The Third Chimpanzee
|Subject||Human evolution, anthropology|
|Followed by||Guns, Germs and Steel|
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal is a broad-focus book by academic and popular science author Jared Diamond, which explores concepts relating to the animal origins of human behavior, including cultural characteristics and those features often regarded as particularly unique to humans. It further explores the question of how Homo sapiens came to dominate its closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, and why one group of humans (Eurasians) came to dominate others (Indigenous peoples of the Americas, for example). In answering these questions, Diamond (a professor in the fields of physiology and geography) applies a variety of biological and anthropological arguments to reject traditional hegemonic views that the dominant peoples came from "superior" genetic stock and argues instead that those peoples who came to dominate others did so because of advantages found in their local environment which allowed them to develop larger populations, wider immunities to disease, and superior technologies for agriculture and warfare.
The Third Chimpanzee also examines how asymmetry in male and female mating behaviour is resolved through differing social structures across cultures, and how first contact between unequal civilizations almost always results in genocide. The book ends by noting that technological progress may cause environmental degradation on a scale leading to extinction. The original title of the book in its initial 1991 publication was The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: How Our Animal Heritage Affects the Way We Live; the current title was adopted with the third edition in 2006. In between, the second edition of 2004 was titled The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: Evolution and Human Life.
Diamond has expanded on themes found in The Third Chimpanzee in his later broad-audience books, including Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), which treats the question of why Eurasians came to dominate the world's other continents; Why Is Sex Fun? (1997), which concentrates on the question of sexual selection and longevity in humans; and Collapse (2005), which reviews the archeological and historical record of civilizations that have over-exploited their local environment and become extinct and raises the possibility that humanity as a whole is facing a similar crisis on unprecedented scale.
Organization and summary
Despite the broad canvas, the book manages to link together a coherent argument, much of which was novel at the time of publication. Borrowing insights from fields ranging from the humanities (history, linguistics, anthropology), to evolutionary biology, The Third Chimpanzee compiles a portrait of humanity's success and also its potential for disaster.
The book is divided into five parts. Part one deals with the similarity between humans and chimpanzees.
The chimpanzee's closest relatives (part one)
The title of the book refers to how similar taxonomically chimps and humans are, as their genes differ by just 1.6%, whereas chimps and gorillas differ by 2.3% (p. 19). Thus the chimp's closest relatives are not the other apes with which it is classed, but the human (see Homininae). In fact, the chimpanzee-human difference is smaller than some within-species distances: e.g. even closely related birds such as the red-eyed and white-eyed vireos differ by 2.9%. Going by genetic differences, humans should be treated as a third species of chimpanzee (after the common chimpanzee and the bonobo). Or possibly the chimpanzee's scientific name should be Homo troglodytes instead of Pan troglodytes. As Diamond observes in his book, this would provide food for thought to people passing this side of the bars of a cage with the label Homo.
Sexual selection (parts two and three)
Part two considers sexual dimorphism in mammals, and particularly humans, and the mechanics of sexual selection. It considers how across species, females are more careful in selecting their mates than males (they invest far more energy into each offspring). This determines much of human behaviour: how we pick our mates, and how we organize society and child nurturing systems, leading to differing social structures in cultures such as Papua New Guinea, Kerala, and the Christian West. It also considers questions of longevity – the previous generation dies because its biological clock shuts down metabolism and repair as to divert investment from the parent individual to that of the offspring.
Part three extends the effects of sexual selection into language, art, hunting and agriculture, through the idea of honest signaling - sexual signals that also cost the signer. This is extrapolated to explain the appeal of drugs. Finally, the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence (Diamond thinks that would be a disaster).
World conquest: (part four)
Part four considers conquest. Why is it that the Eurasians came to dominate other cultures? Diamond's answer is that, in part, this was due to the East-West layout of the Eurasian continent, due to which successful agricultural and animal domestication packages (combinations of certain domesticated plants and animals) could easily be adopted in regions farther east or west. On the other hand, extension of domestication packages along the North-South axis - as required in the case of the American and African continents - was much more difficult owing to severe imbalances of climate. Also, long-lasting contact with domesticated animals of agricultural populations permits greater resistance to disease, which is another reason why contact among geographically separated cultures - mostly agricultural versus hunter-gatherer-societies - often leads to extinction of the latter through devastating infections.
The process of first contact between differing civilizations is examined through the descriptions of Papua New Guinea highlanders, who were first visited half a century back. Historically, Diamond argues such contacts between widely differing populations have very frequently culminated in the extinction of the disadvantaged groups like many native American tribes, the Tasmanians, etc. There is a long list of genocides in history.
Environmental impact and extinction (part five)
Here the argument is that civilizations sometimes get caught up in internal superiority contests, and deplete the environment to such an extent that they may never recover. Examples include Easter Island and the ruins of Petra, both of which were the result of deforestation resulting in desertification.
Notes and references
- "Separating the men from the apes" New York Times review of 'The Third Chimpanzee by Frans de Waal
- Book excerptise: extended excerpts and genocide tables.
- Royal Society Prizes for Science Books, previous winners and shortlists
- Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Science and Technology previous winners