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Have you ever wondered where it is we come from? Who were our predecessors - Neanderthals? Homo erectus? Why do humans use computers as tools when chimps - genetically only 2% away from us - use twigs? What determines who we find attractive, and what makes us age? All these are among questions answered in Jared Diamond's 1991 book 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee.'
- About the Author -
Jared Diamond is a professor of physiology at the University of California, but also a keen student of bird ecology and anthropology, with a keen interest in the pacific island state of Papua New Guinea. Third Chimpanzee was the first of three major popular science works: the collection also contains 'Guns, Germs and Steel' and 'Collapse'.
- What is the book about? -
Diamond begins Third Chimpanzee with a series of questions - what is the evolutionary history of humans? What is strange about our life cycles? What separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom? He uses each of these questions as a springboard to a separate section of the book. Having answered all of these, and in light of the environmental havoc we are currently reeking, he also poses a more speculative question: where might we be going next?
The first section of the book, regarding the evolutionary history, is the most narrative chapter of the book, tracking as it does the evidence of different hominid civilisations. This is a short, succinct section, but it sets up a nice background to the rest of the book and is also a good introduction to the other primates that Diamond uses as comparative measures - chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and often gibbons.
Having set his scene, Diamond plunges into an enthusiastic examination of the human life cycle, looking at such aspects as mating systems and childcare. Looking at our day to day lives under scientific light yields some interesting and often entertaining results - for example, the idea that we select partners who resemble our parents and so resemble us, and so Diamond married his own wife because both were brown haired academics with glasses. He then looks at those aspects of humanity which are commonly believed to distinguish us from 'other' animals, such as language, art and agriculture, and also at controversial ideas such as drug addiction and the tricky subject of genocide. Each of these ideas is weighed up in the human context - almost all are found to have animal predecessors.
The final section of the book looks at a factor which really is unique to humans, the ability we have to effectively wipe ourselves off the face of the earth at a single stroke. This is looked at in terms of our nuclear potential, and our environmental destruction - and despite the general pessimism of this section, Diamond eventually comes up with the answer that maybe what really distinguishes us from animals is that we may be able to chose to change our instinctive course.
- Good points -
There are many good points to Third Chimpanzee. The first is the variety: given that Diamond had free run over the whole of past, present and future, it is not surprising that a huge range of ideas are covered. Despite the quantity of material studied, Diamond is admirably never tempted to preach to the reader. Ideas are discussed clearly and methodically from all their angles before he eventually argues his own opinion.
The tone of the book is also very well judged. This is a work of popular science, and as such has no need for the flood of obscure scientific language often found in scientific literature. Complex ideas are made coherent by logical and often comical analogies and examples - sexual selection is explained in a mock fairy tale of a knight and a damsel in distress. A comprehensive reading list is provided at the back of the book for those to whom the lack of detail might seem disadvantageous. At no point does Diamond forget he is writing a popular science book, and he tailors his work accordingly.
A third good point is that Diamond cleverly blends pure science with a mixture of personal experience and fun anecdotes. His own experiences in Papua New Guinea are heavily referenced, while dry passages are enlivened by tales of chimps painting great artworks or first contacts with unknown Amazonian tribes. This writing style ties the abstract pure science to the real world.
But the final major factor that lifts Third Chimpanzee among many works of the same genre is in its treatment of controversial material. At various points in the book, Diamond has to look at such things as drug addiction, genocide and environmental destruction, and in doing so he scorns the politically correct approach necessary in normal media. He treats each problem with the same pragmatism as any other scientific concept, looking at it from all sides, making no concession to the reader and asking any question he believes necessary to help understanding. This leads to reading which is gripping and painful in equal measure.
- Bad points -
The only bad point that I could find in Third Chimpanzee is in its structure. The story of human evolution does not always keep to a linear timeline, and it is sometimes hard to keep the thread of an argument when you are trying to work out which century BC you are currently in. It can also tend towards the self referential, which is fine when you have already covered the concept in question but infuriating when you find a reference to a concept in chapter 18 needed to understand chapter 12!
Given that I study zoology, it comes with the territory to read a lot of scientific books, and I would say that Third Chimpanzee ranks as one of the best I've read so far. The massive amount of ground covered, combined with the entertaining and pragmatic style in which the material is treated, make this a very easy and rewarding read.
However, there are some people who probably would not enjoy this book. It is not one to read when you are tired, or when you need something easy and relaxing. It is also not one for the easily offended - although all of Diamond's points are valid, they could easily be misconstrued by a sensitive reader. It is a book that asks challenging questions, exposes the weaknesses and vanities of the human race in glaring detail, and makes you look very carefully at your own view of the world. I could not recommend it more highly to anyone interested in biology.
Thanks for reading :-)