Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee

Today’s book review is The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond. I read this book after his other two; Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (a worthy Pulitzer Prize winner), and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (not as good, but still fascinating). Interestingly, there are two chapters in this book that are each the genesis of those later books, where he develops the whole argument for each of those later books, without the detailed evidence.

This book touches on all sorts of topics, but the broad point of it is describing how human beings fit into the broad sweep of evolution as animals, rather than something other. In developing the theme, Diamond manages to talk about human evolution (what was the small but significant change that made us human?), human races (arguing that races are sexual selection in action, as we tend to marry someone who looks as much like us as possible), the evolution reason for drug addiction, the origin of the original European language (somewhere near Lithuania), and the evolutionary rationale for menopause and old age.

There are a whole lot of interesting topics in here. There are a few I found fascinating. The discussion of the possibility that the reason for races is much less about actual sensible natural selection and much more about sexual selection – people tend to choose marriage partners from people who look like themselves, even down to choosing people with similar kinds of earlobes as themselves.

The reason for humans being a longer lived species than average is that there is an evolutionary benefit – once you can talk, it is helpful to have a grandparent to explain the world to you. But if you are more likely to die in accidents, there is less evolutionary benefit, which explains why women are longer lived (on average) than men.

And pervading the book, some great cynicism about the romantic myths people have about hunter gatherer lifestyles. Hunter gatherers can (and did) destroy the environment. They were quite often violent. Most of their food came from scavenging and gathering, not the mammoth kills that get written up in the history books. But, on average, they still had a better life than the early farmers who were poorly nourished, and terrible subject to epidemic disease.

Diamond is a writer who manages to synthesize research from all sorts of different disciplines into one place, and seems (to an educated amateur, at least) to add something new to the synthesis.

I found his later books to be less of a grab bag, with better developed themes, but this one was definitely a thought provoking read. I suspect that Diamond could genuinely write a book on each chapter, and it would be a good one.

  1 comment for “Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee

  1. October 11, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    I read this after the other books as well, and I was left thinking like you that this was very much someone developing their ideas. In some ways I found this a disappointment because you had already read the full expose and now were getting the abridged version. Still it was an interesting book.

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