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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Third Chimpanzee

The Third Chimpanzee
The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal
by Jared Diamond

Originally published in 1992, The Third Chimpanzee covers a broad range of topics drawing from author's personal experience and research on environmental determinism to anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, archaeology.

Each chapter in this book can easily develop into a book of its own. It seems a Herculean task to paraphrase this book and do justice to it.

His later book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (GG&S) won the Pulitzer prize and is an astounding read. Many of the seeds for GG&S (and a later book "Collapse") were sown in The Third Chimpanzee.

The first part of the book talks about genetics and evolution. I found The Selfish Gene by Dawkins far more compelling. But, I am just a curious layman, so, I could be partial to the idea of natural selection as laid out in Dawkins' book.

However, the author's argument for aging was not only interesting but was quite funny. Much like some evolutionary adaptations in other species which seem contrary to their persistence and well-being, aging at first glance might seem antithetic to human evolutionary perfection.

The chapter on linguistics, tracing back to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) peoples absolutely fascinated me. To be able to linguistically reconstruct human evolution must be formidable, especially since nothing much can be conclusive about languages prior to the oldest written record that archaeologists can find.

The impact of first contact on pockets of well-preserved cultures was another interesting chapter, considering that many of these isolated cultures barely knew about their own neighbors let alone far off lands.

The sections dealing with agriculture and art were thought-provoking. Some of the romantic myths about hunter-gatherer lifestyle was crumpled and tossed aside with the author's strong presentation of historical and research data.

And, until farming was mastered, the nomadic lifestyle relying solely on hunting and foraging left little room for pursuit of art and leisure. And, once the lifestyle afforded leisure, the class system was inevitable where a handful profited from the toil of the rest using power or force.

What makes us unique? The human animal branched off from its nearest ancestors - the pygmy chimpanzee and the common chimpanzee - not too long ago and rapidly evolved into a species with such uncommon traits that let them take over the whole earth.

Yet, despite our supposed superiority, we exhibit disturbing characteristics of self-destruction - by destroying our environment, by genocide, and by self-inflicted drug-abuse.

The chapter on genocide was very hard to read - all historical facts, not commonly discussed, but the Holocaust was not the biggest and the only mass murder of our own species as the author painfully points out the Zimbabwe history.

The second half of the book is the basis for the GG&S and Collapse books that came later. His talk on Why Societies Collapse is quite interesting, even if rather heavy and professorial.

The Third Chimpanzee is an eye-opening book which cannot be read in a hurry. Much like Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, this book left me with far deeper ideas to ponder on than mere day-to-day existence, or even the staggering vastness of our Universe. This book forces us to turn inwards, regardless of our particular flavor of belief-system/faith and probe our collective psyche and correct our course before it is too late.

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Blogger Dale said...

Thank you for this! I haven't read Diamond yet, but clearly I must.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Sheela said...

Good to hear from you, Dale! Hope all's well at your end.

12:19 PM  

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