Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond

Fascinating book! A little dense so it took me a few days to read, but really interesting. In fact, since I started reading this book it seems like every other story I hear on the radio is about evolution, some are even on some of the exact topics in this book (which would be less weird if this book just came out but it was published in 1992.)

What convinced me to read it was a tidbit about how one of the very, very few things that are unique to humans is our desire to have sex alone, in private. Most animals do it in public, surrounded by their peers. Sadly, Dr. Diamond doesn't have a really cool explanation beyond that it likely increases the bond between partners which is crucial for raising human children, as they take so friggin long to raise. But meanwhile, I got all sorts of other neat tidbits of info: why are "bad boys" so attractive? Do other animals use drugs? Was farming the beginning of the end for humans? How/when/where did we develop language?

Basically this book isn't just about evolution as a fact. It's about the why behind it. Why did humans develop certain abilities, skills, or predilections and how were those things useful to us? Some are quite obvious such as domesticating animals, but others aren't such as murder. He looks at other species for answers which usually demonstrates how things we think are unique to humans really aren't, and it shows how truly useful ideas develop more than once. (Ants actually raise aphids like we raise cattle.)

Another undercurrent throughout the books is how we have evolved to the point where we can now destroy ourselves and the whole world. Several times Dr. Diamond mentions his sons, and how he's worried about the future they're inheriting. Reading the book 18 years after publication gives these arguments both more weight and less. The likelihood of nuclear war has lessened, while climate change has accelerated. I would be very interested if they added a new afterward in a newer edition. I wonder what Dr. Diamond thinks of the world today.
Interestingly, I came away from this book thinking how much like animals humans are (only 2% difference in DNA between us and chimpanzees). I told my friend T. about it, and she thought of the opposite - how much like humans animals are. (Yes, she is a big PETA supporter.) J. who recommended it was more interested in the history of the human being. It has a broad appeal and many people will get different things out of it.
This book will stay with me for quite a while. Whenever I see someone smoking, guys getting into a fight, or a woman being hit on in a bar, I will think of different aspects of Dr. Diamond's theories, and how pretty much everything we do is in an unconscious effort to pass along our genes.

1 comment:

Carin said...

This sounds really interesting. I did enjoy Guns, Germs, and Steel so I'll add this to my list. I like books that make you more aware of the world around you. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell did that for me and this one looks like it might have a similar impact on me!