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This review is from: The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (Paperback)First the good points. Jared Diamond writes excellently and makes some very good arguments, his humanity and morality is evident throughout the book. The later part of the book, which highlights many of the modern worlds more repugnant acts (especially on genocide) is a masterpiece in the critique of human barbarity and it's attempted justifications. Though there is no criticism of Israel's 'ethnic cleansing', which is a bit of a disappointment. Now for the criticism. Jared Diamond seems to have at best a rudimentary understanding of evolution and natural selection, and some of his statements don't stand up to even the most cursory reflection. For example he states 'The winner takes the losers land, sometimes also the losers women, and thus the loser's opportunity to perpetuate genes'. This seems to be a very male centered way to look at the facts (a common mistake throughout the book). It evident on even a moments reflection that the women so enslaved are the mothers, sisters and daughters of the loser and therefore carry the same genes. Again on convergent evolution (and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life) 'radio communication is one of those things that happens to have evolved here..'. When did radio communication evolve? It was discovered and developed through scientific experimentation but it hasn't evolved, not ever. Another inaccuracy is the statement 'Since evolutionary multiplications of species are very slow, natural extinctions must also be slow'. Jared Diamond seems to have an antiquated Neo-Darwinian view of evolution which doesn't stand up to the actual observations in the fossil record. He states that mass extinctions are rare events, but this is simply not true, there have been many mass extinctions, which are amply recorded in the fossil record. Mass extinctions occur when the environment changes dramatically and quickly, this has occurred many times. Ecological niches in those conditions remain open, and are usually filled very quickly by pre-adapted organisms (ie those which, by accident can survive the change in environment), which also very quickly adapt, through natural selection to their 'new' niche. These are well developed arguments first proposed by Niles Eldrige and Stephen Gould, which fit the observed fossil record perfectly. An adequate understanding of the theory of punctuated equilibrium is required for anyone who wants to venture into the world of evolution, and, unfortunately the very gifted and articulate Jared Diamond seems to score very poorly indeed.
Jared Diamond makes the cardinal sin of stating that 'the vulnerable species get eliminated quickly, and what we see persisting in nature are the robust combinations of species' this statement to me is arrant nonsense. During a dramatic change in environment, for example when Humans first colonised New Zealand, was it the robust species that survived? Well it depends how you define robust. Those species best adapted to life without human predators (ie the most robust in the original environment) weren't necessarily the same ones that were the 'most robust' after Human colonisation, the goalposts had been moved. This is the case with all mass extinctions. S those which were most robust after the colonisation had a pre-adaptive advantage (avoiding humans). But there was absolutely no way of any species 'deciding' to evolve 'avoidance of humans' just in case humans decided to come (none of the species knew of the existence of humans). This is the classic definition of pre-adaptation. It's the survival of the luckiest not survival of the fittest. It's the same with dinosaurs, they were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for well over 100 million years, far longer than mammals (which were around at the time of the dinosaurs) have been the dominant terrestrial vertebrates. So did they suddenly realize 'hey guys mammals are superior lets all die'. No some cataclysmic event (for the dinosaurs, anyway) occurred. Mammals were lucky enough to survive and then through selection occupied the niches vacated by the extinct dinosaurs. If that dramatic extinction) event had not occurred then there is no doubt that dinosaurs would still rule the world and mammals would still be the 'loser vertebrate. There's an old fashioned 'Victorian era' view of evolution as being 'progressive' which is just plain wrong (Jared Diamond falls into the trap when he infers that natural selection is the sole force behind evolution (ie speciation), but it is accepted that natural selection and at least one other force must be behind speciation events), in truth selection is adaptive, and only leads to speciation or evolution during special periods (like just after extinctions). The upshot is that during periods of equilibrium (ie no dramatic environmental catastrophes) then natural selection acts to keep species as they already are, that is already well adapted to their environment.
There are some other poorly argued points in the book. Jared Diamond correctly states that we should not look for 'evolutionary'- (whatever that's supposed to mean) reasons for all our behavioural of physical characteristics, but then goes on to do just that. He looks for selective reasons for all sorts of things, without ever explaining the genetic basis of pleiotropy, which is the fact that one gene can have two or even more effects. That is that a gene can exist for a given reason, but may manifest itself in another, apparently totally unrelated way. So people may have a characteristic for one reason, but be looking for the selective reason for a totally unrelated characteristic that the same gene confers upon us. Getting back to the male centered view of the book, he spends some time on the fact that human males have inordinately (relatively speaking) large penises compared to other apes. He concludes that it's for 'display purposes'!!!!! So it couldn't be due to the fact that human women may have selected for them because that way they have more fun then? Or that there seems to be 'no selective reason' for female infidelity (but plenty for men). So can't women have chosen one male as a 'rearer' and another as a 'donator of genes'. None of these not unreasonable explanations seem to have occurred to the 'male centered' Jared Diamond.
All these criticisms aside it's still a well written book with lots of humanity and much truth, It's only the selection/evolution bit's which lack any coherence.