Tuesday, 1 July 2003

The third chimpanzee

Listening to:

Simon and Garfunkel, The sound of silence.

Just read:

Jared Diamond, The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee: the evolution and future of the human animal.

This interesting book is all about humanity’s prehistory, its origins as a primate species, some of humanity’s unique behaviours, and what these behaviours might mean for our future. The title stems from genetic analysis revealing that humans have a more recent common ancestor with chimpanzees than chimpanzees or humans do with gorillas. Given that humans share such a high proportion of their DNA with chimpanzees (98.4%), they might reasonably be seen as a third chimpanzee species, in addition to the two other species (“normal” and pygmy chimpanzees).

The first sections of the book are about human biology, and how various aspects of our biology resemble and differ from that of the other primates. Diamond is amusing on sexual behaviour, and sexual characteristics, speculating on why it is that humans are principally monogamous while still living in groups (unlike the other chimpanzees and unlike gorillas), why they have sex in private, why their genitals are different from the other species, and how mate selection happens.

These early sections of the book also explain why evolution might have produced effects that might not seem to make evolutionary sense when first looked at, including aging and menopause. Diamond also discusses some unique (and mainly positive) human traits (language, farming, art) that arguably have animal precursors, or at least explanations based on animal behaviours. This material is fascinating.

Diamond then moves on to three ‘unique’ behaviours in humans that are clearly bad: destruction of the environment, destruction of each other (genocide), and drug (ab)use. He discusses each of these three in turn. I found the section on drug use easily the least convincing. Diamond claims that it might be some sort of mating display akin to look, I’m so tough I can handle this awful drug, and still stand up straight; come and have sex with me this very instant! (by analogy with peacock tails, which are a ridiculous handicap, but which still serve to attract mates). I wouldn’t deny that this might explain some aspects of alcohol use in the modern world, but it is not very convincing.

Diamond doesn’t back up his claim that this is uniquely human. (What of catnip and cats? Have there not been experiments trying to feed chimpanzees alcohol, or other drugs?) Diamond also doesn’t give any time to the obvious argument that drugs get used simply because brain chemistry happens to produce pleasant effects when certain substances are ingested. I do remember reading about an experiment that demonstrated that some species of animal would repeatedly press the button that stimulated their brains’ pleasure reaction (they’d been wired up somehow) rather than the food button. The animals starved to death. This seems to me to be pretty analogous to drug use, suggesting that addictive behaviours are not really unique to humans at all, and that it has nothing to do with sexual selection displays.

Talking about destruction of the environment, Diamond discusses the New Zealand Maori (extinction of the moa and a variety of other bird species, including an awesome-sounding eagle species), the North American Indians, the Easter Islanders, a central American civilisation that turned its environment into a desert, the Middle East in general, and all of the modern world, with its rapacious, and probably unsustainable, appetite for resources, regardless of the long-term cost. There’s a certain overlap here with the material in Flannery’s The eternal frontier, and also with material I believe Diamond is about to turn into another book (about human-induced environmental catastrophes), but it’s all good.

On genocide, Diamond covers things in a rather bitty way. He discusses how it is that the farmer humans did so much better than the hunter-gather humans, which stuff he later expanded on in Guns, germs and steel (which I highly recommend). He talks about the humanity’s usual xenophobia, and also mentions that chimpanzee troupes fight wars too (they’re just much less efficient at it, not having weapons). He also has a cute chapter about the likelihood of being contacted by aliens: one, intelligence is not necessarily as inevitable as you might think (cue cool example about, yes, woodpeckers); two, if humanity’s anything to go by, maybe intelligent species all end up wiping themselves out in short order; so, three, don’t hold your breath waiting for the aliens to arrive. He talks about various genocides in recent history (depressing reading, and the book isn’t even recent enough to include Rwanda’s most recent genocide, nor what happened in Yugoslavia).

Diamond concludes that at least some of us realise that much of what we’re doing is horribly unsustainable, so that maybe this is grounds for some optimism. A very good read.

Now reading:

Patrick O’Brian, The letter of marque.


Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, Jonatham Wiener (Beak of the Finch) and god (a nonxistent, but usefully omniscient, entity) knows how many others. I just get so bored and irritated by the thinness of content. Journalese waffle expanding 5 pages of science into a 300-page piece of what? "Popular science" I suppose. Like the BBC 'Horizon' show: it takes 50 minutes to communicate about ten facts. The one I liked (i.e. lothed) best was the one on fullerenes (C60 etc) which took 50 minutes to divulge next to nothing.
And like any other piece of journalism, full of misunderstandings, half-baked notions and bland assertion of opinions or speculations as extablished fact.
I suggest you (and I) stop reading literary infotainnment. Try this gedunken experiment: consider if the world be any the worse if S J Gould or J Diamond had never written anything. My considered conclusion is that it wouldn't matter a flying fart.
Go to the source, not the commercial shit: you are above it.

Posted by: Jones at July 5, 2003 01:06 PM