Monday, 7 January 2013

The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

Diamond takes you on a very readable journey through human evolution, how the various aspects of humanity - good and bad - developed. For our rise, he points to such factors as art, longevity, life cycle and language (which receives pride of place) and explores why it was we rose to become the dominant species on Earth, Diamond seeing the final proof of this in our extermination of the Neanderthals. Which leads onto genocide, one of factors that Diamond thinks will lead to our fall, alongside destruction of the ecosystem. He paints a very depressing picture, either that we’ll all nuke each other to smithereens, or wipe ourselves out through our reckless destruction of the environment. This comes in strongly at the end of the book, and I felt he was pushing his agenda too fiercely - no one likes being told they’re a member of the most violent and destructive species ever to have existed.

All developments in humans, Diamond is careful to contextualize in the animal kingdom. It seems we are not so different from other species. Take language. Vervets have at least eight words, while gorillas and chimpanzees can learn hundreds of words in sign language (they are unable to vocalize words as their anatomy is not developed for this). Humans just take language and run with it, and Diamond paints a convincing picture of how the first languages would have developed by studying modern pidgin languages, and seeing how they turn into creoles, the transition from the language containing solely concrete nouns to including abstract nouns, verbs, adjectives and grammar taking place in less than 50 years.

Much of the book was seemingly irrelevant to the main theme, but still fascinating, such as how we pick out mates. If we look at what correlates between couples, the highest correlation coefficient was for religion, ethnic background, race, socioeconomic status, age and political views (+0.9). +0.4 for personality, intelligence, neatness and IQ. But surprisingly, +0.2 for physical similarities: hair; height; length of middle finger. It seems we fall for people who resemble ourselves, which is because, according to Zanker, we find people attractive who look similar to our parents / siblings, the people we spent the most time with growing up, and our spouses will look like us because we look like them. Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

The book is weak in places, however, such as his deviation concerning the existence of aliens. A popular theory, backed by those such as Richard Dawkins, is that on a planet that could support life, it is probable that intelligent life will evolve in a similar way to Earth, thanks to convergent evolution - nature using the same strategy over and over. For example, flight has evolved four times on Earth, in insects, birds, pterodactyls and bats. Diamond, however, uses one counter-example (the woodpecker, which has no counterparts elsewhere in the world) to weaken the case. However, I’m not sure he weakens it very much. Overall, however, quite a brilliant book. 8.3/10.

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