The Book of Monkeys and Men

July 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (Diamond, Jared)

This book took me an annoyingly inordinate amount of time to work through, not because it is unreadable, but because I was distracted with other things, and because it was the third pop science book I was reading in the last three months. Frankly, I need a break from the genre.

Like Matt Ridley (in Red Queen, reviewed here), Diamond tries to explain how we got to be this way as a species, and like Carl Sagan (in Demon-Haunted World, reviewed here), he gets all preachy about where we would end up if we remained on this trajectory. All three books were published in the 1990’s. Like Ridley and Sagan, Diamond is a polymath and employs a multi-disciplinary approach to illustrate his points, but unlike the other two, the weapons of Diamond’s choice are anthropology, paleo-linguistics and sociology – fields that are closer to my heart than Ridley’s genetics or Sagan’s exobiology. In fact, the most boring part of Diamond’s book, for me, was the one where he expounds on the evolution of sexual preferences, and the part that I found most puzzling was his somewhat bizarre argument about why we are unlikely to ever make radio contact with aliens.

Meet Cousin Bonobo (Cincinnati Zoo. Photo by Greg Hume. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The rest of the book makes for fascinating reading, as Diamond traces the history of the human species, of the Proto-Indo-European language, of agriculture, and even of genocide. The topics don’t necessarily flow from each other, so each part reads like a stand-alone essay. Most of it is conjecture, and hotly contested conjecture at that, but plausible conjecture nevertheless; some of it has even been disproved since the book was published (like his opinion that the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals didn’t interbreed) but at all times, he makes sure he makes us aware of alternative hypotheses as well. He is at his authoritative best when he speaks, from deep personal experience, of the pre-modern societies of New Guinea – one respects people who are more than armchair theoreticians (unlike oneself) – and he is bravest when he talks about the extermination of the native Americans by the European settlers, and how the matter is glossed over and finessed in the popular memory these days. Of all his theories, I think I will remember best his disturbingly universal rules of genocide, applicable to all civilizations in human history, and indeed, to other species as well.

And so, Diamond concludes hurriedly in the last section, in somewhat non-sequitor fashion but nevertheless not inaccurately, environmental conservation is an urgent imperative, and we must rush to the aid of endangered animal, bird and plant species worldwide if we wish not to become extinct ourselves. As elsewhere in the book, Diamond’s flow of logic is difficult to comprehend, but his conclusions are hard to argue with.


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