Jared Diamond


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

This is one of those books that stay in the mind (in my mind, anyway) long after reading it. The third chimpanzee of the title is, of course, Homo sapiens, and Diamond's theme is our relation to the rest of the natural world, in which we are, from one point of view, just one mammalian species among others. But there is more to the book than that; if there weren't, it would not be much point in writing it, for there have been many books on that theme. What Diamond does is to place the facts about human biology and evolution in a historical context, to show why this species of ape attained the status of a world conqueror and, more disturbingly, how the whole story may end in disaster. Other books have uttered similar kinds of warnings too, of course, but what is special about this one is the power and width of scope that characterize the writing.

The story is told in five parts. Part 1 covers the period from several million years ago to just before the appearance of agriculture ten thousand years ago, and Part 2 deals with changes in the human life pattern which occurred during this vast expanse of time. Part 3 is about those cultural traits which, we believe, distinguish us from other species, including our closest relatives. In Part 4 the story takes a darker tone as Diamond considers two of our more destructive traits: warfare and environmental degradation. Finally, in an epilogue Diamond reviews the story and looks to the future, not over-optimistically but still not with total despair.

This book is much too full and rich to lend itself to anything like a full summary, so I shall instead mention some things that have stayed in my mind with particular vividness. One is his discussion of skin colour. A popular explanation for the differences that exist is an adaptive one: white skins are supposed to be more effective in producing vitamin D and so help to prevent osteoporosis and rickets, while dark skins protect against skin cancer induced by sunlight. There are other theories of this kind as well, all of which attempt to explain the differences in terms of Darwinian natural selection. But Diamond argues that this cannot account for all the facts; the real explanation is Darwin's other theory, sexual selection. The differences have arisen because our ancestors preferentially mated with people of differing skin colours. He illustrates this vividly and amusingly by recounting a conversation he had with some New Guinea men about the kind of women they found attractive, and how they contrasted with the repulsive white women they had seen.

Another theme which comes across strongly in the book is the bogus sentimentality which characterizes the claims, often heard today, that people living in pre-modern societies invariably respected nature and avoided exploiting it to the point of irreparable damage. Diamond quotes a huge amount of evidence which shows that, far from this being the case, our ancestors did repeatedly destroy the species they encountered and the environment they lived in, and when they failed to do so it was generally not because of respect for the environment but simply because there were fewer of them and their technology was not far enough advanced to enable them to do so. The belief that things were ever otherwise is a Rousseau-esque fantasy. It is true that some settled peoples did practise conservation, but this is by no means the rule in our species.

Like some other writers in recent years, Diamond regards the invention of agriculture as in many ways a disaster. We are often told that it enabled us to achieve health, longevity, security, leisure, and great art, but this is hard to prove; in fact, the results were probably just the opposite. Duration and quality of life deteriorated after the introduction of agriculture and only today, and even then only for certain populations, are we getting back to where we used to be before agriculture. Class differences and large-scale wars did not exist before agriculture. But there is, of course, no going back, we cannot become hunter-gatherers again.

So is our position hopeless? Diamond says it isn't. If we learn from our past, he says, we can prevent disaster. I hope he's right, but although he says he's cautiously optimistic, I have the feeling he's more cautious than optimistic. This book was published in 1991; when I heard him talk on the radio recently he seemed more downbeat about our chances. Still, whatever the future holds, we need to understand the past if we're to have any chance of altering it, and this book will help us to do that.

%T The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee
%A Jared, Diamond
%I Vintage
%C London
%D 1991
%K evolution
%G ISBN 0099913801
%P 360 pp
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