Neal Freeland

Engineering/marketing manager, family guy. My personal blog with a few work thoughts mixed in.

The Third Chimpanzee

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Based on Dan Roger’s recommendation, I read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee (1992) while in Mexico. I took away the following:
 
1. Humans are descended from animals. Diamond shows that the things we think distinguish humans from animals – art, language, lifecyle (long child rearing period, menopause, long lives) – have strong roots in our biological history. There is a TON of fascinating detail covering a wide range of topics, and is essentially an articulate reinforcement of the latest science showing the truth behind Darwin’s theories.
 
2. Language is the key to rise of humanity. It’s obvious, though, that humans are somehow unique, and the book postulates that language is the key. If humans are 98% the same genetically as chimpanzees, what small thing could make the huge evolutionary difference? The voice box and ability to form languages allow humans to cooperate, form more complex social organizations, and advance knowledge from one generation to the next. Language is the foundation of innovation, which has been essential to our rise. As someone who enjoys languages and can speak a few, I really liked this idea.
 
3. All humans are equal. Differences among humans in Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia, the Artic, and so on are not based on genetic selection but rather sexual selection. I’ve read Stanford research that tracks maternal genes through the millenia and shows that humans spread from Africa to all corners of the world. Diamond postulates that the reason people look different is perhaps due to genetic adaptations to local environments (fairer skin in colder climates, etc), but more likely due to random changes reinforced by our predilection for choosing mates who look most like our own families. My favorite detail: people are more likely to choose mates with similar index finger length (0.6 correlation coefficient) than economic background (only 0.2).
 
4. Random distribution of geographic resources makes some cultures and societies more successful. From #3, Diamond goes on to say that the reason European culture has come to be pre-eminent in today’s world is not because of genetic superiority. Rather, it is simply due to the fact that Europe (and its culture progenitors Greece and Rome) happened to be lucky enough to have the best natural resources. If you’ve played Risk, Civilization or World of Warcraft, this is pretty obvious. You want to found your cities or capture the areas where there are the most resources that allow you to build the biggest and most advanced armies (Diamond expanded this theory in his more famous book Germs, Guns and Steel, which I haven’t read yet). But, I don’t know. Though this theory is interesting and powerful, it sparked the biggest reaction in me. I found it somehow…Marxist, stating that all human history can be reduced to economic drivers. While I know resource advantages are helpful to some degree, my humanist side rejects this as the primary driver of history. Where is the role of the individual, of the struggle to grow and learn? Could it really be that Western culture produced Plato, Newton and Churchill simply because it happened to have plentiful deer, while other places didn’t? Do I go to work everyday, invest time into my children and bust my tail without a single ounce of impact on the fate of my culture? Of course not, so though Diamond postulates this as a strong theory it gives only a partial explanation of history.
 
5. The end is near: beware of nuclear weapons and environmental catastrophy. In this area Diamond seemed to leave the field of science and enter that of personal political view. Most of the book felt deeply analytical and data driven, the last sections felt light on science in comparison. That said, I don’t disagree with the point. It’s just hard to accept when his argument for protecting endangered species is "you never know which one matters."
 
Overall, an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
 
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Written by nealfreeland

May 11, 2008 at 2:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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