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 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 May 18, 2004
I read this book just after I finished GGS and at some aspects, I liked it even more than the much celebrated GGS.
At each chapter of the Third Chimpanzee we learn a totally new subject in the Jared Diamond style: a well-thought synthesis, a simple and organized presentation. Every other twenty pages was a new adventure for me.
Obviously, this might not be the case for other readers that are more acquainted with evolution readings, and obviously I need a lot to learn before I can decide their authenticity but I found his ideas on subjects like extraterrestrial life and evolution of drug abuse very original and provoking. I also found his narration of the issues of Indo-European Languages spreading, mate selection, animal art and genocide very moving and comprehensive.
A surprise for me was that this book tells the main concept of GGS thoroughly in just two chapters. Given the occasionally criticized redundancy and large volume of GGS, I might humbly suggest a prospective reader of Diamond who has limited time to read this book instead of GGS. For sure, GGS gives a much better and extensive treatise of the concept and it is also a must read book for anybody who wants to put a perspective to human history. Third Chimpanzee also gives a perspective to human psychology and I sincerely recommend it to anybody interested in these two subjects.
on December 8, 2002
I picked this up from the bookstore after reading Guns, Germs, and Steel earlier this year. I expected another book that was well written, where the author could explain the material to a novice on this subject like myself. I was not disappointed.
How did humans become human, and how did we evolve so differently so quickly from our primate relatives? Those are the questions he tries to answer in this book. Readers of GG&S will be familiar with a couple of the chapters in this book that touch on the same subject matter. However, don't let that stop you from looking at this book. Diamond looks at many aspects of humanity-both good (art, language) and bad (drug abuse, murder/genocide, destruction of environment) and tries to figure out how they developed or where they came from. I particularly enjoyed his treatment of language developement as well as his discussion of murder and genocide. We are not as different from animals as I thought regarding those topics. Plus, he explains everything very well. I had no problems following his logic or explanations. I would recommend this book for all to read.
on May 6, 2003
Homo sapiens are, as the title states, the Third Chimpanzee. Diamond's theme in this book is that humans are just one species among many; we make up just one small part of a large whole, which is the natural world. Through a historical context, Diamond creates a pallet with facts about the biology and evolution of humans. This book is written with power; presenting answers to the controversial questions of why humans, being the third species of ape, were able to conquer and dominate the earth while developing the high possibility of ending our short lived reign in disaster.
Diamond tells the story of the Third Chimpanzee in five parts. Part one methodologically recounts the most recent anthropological and genetic evidence of how humans possess a significantly close relationship with apes, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Interestingly put forward are the implications that humans and chimpanzees diverged from the ancestral line after gorillas did. Humans are similar in 98.4 percent of their DNA to chimpanzees; according to the evidence, the common chimpanzees are human's closest primate relative as opposed to the original thought of gorillas being more closely related to humans.
Part two handles the changes that occurred in the human life pattern from the expansive length of time from several million years ago to ten thousand years ago. The differences between chimpanzees and humans in life cycles, mate selection, sexuality, and the possibility in the ways in which these various factors could have effected the evolution of humans, are all concentrated on in this part of the book. Diamond uses the right amount of technical detail to place the reader on a platform of understanding that is needed to grasp the theories of human evolution and future that are proposed in this book.
Part Three of the book discusses the many cultural traits of humans and how we believe that those specific cultural traits are what detach us from other species, particularly those relatives closest to us. Spoken language, art, agriculture, and tool-based technology are a few examples of the "cultural hallmarks" Diamond instills as being distinguishing cultural traits that we are proud of, as opposed to the many others introduced in this book as being detrimental to the survival of the human race. These ugly cultural traits are chemical abuse, mass exterminations of numerous other species, the negative attributes of agriculture, genocide, among others.
The destructive qualities that humans posses, such as environmental degradation and warfare are told of in Part Five. To bring the book to a close the epilogue summarizes the story of the third chimpanzee, telling of what the future may bring with melancholic and hopeful views alike.
In the first section of the book, Diamond provides plenty of background information, facts, findings and evidence for his assertions. Many interesting stories that he told capture and entice the reader. He discussed the different theories of human skin color in reference to location. The most popular of the theories being that differences in skin color are adaptive. This means that the shade (light/dark) of skin color benefits the person according to the region; white skins (supposedly) more effectively produce vitamin D aiding in the prevention of rickets and osteoporosis, where as darker skins induce sunlight that in turn reduces the chances of developing skin cancer. Many more theories exist, yet the one that Diamond lays on the table for pondering is Darwin's theory of sexual selection. Darwin's sexual selection theory attributes the differences in skin color to our ancestor's matting according to their preferences. Diamonds entire discussion on skin color is vividly illustrated thru a conversation that he had had with a few New Guinea men about female attractiveness and how they found white women to be repulsive.
Agriculture is a main theme throughout the entire book. Diamond tends to consider the invention of agriculture as being a great catastrophe. It has its benefits tied with its destructive attributes. Diamond makes claims to agriculture as being the exact opposite of what many people grow up believing it to be; the cause of class differences, monstrous wars, and the deterioration of the length and quality of life.
The second half of the book is filled more with Diamond's own speculation about the evolution of human behaviors, missing in this section is the evidence, facts and various theories that he used in his writing at the beginning. For an example of the lightly supported claims, Diamond presents the reader with his argument that smoking is a human behavior that is linked to sexual selection. He goes on to explain that potential mates notice that the smoker is able to ingest the toxins and not have any apparent negative affects, thus making the smoker more sexually attractive (fitter and stronger). Diamond went wrong here by not providing any allowances for human tendencies toward trends in social behavior and addictiveness of tobacco.
Diamond addresses questions about human development that are fascinating and controversial; from DNA drift, paleolinguistics, to the settlement of the Americas. There is some notice to Diamond's position and inflexibility on certain topics, of which are lacking supportive technical details. In all, even with its weaknesses, this well-written, interesting book explores human evolution and our relationship to our closest living primate.
on August 19, 2000
Ugg! Mr. Diamond writes well and has great examples and experiences, but he spoils much of it by excessive political commentary. I love politics on TV. But when I read a book about science, that is what I want, SCIENCE. Instead the first chapter, and most of the final ones, are drenched in partison politics which detracts from the real science in the book. If you avoid these chapters, or skim them briefly, this book has much to offer.
The general approach of the book is to look for "human characteristics" in animals, thus making them "inhuman" or animalistic, in the final analysis. Thus, Mr. Diamond shows how basic human failings as adultry, genocide and slavery or our strengths as a species, from creativity to art to farming, can all be found in different animal species.
In this part of his mission, the book is great fun, an easy read, and, at the same time, a good learning experience. Is Man the only species that fights wars? No. Ants and Apes, apparently do. Do we have a monopoly on speech? No. Mr. Diamond believes some forms of animals have simple speech. Well, is there anything at special about us at all?
Maybe sex. Apparently we are one of the few, maybe only, species that mates for fun. At the very least, we don't know when a women is ready to get pregnant. So we have to try and try and try again. Its good to be the King (of the beasts that is.)
If the book stayed on subject, it would have been great. I notice that most of the reviewers here, indeed, think it is a great book. It is not. It is not a great book because Mr. Diamond's observations are clouded by his own experiences, passions and biases.
For example, his work with tribes in Indonesia may be typical of tribes elsewhere. It is also possible that people in different areas can be very different. Over and over, he went to his base, his experience in Indonesia. Fine, if this is a book about those experiences. It is not.
This book, as referenced by its title, is a book about the third chimpanze, man. It has a broad scope beginning with the death of the big brained Neanderthal Man (I learned that they had a bigger brain as well as bigger bicepts then man) and speculating at the end about the final destruction of a genocidal human race. In such a book, his personal experiences were still interesting, but they took away from part of the book.
Still, the book is worth reading. I just wish, at least, the politics could have been edited out. Since Mr. Diamnd is a bestseller, for science, I presume that his other books will have more, not less, of his political commentaries. Is it to much to hope, at least, to have less references to his twin boys? Probably so, but his future books will no doubt still be interesting, just not as well written as they could be.
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.
on July 14, 1998
While in Australia working as an engineer, I read his book, and found much validity in the author's claims/conjectures all around me. Australia seemed to be quite a suitable laboratory for proving/disproving the claims made by Mr. Diamond. Australia's continental isolation makes it a kind of Pitcairn Island for human evolution. Darwin would probably have agreed somewhat with that statement--during the early times of the (re)"settlement" of Australia by the Europeans.
Let's get to one of the more interesting chapters.
Denial of Genocide:
Mr. Diamond had a chapter which concerned itself with our persistent ability to deny the past occurrance of genocide in the World. This chapter offers up interesting examples of our genocidal past. I was able to validate Mr. Diamond's claim here when I telephoned a woman mentioned in this chapter of his book. The woman lived in Sydney, and had written a graduate thesis (really!) which refuted the claim that abori! ! ginal Tasmanians were systematically eliminated when the Europeans resettled that land. Her paper was even published in a respected Australian Journal! Makes you wonder if just getting a high school education there is considered an act of genius..... Anyway, this woman is held up as a prime example of somenone who cannot live with her genocidal past, and therefore, vehemently denys it. I truly wished I had tape-recorded the conversation for the rest of the World to hear. Mr. Diamond would probably have enjoyed hearing it as well. Anyway, this woman attempts to convince her readers that no Ozzie settlers EVER committed any act of genocide against an Aborigine in Australia (including Tasmania). I told her that she was named in Mr. Diamond's book as a prime example of a person/culture in genocidal denial. I also informed her that this book was (then) a New York #1 bestseller, was globally distributed, and was available in many different languages. Her response was to the! ! effect that she stood by her work. She truly believed she! had told the truth in the journal that published her work, and that the very act of her paper being published validated its truthfulness (ala peer review). I winced at her response, and gave a hellacious upward yank on my hip waders. She appeared undaunted by Mr. Diamond's book, and his claim that she is the benchmark for a person in complete denial of her culture's genocidal past. She appeared to be behaving much her country's national symbol, (the Emu) when it sticks its head in the sand to "hide" from danger.
How has "The Third Chimpanzee" Affected My Life?"
As I was single at that time, I was able to "try-out" alot of Mr. Diamond's theories/conjectures concerning human behavior--there in Australia. I lived at Bondi Beach (like Malibu, Calif), and had quite a human behavior laboratory at my disposal. I am always looking for symbolism and matching patterns in the process. This meshed quite well with my amusing search for plugNp! ! lay validity of Mr. Diamond's theories on human behavior there in Australia.
I suggest that this book be made mandatory reading material for all personnel in both the US State Department and Diplomatic Corp.
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 August 9, 2000
After trying to read _Guns, Germs, and Steel_, I found this book, surprisingly, easier to get interested in and understand. Not that it's simpler or dumbed-down!
The book tries to answer the questions of what it means to be human, and how we are different from other life forms. This might sound like a cliché, but as Diamond delves into ethics, sex, history, evolution, and drug abuse, and comes out with his grim but guardedly optimistic conclusions, it seems apparent to me, at least, that what he is saying is of utmost importance to everyone in the world.
Having read the book _Ishmael_, by Daniel Quinn, a few years ago, I wonder if Diamond's thinking could actually be improved by being combined with Quinn's. Diamond suggests that, when prehistoric societies drove certain animals to extinction, they were acting out a human tendency to be destructive to our local environments that is simply horribly intensified today. Quinn suggests that some of those prehistoric societies were not particularly more destructive than other animals, and for the same reasons; while other, more civilized societies had the tendency to be destructive because of their cultures' inclinations, and passed this tendency on to us, their cultural descendants.
Of course, if Quinn is correct, our culture must be changed, a daunting task; while if Diamond is correct, the solution is unclear. He suggests that we may in fact be learning to change our behavior, in our own self-interest. I don't see much evidence of this offhand. (Although recent books by Paul Hawken and Ray C. Anderson suggest that business can be reformed in a way that's good both economically and ecologically; they're next on my reading list!) Quinn and Diamond alike offer a very cautious hope for our ecological future: that we may learn from the errors of the past and change our behavior accordingly.
But how easy it is to sit and type platitudes about the fate of all human life! Read the book; I'm going to reread it myself, in order to thoroughly take in its meaning. If anyone is interested in discussing these topics, please email me.