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]
on 1 September 2006
"The Third Chimpanzee" was Diamond's first major book, and it sows the seeds for his three more recent works, "Why is Sex Fun?", "Guns, Germs and Steel", and "Collapse". Many of the chapters here introduce the ideas of the later books prior to their later expansion and development.
Diamond's aim is to view human history through the lens of biology: given that we are about 98% genetically identical to chimps, what light does that shed on our own life-cycle, culture, history and destiny?
The book's first section briefly documents our genetic history - our divergence from a proto-chimp ancestor, and the development of homo sapiens over about six million years (homo erectus, homo habilis etc). Diamond is always keen to draw out the political implications of his science, and suggests that if we were to label chimps as "homo troglodytes" rather than "pan troglodytes", we might make different ethical decisions about their treatment. I found this first section all too-brief - I'd have liked to see a lot more detail on the biological commonalities and differences between humans and chimps.
The second section reviews the human life-cycle, particulary our sexuality - why are we monogamous? How do we choose mates? What can sexual selection suggest about human races? This draws heavily on comparisons and contrasts with other animal species and I found it all interesting.
The third section covers the evolution of things that might seem "uniquely human" - language, art, agriculture, drug use - and traces animal precursors to see whether we really are as unique as we think. I found all of this to be far too brief - a whole book on this area would have been interesting. I did find sympathy with Diamond's argument that the development of agriculture was as much a curse as a blessing (being the source of the apparatus for political oppression).
The next section enters the territory of "Guns, Germs and Steel", discussing how much of human history has been determined by geographical and biological accident e.g. the difficulty in migrating crops across continents with a strong north-south axis (Africa and America) leading to a slower pace of development. This section also asks why the human race seems to be prone to genocide, again with a strong political slant.
The final section covers extinction - both analysing the countless past extinctions of other species that humans have caused, and the implications for our own future.
Throughout, the book's willingness to spell out political implications is very welcome. I also appreciated the extent to which the content draws on Diamond's own extensive work in New Guinea. On the downside, there are just too many ideas here, and it would be nice to see them all explored at greater length - although of course that's exactly what the author has since done in other books.
on 17 May 2007
2006 Harper Perennial reissue of 1st edition (1992), 368 pages
This is another of the twenty books Charlie Munger recommends in the second edition of Poor Charlie's Almanack (which I recommend very strongly you get and read). Two of Jared Diamond's books make it on to the list (this one plus Guns, Germs and Steel), so I had high hopes for his first book, The Third Chimpanzee. I wasn't disappointed.
A big theme in Poor Charlie's Almanack is the importance of multi-disciplinary learning. Munger believes that many/most academic disciplines suffer from `man with a hammer syndrome': if your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. Jared Diamond is a man who comes equipped with a full tool kit: he started off in medical research, then pursued a parallel second career in bird ecology, evolution and biogeography and is learning his twelfth language.
The first part of this book is about where we came from and how we have become so different to all of the other animals, when, for example, only 1.6% of our DNA differs from that of a chimpanzee. The second part is about our likely future as evidenced by our relatively recent past (though these broad headings are actually subdivided into five sections by the author).
The book is full of interesting facts and surprising (and well argued) theories. The evidence that he discusses when looking at whether we ever lived in harmony with nature and how far back and regularly our human genocidal tendencies manifested themselves is rather disquieting. It suggests strongly, for example, that my own laissez faire attitude towards the environment is emphatically not justified by human history. The difference between us and the Easter Islanders or Anasazi Indians is that we have a global resource base to compromise before we run into serious trouble.
Diamond also has a theory of how the plant and animal species available for domestication may well have proved the decisive factor in determining which of our societies spread and became dominant. I had not come across it before at all and I found it extremely interesting - it is a prime example of how broadening the information under review may lead to completely different and unusual conclusions.
The Third Chimpanzee is an excellent and interesting book and I have already purchased his next book Guns, Germs and Steel. (I particularly recommend the 2006 Harper Perennial reissue as it contains an interesting addendum at the back with information about Diamond, some recommended further reading, and, most importantly he also discusses new scientific discoveries made since the original 1992 edition.)
on 20 January 2000
I found the whole book very very interesting, enjoyable and informative, and would recommend it to anybody with an interest in human evolution and human behaviour. I thought it would be useful to add a comment from a particular starting point. I'm a student English teacher, taking a Year 10 class in The History of the English Language. I have found Chapter 15 of the book, "Horses, Hittites, and History", a great starting point for teaching material for this course - the chapter presents the arguments in favour of the majority of modern European languages having their root in "Proto-Indo-European", and considers how, when and why this became the dominant language group in pre-historic Europe and how it became the parent and grandparent of so many modern European languages.
Jared Diamond's hard-hitting book paints a hyper-realistic and thorough picture of the place of mankind in the Darwinian evolution, of its tiny genetic, but huge `intellectual' differences with apes, of the deep animal roots of its behavior and of the evolutionary trade-offs explaining biological imperfections.
His book is divided in five parts.
Part one discusses the ascent of man and the great leap forward in the Darwinian evolution due to skeletal changes, upright walking and the use of tools.
Part two gives a full picture of man's life cycle: a limited number of offspring, parental care, mating selection with conception as only a by-product of copulation, social relations and life expectancy (slow aging).
Together with `normal' animal behavior like rape, infanticide, intergroup warfare or adultery, mankind has some unique characteristics like the menopause of women and the treatment of the latter through asymmetric adultery laws or genital mutilations.
Part three analyzes man's cultural traits, In the first place, the ascent of agriculture and its most important concomitant characteristics, like demographic explosions, rampant malnutrition, gross social and sexual inequalities, epidemic diseases and political dictatorships; also, language, art and technology.
Part four treats a unique and destructive feature of mankind: xenophobic killing of other human groups en masse, mostly in fighting for lebensraum. Man's arsenal of nuclear weapons can wipe out all living things on earth.
Part five analyzes man's assault on the environment (e.g., the self-destructive chemical abuse) and his mass extermination of other living species, on which depends his own survival.
Despite his pessimistic vision, Jared Diamond remains still cautiously optimistic because man has the power to find solutions for the actual dire state of the planet he lives on.
This book is a must read for all those who want to know who we are and in what kind of world we are actually living.
on 15 July 2009
The book :The Third Chimpanzee" by Diamond is a <must read> - indeed fascinating in its overview of the human genesis, rational and logic in the description of the various development steps, the discussion of scientific disputes of interpretation and in the author's own conclusions. By stressing (and giving evidence of) the animal-ancestry of humans, it humbles one's own perception of being, illuminating the slight difference we have in our genes from the chimpanzees, and at the same time making one aware of the fragility, both of ourselves, and our dependance on the environment.
Diamond is a gifted writer, one is spellbound by the development of his thesis, and the interspersed personal experiences make the thesis trustworthy and lively.
His is an eloquent and potent warning against our own self-inflicted extinction - currently running full steam against the wall.
I bought and read the follow-on books "guns, steel and germs" and "collapse" and they are equally gripping.
I gave numbers to all my friends to read - so convinced I am :-)
You'll enjoy it !
hans-werner wabnitz, France
on 15 August 2007
This is a brilliant examination of the rise of mankind from just another species of big mammal to our current domination of the earth, and an important exposition of our position in the world today.
Diamond combines many disciplines to produce a riveting dissection of humanity to dispel any myths of inimitable human nature, presenting examples of "human" nature in the animal kingdom, and the reasons for our sudden rise in The Great Leap Forward.
Diamond continues by warning the reader of the severe consequences of ignoring the destruction of the environment, ideas he pursued further in Collapse. Diamond, however, remains optimistic of our ability to learn from our mistakes and those if fallen civilisations, sentiments I don't share.
Like all of Diamond's books, this is immensely readable, and tackles a subject of great importance to how we perceive ourselves, our place in the universe, and the world around us.
on 9 May 2012
When I first read this book (10 tears ago)I was fascinated and spellbound. All our most updated human knowledge in nearly all kind of sciences is summed up and put into one compelling story, the rise of our planet, rise of the animals, of mammals, of the 3 types of chimps, including ourselves, and the development of our human traits and behavior and our development of modern civilizations. Well written and fact based this book deserves to be read by you. The questions WHO are we? WHERE do we come from? Where are we going? are put and explained by Jared Diamond and Where we come from are now partly answered. Everything Darwin discovered and documented about change and evolution in species are nowadays explained and verified in details by the discovery of our Genes. The other logical conclusion of Darwin`s theory and work is that we humans are ANIMALS. Many sciences like psychology, psychiatry, sociology and economy will benefit from understanding and taking into account that first of all we are brainy animals partly driven by instincts, only on top of this animal thinking are our human logical decisions made.
So what is the future of humankind? If we want to think and act for a better future, we should first read this book, to understand who we really are. That should help to guide us on to the right track I hope.
on 9 October 1996
This book opened my eyes to various traits once considered
unique to humans over animals. Mr. Diamond lists and provides
examples from the animal kingdom which debunk our ideas of
uniqueness. I found the text lucid, thought-provoking, and
occasionally very humorous. If you think you are in control
of your ideas and ethics, then this book is a neccesary read.
on 21 April 2013
He writes well, I first read Guns Germs and Steel, then Collapse before feeling that I ought to see where he started in books. Great description of mammalian nature and how it applies to us and our troubles. Not a problem to read his works out of order but he does expand on issues in this book, in his later books. If I had my time again I would read them more in order.