Monday, November 12, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Scientist Jared Diamond traces our rise from animal status to predominant species and outlines the destructive effect human expansion has had on the environment.

Jared Diamond is a scientist and author. He is best known for his books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.

Jared Diamond's Two Most Well Known Books 


Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) suggested that the reason for Europe’s technologically advanced society lay not in the quality of its people, but rather in the fertility of its environment. The Eurasian landmass lent itself to agriculture, which allowed food to be stored, freeing up time for research and development. The native peoples of Australia, on the other hand, lived in one of the world’s driest continents. Agriculture could not develop, and hence a modern economy failed to take root. When Australia finally did become a modern economy, it was only after the technology and knowledge for doing so was imported from Europe.

Diamond’s other famous work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), explores how societies over exploit their environments and unwittingly bring about their self- destruction. Examples include the civilisations of Easter Island, the Henderson Islands and the Maya.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee


The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee was published in 1991, before Diamond’s two most famous books. Many of the themes of the two later books can be found in embryo here, especially in the second half of The Third Chimpanzee.

The title of the book suggests that the overwhelming subject matter is about the close relationship between humans and chimpanzees. Indeed, 98.4% of human DNA is the same as chimpanzees. Hence, humans are the third chimpanzee of the book’s title. The decline of the human species prophesied by the author is due to over exploitation of the environment, causing mass extinctions and unknown ripple effects.

Despite the book’s title, the close human relationship to chimps is only really explored in the first couple of chapters. Diamond then moves on to explain human characteristics through a panoply of other animals.

Human sexuality is illuminated by an examination of the sex life of birds; the invention of language is studied via the communication techniques of chimps and apes; the phenomenon of art is shown to have parallels with the complex bowers created by bowerbirds and used to attract mates; and even self-destructive human traits are explained by animal behaviour. For example, some animals engage in dangerous, high-risk activities that help them to signal their superiority to others.

Many readers may find themselves indignantly objecting to having human sexual infidelity explained in terms of the adulteries of the blue heron. The reader must put away their vanity, afterall only 1.6% of human DNA differs from that of chimps.

The Dark Side of Human Advancement


While the first half of The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee looks at humans, the second half studies civilisation's impact on the environment. The darker aspect of technological advance has been an ever-expanding demand for more land and resources. This has meant that peoples with more advanced technologies have overtaken and exterminated less advanced peoples. Diamond sites the extermination of the Australian Tasmanian native population during the early 19th century.

Diamond also knocks on the head the Rousseau-esqe notion that hunter-gatherers of the past were all peace loving people, living in a Garden of Eden type environment. He shows that small scale warfare and inter-clan fighting were the norm. It was simply done on a smaller scale. Today, with the advances in human technology and massive population growth, the ability for mass destruction and genocide is ever present.

Lastly, the reader is reminded of the mass extinctions of plant and animal species. Diamond estimates that around seventeen species are becoming extinct every hour. Scientists have no idea what type of effect this will have on the environment at large. Essentially, it is a big gamble with the future.

Explains Diamond:

“Every species depends on other species for food and for providing its habitat. Thus, species are connected to each other like branching chains of dominoes. Just as toppling one domino in a chain will topple some others, so too the extermination of one species may lead to the loss of others, which may still push others over the brink. This fourth mechanism of extinction may be described as a ripple effect. Nature consists of so may species, connected to each other in such complex ways, that it is virtually impossible to foresee where the ripple effects from the extinction of any particular species may lead."

The human race’s rise is a cause for wonder and celebration, yet it seems that every advance has a negative somewhere in the ecology. Man’s wanting to turn himself into a god may be answered by nature’s ambivalence to such delusions.

Jared Diamond in this sobering book focuses on past societies that self-destructed by over exploitation of their environments to provide lessons about how to confront the future. To take action, the author explicitly states that what is needed is the political will.

“Hence I seek to foster that will,” writes Diamond, “by tracing in this book our history as a species.”

The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond. Published by Vintage. ISBN: 9780099913801  RRP: $29.95