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An appeal to reason
on 26 December 2005
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. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]