on September 4, 2003
Since I teach evolutionary psychology in college, I try to keep up with "popular" expositions of human evolution--both because my (better) students will have read them and because some of them make for good teaching tools. The first ten chapters of this book rank, in my opinion, as probably the best single account of what we really do and do not know about human evolution.
In these first ten chapters, Diamond gives us dispassionate surveys of dominant theories and available evidence. Here, it's not unusual for him to say something like, Here are the six dominant theories, here is the evidence that shows why four of them don't deserve serious consideation anymore in spite of their emotional or political appeal, and here are the relative scientific merits of the remainder. In an arena beset by vicious ad hominem attacks and passionate ideological presentations of unproven theories, Diamond--in these first ten chapters--offers the student more concerned with truth than ideology a lovely account.
Among the important points he makes in these first ten chapters: Our genetic propensities toward cooperation, care for no-longer-procreative elders, and (in the case of women) outliving reproductive capacity set the stage for the evolution of the human brain. Genes may be "selfish," but our genes' inclining us toward non-egoistic ways of life lie at the foundation of being human at all. This is a crucial point, consistent with the ethical views and habits of all civilizations other than those that foster "social Darwinism." That our humanity depends on the falsity of "social Darwinism" cannot be emphasized too greatly. Science supports the kind of other-oriented, community concern that all ethics, through all of human history--unlike allegedly "enlightened" egoism--codifies. (See also the wonderful anthology, "The Evolutionary Origins of Morality," LeonardD. Katz, editor.)
Beginning in chapter eleven, the book becomes progressively more speculative, more of a presentation of Diamond's own theories, some about things outside his area of professional expertise--e.g., the effects of continental differences in flora, fauna, and climate on differential developments of civilizations. Here, we lose the critical comparative attitude of the first ten chapters. If you think carefully, you finish each of these latter chapters with a lot of, "Yes, but . . . " questions. Thus, in the first ten chapters, you rightly come away with confidence that you've acquired a fair understanding of the state-of-the-art in evolutionary studies. In the latter chapters, that simply isn't so.
I agree with most of the political and ideological principles underlying Diamnod's speculations, and I appreciate that--unlike many leading "lights" in studies of human evolution--he never resorts to name calling and acting as if those who differ are nefarious fools. But I wish he'd either stopped writing after ten chapters, or made the latter chapters more like the first ten. Each of these latter chapters is intelligent and interesting, and each deserves further condieration; but Diamnond's shift in standards of assessment and style of presentation makes the second half of the book far less authoritative, and therefore makes the book as a whole something one can less enthusiastically recommend--or use in teaching.
on January 23, 2000
Perused this book while shopping in a "brick & mortar bookstore. Having read Guns, Germs & Steel I was familiar with the author's strength - intelligent discourse in a very readable style. The Third Chimpanzee, like GG&S, requires some involvement on the part of the reader. About 70% of the time I felt like I was learning something new and the other 30% my brain was comparing Diamond's thoughts to personal experiences and formulating new perspectives. The topics, which could easily be boring are made interesting by Diamond's frequent linkages to modern reference points. The book's chapters do not need to be read in order and in fact many were published as stand alone articles in Discover and Natural History Magazines. (This may be the secret to their readability.) Diamond does weave a progressive story through the book which culminates in a very thought provoking last chapter. I finished the book thinking, "so what am I going to do about these issues". The reader participation doesn't stop at the end of the book. Two weeks later and it's still percolating in my mind.
on December 4, 1996
"The Third Chimpanzee," by Jared Diamond, is a fascinating study on how humans evolved, how seperate they are from other animals, and if anything can be done to stop the global destruction they are causing today. Much of the text of this book illustrates just how much human behavior is controlled by genes; many of the behaviors which are regarded as immoral (adultery, for instance) are shown to give the person who behaves in this manner an evolutionary advantage. Partnered with describing how much of human behavior is genetically controlled is a clear, well documented argument that humans and their unique behavior (specifically culture) are not so unique in the animal kingdom. Almost every form of "unique" human behaviors, ranging from art to language to genocide, have been observed in other species of animals. Diamond makes the point that it is known that these behaviors are not unique to humans; humans just practice these behaviors to a greater degree than most other animal species. Diamond also traces the beginnings of the environmental problems that humans are facing today to the cro-magnon period of human history. Diamond makes the point that many of the large species of mammals, such as the wooly mammoth, were not killed off by the ice age. Rather, the mammoths were driven to extinction by early human hunting parties. Diamond points out with frightening clarity that environmental destruction is part of our evolutionary history based on our genes, a history which is still influencing us today. Finally, Diamond gives some thought to what can be done to reverse humanity's penchant for environmental destruction, and most importantly, if it is too late to save the earth. This book is thought-provoking, scientifically sound, and articulate, and a joy to read. Anybody who has any opinions on human evolution, human interaction, society, or the environment will find this book an intriguing and eye-opening experience. "The Third Chimpanzee" is a triumph of original scientific thought into the history and behavior of human beings
on July 18, 2003
If you've read Diamond's two most recent books -- "Why is Sex Fun?" and "Guns, Germs, and Steel" -- very little in this book will be new to you. "The Third Chimpanzee" covers a wider range of topics and is more overtly political than those two, but much of the same territory is examined.
In this book, which was his first for a general audience, Diamond examines the history of man's evolution, seeking to establish patterns that might explain man's future. He worries that man has a self-destructive tendency -- as typified by genocide, the threat of atomic warfare, and the loss of biodiversity -- that could lead to man's own self-destruction. While Diamond occasionally tries to strike an optimistic note, the book has a dark pessimism throughout it.
One of the book's only failings is that its several aims are sometimes at cross purposes. Diamond begins "The Third Chimpanzee" by trying to level man down to the animals. He does this by explaining how closely connected man is genetically to his closest living cousins, the chimpanzees (thus, the name of this book). On this basis, he then argues that a rethinking in our concept of human rights is in order.
Later in the book, however, when Diamond is exhorting his fellow homo sapiens to save the planet, he chooses to focus on man's unique traits, both destructive and redeeming. Man is capable of genocide, certain types of which, Diamond argues, are unique to man. On the other hand, man is also capable of learning from the history of his species, something which is also unique to man. Diamond's switch from presenting man as just another chimpanzee to presenting man as both world destroyer and potential world savior is a bit jarring, even if not necessarily contradictory.
"The Third Chimpanzee" is an easy and enjoyable read, but it fails to reach the intellectual heights of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" -- a superior book in every way. Clearly, this was a dry run for Diamond, and he would later improve his presentation by dropping most of the overt politics and pessimism, while slightly narrowing his focus. The result was a great book; this is merely a good one.
Opening with a false statement: "it's obvious that humans are unlike other animals", this book goes on to strenuously refute this widely held assertion. Diamond spends the remaining chapters explaining why the allegation is false. He does this first by showing how close we are to the other primates. He follows that by bringing the human species into a more valid relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. He uses the mechanisms of evolution, from eating habits through language to sexual practices. The theme of this book is to challenge to us to reconsider our view of our place in life's panorama. It's clear that we can no longer hold ourselves aloof from our relations in the animal kingdom. When art critics and psychologists can be deceived by animal-produced art, the claim that "humans are unlike other animals" rings pretty thin.
The range of topics is extensive, and he handles them with a special talent, exercised with aplomb. We like to think we are exclusive among animals in having speech, writing, agriculture and other aspects of "civilization". Diamond shows us that those aspects we think are particular to us are in fact shared by numerous other species. Ours may be more pronounced, but they are not isolated in us. These abilities differ only in degree, usually limited by environment or physical capabilities. But they are the shared result of the evolutionary process.
Diamond has a special talent for the sweeping view. He's used this aptitude elsewhere, but perhaps none of his books quite match what he's done here. Challenging many of our dearly held beliefs with a refreshing directness, he aptly demonstrates that if we can learn how evolution works, we'll gain a better understanding of ourselves. Given our history over the past four thousand years, our need for this understanding is approaching a critical level. He understands where we've been and where we might be going. There are endless warnings in this book about what decisions we're making and will make. We must do them thoughtfully. But first we must shed the concept that nature "owes" us anything. The biblical injunction to "have dominion over the earth" must be abandoned, and quickly. We share the planet with millions of other species and must act responsibly. Otherwise, extinction, and a premature one, at that, is sure to follow. How many more of those fellow creatures will we take with us?
Those who decry Diamond for "politics" in this book are leading you astray. It isn't his politics that Diamond wants you to follow, but ethics. If there is any aspect of humanity that can separate us from the other animals, it's in making ethical decisions. His final chapter shows our intellect has brought us under two distinct clouds - the nuclear holocaust and the environmental one. The first may be slightly subdued, but the second is gaining on us. We are destroying natural habitat at an unprecedented rate. Diamond calls on us all to make adjustments to reduce and reverse that process. Whatever else of value this book offers, his call for common sense and applying the knowledge gained here is invaluable. If there's a political element involved here, it's the need for political will to save our species - and the other chimpanzees and animals we live with.
on November 20, 1999
I bought this book because I liked "Guns, Germs, andSteel" and was not disappointed. Although there may be booksthat are just as good, the author is not be too close to the theories he's talking about, is balanced, and puts things in perspective. In addition, he provides a great deal of first-hand knowledge from his extensive time in New Guinea. Discusses human evolution, sexuality, language, and vices. Challenges the idea of primitive human's being in harmony with nature, and ends on a conservationist note about endangered species, even providing lists of environmental groups at the end! Still, I will not deny his approach or cause for concern. Very enjoyable reading overall, and only loses steam in the inadequate explanations given in "Why Do We Smoke, Drink, and Use Dangerous Drugs?" but also speaks profoundly about the prevalence of genocide in "In Black and White". This is not bland anthropology.
on April 19, 2009
Jared Diamond is a talented scientist/writer like the late Isaac Asimov. While Asimov dealt with much simpler scientific concepts, Diamond deals with much more complex issues pertaining to the evolution of human behaviour and how that might lead to the decline of the human race.
The first few chapters introduce us to the genetic proximity of apes and man, the evolution of Neanderthals and CroMagnons. A lot of hard science here, but the moment the author says that we could have taught CroMagnos how to fly a jetplane and compares Romans developing nuclear bombs with CroMagnons developing writing and building the Parthenon, the astute reader should have an idea of the daring speculative theories that follow.
The author goes on to test 6 interesting theories that might explain concealed ovulation in the human female. Chapter 4 tries to explain the science of adultery. Next few chapters deal with criteria for sexual selection, then why people grow old and die? Why do we live past reproductive age? Are language and art uniquely human? Is agriculture the key to human civilisation? These are probably the most interesting and cogent chapters in the whole book.
Why do we smoke, drink and use dangerous drugs? That's when I start to disagree and think that the answers may be a lot simpler than the complex and fuzzy courtship displays that author is trying to theorise. People may just want to get high. It may have nothing to do with making members of the opposite sex think that they are stronger than the rest of the pack.
Chapter 16 made me sit up again. The author writes about genocide in Tasmania, some of the motives involved, but he totally lost me when he tries to explain why some cultures remained in the stone age (hunter/gatherer) and never even progressed to agriculture. The explanation could be that the culture and norms within that society inhibit the development of science and technology.
We may discover a more "scientific" explanation for why some people never grew out of hunter/gatherer ways may be found one day, but the author's theory that some cultures remained in the stone age because there were no large mammals in Australia and North America that can be domesticated just doesn't cut it with me. Small mammals can be domesticated and unmanageably large bison can be domesticated into more manageable sizes through thousands of years of artificial selection. Just look at what humans have done to totally change the tastes and dimensions of wild fruits. The author also seems unaware that there are people living in the stone age, not in isolated continents but in Asia, the birthplace of some of the oldest civilisations - with an abundance of animals that can be domesticated.
Speculation is essentially what The Third Chimpanzee is all about, but besides being a pure scientist, Diamond also tries to bring moral and ethical issues into his arguments. This gives his work both heart and character, but I can't help noticing that in the concluding chapters, he is trying very hard to twist the science to suit some politically correct ideals.
Survival of the Sickest: A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease
on December 27, 2000
Jared Diamonds award winning work, The Third Chimpanzee, is really a collection of essays put together and given a coherent form. As Diamond notes, the theme is about how the Human species became so unique, and what its achievements and limitations are. Divided into five parts, the first deals with the evolution of humans from other apes, and emphasizes the importance of language in explaining the huge leap forward in human techology and sophistication 40,000 years ago. The second section deals with the biological aspects of the human life cycle. This includes such controversial topics such as adultery, race origins, and aging. In each chapter he brings forth new ideas that are both intellectually sound and original, such as that human races evolved not due to climate, but personal preference. His third section, "Uniquely human," includes two chapters that have generally been overlooked. In one, he argues that the agriculutural revolution has been responsible for both mankind's advances and woes. And the last chapter suggests that scientists are wasting their time looking for other intelligent life in the universe, since intelligence is a small niche that biology filled here, but probably not on other planets. The fourth section is the precursor to Guns, Germs, and Steel, where be begins to lay out his theory, and discusses the disastrous effecs of agricultural societies meeting hunter-gatherer ones. The final section is perhaps the most interesting. It discusses how pre-modern man managed to wipe out the large animals in nearly every new region of the world he came to, whether it be New Zealand, Madagascar, or Polynesia. Ditto for the New World. Europeans were not alone in their destruction of the environment. The book ends with an exhortation for a more prudent ecological policy. In sum, this book is a great read, filled with fascinating insights and theories, that will fill any readers head with a wealth of information he may never have imagined beforehand. Readers familiar with Diamond will not be disappointed, and those who have not yet read him will soon be acquainted with his easy yet sophisiticated writing style, which make it a pleasure to learn about complicated topics such as these.
on January 25, 2004
This is a very worthwhile read for anyone interested in how man differs and does not differ from the rest of the animal kingdom (particularly the great apes). Since the book is already over ten years old, it is a bit weak on new advances in genetics and does not seem to be up-to-date on the Clovis debate about the peopling of the Americas (new genetic data showing that the entrance was probably earlier than the assumed 12,000 years ago). However, the bulk of the book is a very mind-broadening, timeless view of homo sapiens and this species conquest of the entire planet. The history that Diamond portrays does not augur well for mankind: habitual destruction of the environment; mass extinctions of other species; increasingly limited genetic diversity in the human species; the propensity for genocide. In short, Diamond shows that man has a history of selfishly expanding its population to the detriment of the very environment upon which he depends and that this proclivity could someday spell the end of the species as our numbers continue to rise. Some sobering facts are offered here; and open minds should recognize them and heed them.
I only give the book four stars for two reasons:
1) As mentioned, the part on genetics is partially out of date and should be made current in a further edition.
2) Diamond has a number of annoying tendencies that are sometimes frustrating: I grew weary of his "Outer Space" perspectives (i.e., the paleontologist from Outer Space, the archaeologist from Outer Space, the biologist from Outer Space), as if the reader were incapable of standing back and gaining perspective on his own species without this trick. Also, he piqued my curiosity on a number of subjects that he promised to cover in detail later. When thse subjects finally came, there were often more questions than answers.
on October 15, 2005
A student of mine recommended this book to me. I was expecting a well-read text on evolutionary biology, but I was amazed by the ambitious nature of this book. He tackles just about every subject that he can see from a broad-minded perspective that fuses his anthropological work with evolutionary biological perspectives. Diamond finds parallels for both our charming and pathological behaviors in the animal world. For the most part, he writes a convincing narrative that argues for taking greater care to acknowledge the evolving animal with us and the human predecessor in animals. Human sexuality, environmental destruction, aging, art and agriculture are all explored by this confident scholar.
Some readers may find the second half of the book to be overly ambitious. Diamond doesn't fully convince me that we can maintain real hope about the capacity of our species to overcome its pathological tendencies. It's hard for him to do more than briefly address his deep environmental concern within the confines of this book. But on the whole Diamond does a solid job opening up a popular audience to his ecletic approach.
I enjoyed this book, and I expect that it will provoke me to read more by Diamond in the future.