
As I began reading The Third Chimpanzee, a little voice in my head told me that I should stop reading books by Jared Diamond. His subsequent three popular science books all have their origins in this one; I began with Guns, Germs, and Steel and then read Collapse. So reading The Third Chimpanzee was sort of like getting a summary of those two books, plus the one I haven't read yet. Thus, I sought out to determine if the latter books suffered because they were too long an exploration of Diamond's ideas, or if they are superior to his original formulation of arguments concerning those three subjects. The shocking answer will soon be revealed!
Caveat: parts of this book are now dated, as it was written nearly twenty years ago. Hence, while I usually find Harper's "P.S." sections boring, this one was useful because it allowed Diamond to update us on some of the advances in science and historical discoveries since the book was first published.
My reaction to this book is probably the most mixed reaction I've had to any of Diamond's books thus far. As the aforementioned "P.S." author interview says, Diamond's life as a modern scientific polymath stems from a desire not to be confined to "one tiny slice of life's palette." He began as a physiological researcher and has since distinguished himself for writing on subjects like ornithology, anthropology, history, and geography, earning him the title of "biogeographer." I applaud Diamond for his varied interests and ability to apply those interests and synthesize an argument about human development from multiple disciplines. However, it's important that the reader remember that Diamond isn't a geneticist, astronomer, anthropologist, etc. And sometimes, he overreaches himself when attempting to apply his considerable life experience to his arguments. Oh, and he also tries to be witty and . . . well, once and a while it works, but most of the time his attempts at humour fall flat.
In Part One, Diamond begins by examining how we differ from our closest relatives. There's a fancy chart that shows the estimated dates of evolutionary divergence from common ancestors (gibbons and orangutans split off earlier, then gorillas, then chimpanzees and humans finally went their separate ways around 7 million years ago). Still, the human genome and chimp genome are 98 per cent similar, and Diamond argues that this is enough of a similarity that humanity should constitute the "third chimpanzee." He then postulates that the rise of complex spoken language was the cause of the anthropological "Great Leap Forward" that allowed humans to begin developing the behaviour required for societies to arise. This is the "teaser" part of the book, in which Diamond whets our appetite for details he'll later reveal. He also makes a one-off attempt to plead for the cessation of medical experimentation on chimpanzees, implying that because we are—in his view—of the same genus, it's just as bad as experimenting on humans. Regardless of one's views on the subject, Diamond raises an interesting point . . . and then doesn't return to it at any subsequent moment in the book.
Next, Diamond looks at humans' anomalous "life cycle" compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, particularly primates. Humans are the only primates in which the women go through menopause and cease being fertile. Chimpanzee males have larger testicles than human males because chimpanzee males mate so frequently they need the extra sperm, but most couplings last only seconds! I've always been interested in how our different sexual characteristics have helped humanity rise to its present status on the planet, so I loved this part of the book. Furthermore, unlike some later parts, Diamond remains on firm ground when he seeks evolutionary explanations for human sexual behaviour.
That ground becomes progressively shakier in Part Three, perhaps the worst of the five parts to Diamond's book. Here, he examines aspects of human society that are uniquely developed—the two most notable examples are art and drug abuse. Unfortunately, Diamond over-extends his attempts to explain these behaviours purely from an evolutionary perspective. Is this because evolution can't solely explain them? Or is this merely a failure on Diamond's part as thinker? It's a little of both, in my opinion: Diamond is great at synthesizing disparate sources of information to create a compelling thesis; unfortunately, as he does so, he tends to get somewhat reductionist in his perspective. While his argument is not wrong, it is at the very least incomplete, which still makes it flawed.
I was annoyed when, in the chapter on extraterrestrial life, Diamond began to explain why it's not necessarily likely that an advanced species would develop radio:
You might object that I'm being too stringent in looking for early precursors of radios themselves, when I should instead look for just the two qualities necessary to make radios: intelligence and mechanical dexterity. But the situation there is little more encouraging. Based on the very recent evolutionary experience of our own species, we arrogantly assume intelligence and dexterity to be the best way of taking over the world, and to have evolved inevitably.
Now, I actually agree with the latter part of that quotation. The fact that, on Earth, so far humans are the only form of life to have developed what we term "intelligence" indicates it may not be the only path to global domination. After all, prior to their extinction, the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and they were certainly dumb by our standards. Still, Diamond is short-sighted; he wrongly assumes that intelligence or dexterity are prerequisites to leveraging radio. They're prerequisites in the invention and construction of mechanical radio transmitters and receivers, sure. "Radio" itself is a medium; radio waves constitute part of the electromagnetic spectrum of radiation. Just as many species have independently evolved eyes to see visual light (and some species can see into other spectra), what's to stop a species on another planet from evolving a radio transceiver organ? Perhaps the absence of any such creature on Earth would make such an evolutionary development unlikely, at least on Earth-like planets. However, not every habitable planet has to be exactly Earth-like. Maybe there exists conditions on another planet where the evolution of biological radio makes sense. This is a totally hypothetical, spontaneous scenario, but I hope it demonstrates my problem with Diamond's reasoning. In an effort to produce the best arguments possible, he often generalizes or focuses too narrowly on subjects beyond his best areas of knowledge.
In Parts Four and Five, Diamond explores the seeds of the ideas that would turn into two of his later books, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. Since I've already read these books, I have to admit I skimmed a great deal of these sections. The chapter on language was interesting, but I had already learned much the same from the more recent Before the Dawn. If you read a great deal of anthropological non-fiction, you too may find these sections less-than-fascinating. The one exception is Chapter 17, "The Golden Age That Never Was."
Thank you, Mr. Diamond, for that chapter. It irks me to no end when I hear someone talk about the "good ol' days" of human society, some sort of pastoral paradise where everyone was happy and we experienced no strife. The idea that simpler times were better times is a myth, one that Diamond thoroughly discredits in this chapter. He shows us that people, for the most part, have perpetrated the same sort of acts in the past as we see happening now—the difference is one of degree. Modern technology allows us to expand the scale and speed with which we create problems, making us more efficient at marshalling chaos. Unfortunately, Pandora's box has been opened, and there's no going back. Diamond comes to the same conclusion and so focuses on what hope we might have for the future of our spaces, however slim.
As with Collapse, Diamond broadcasts a message of cautious optimism. We may be able to survive, provided we as a society "choose" to begin living in a way that's more sustainable. He's vague on the details, claiming that his book is "an analysis" of our problems rather than a laundry-list of potential solutions. The solutions, he maintains, are already well-known; we just have to choose to implement them. While that sort of rhetoric isn't very appealing to me, I understand Diamond's difficulty in writing prescriptions. Nevertheless, that call for optimism is less effective in such an unhelpful context.
Right from the start of The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond was up front about his mad love for New Guinea and its peoples and his opinion that it's somehow a microcosm for the development of society. Those who have read my review of Guns, Germs, and Steel know how I got tired of hearing that line. Paradoxically, the New Guineans feature more heavily in this book, but I found their inclusion both more tolerable and more interesting. I actually learned things about New Guinea that made me exclaim, "Oh, that's cool!" rather than roll my eyes and snort, "Right, OK Diamond. Whatever you say." My experience with The Third Chimpanzee has therefore provoked the least amount of sarcasm from me regarding Jared Diamond's writing. It is both the best and the worst of his work: where it is flawed, it is more flawed; where it is useful, it is far more useful. If you read one Jared Diamond book, this should be the one.
And there's the rub. It's difficult to write popular science books. There's a fine line between intelligent and esoteric, between academically rigorous and overly-complicated. Diamond has undertaken a challenge, and for that I respect him; at least he isn't writing puff pieces. For the majority of people, The Third Chimpanzee is worthy of dinner table conversation or book group discussion; it's a great starting point in the quest to read anthropological non-fiction. It is not the culmination of that quest, but a stepping stone along the way to more rigorous, more intense non-fiction on this subject. And that's all it can be.