Diamond: The Third Chimpanzee

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Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee : The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. 407 pages, with "Further Readings" and index; illustrated.

The title comes from the observation, still new at the time he wrote it, that humans and chimpanzees share 98 percent of their genetic material. Diamond supposes, if our planet were visited by Martians, they would see humans as a third species of chimpanzee. This is Diamond's basic theme for the book: how do humans differ from chimpanzees. It's a broad theme and he doesn't adhere at all strictly to it.

His ruminations wander widely through topics of the evolution of humankind: the workings of sexual selection in creating the unusual human sexuality; language, art, and what makes humans human; how some humans came to dominate other humans in world conquest; and whether humankind is heading towards ecological destruction and human extinction.

In some ways this book essays in broad strokes the themes that Diamond would take up in much more detail in his later books, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse. One could, then, treat this as a faster way to read his arguments, but reading The Third Chimpanzee is no substitute for reading the later volumes, nor is it without value on its own.

As in the later books, Diamond's writing is straightforward and lucid; he gives the impression that it's just doing its job, but it's really better than that. His discussion moves along smartly and, by the end of each chapter, the reader arrives at the conclusion via economy of argument and clear expression without a bunch of fancy doo-dads. It's a style that manages to stay subordinate to its substance.

Among the major lifestyle changes in early humans, certainly the transition from hunting and gathering to a settled, agricultural life was a huge change. Many have hailed it as the first step in civilizing humanity, but Diamond wonders whether it was the unmitigated progress it's sometimes claimed to be. Hunter-gatherers lived in smaller groups and had more personal independence; was peasantry and feudal servitude really an improvement? It used to be thought that hunter-gatherers would have to have spent nearly every waking hour scratching for food merely to stay alive, but more recent calculations—coupled with less bigoted notions about "primitive" people—finds that hunter-gatherers actually averaged several hours of leisure a day.

Here Diamond considers another metric that might shed some light on the question: height.

One straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Many modern cases illustrate how improved childhood nutrition leads to taller adults: for instance, we stoop to pass through doorways of medieval castles built for a shorter, malnourished population. Paleopathologists studying ancient skeletons from Greece and Turkey found a striking parallel. The average height of hunter-gatherers in that region toward the end of the Ice Age was a generous five feet ten inches for men, five feet six inches for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, reaching by 4000 B.C. a low value of only five feet three for men, five feet one for women. By classical times, heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the heights of their healthy hunter-gatherer ancestors. [p. 186]

In the remote past groups of humans lived without knowledge of each other. Centuries and periods of exploration later, the world has grown smaller and it has become increasingly rare—now almost unheard of—for an unknown group of people to be discovered. Diamond recounts the beginning of the end of that long phase of human history at the start of the chapter "The Last First Contacts":

On August 4, 1938, a biological exploring expedition from the American Museum of Natural History made a discovery that hastened toward its end a long phase of human history. That was the date on which the advance patrol of the Third Archbold Expedition (named after its leader, Richard Archbold became the first outsiders to enter the Grand Valley of the Balim River, in the supposedly uninhabited interior of west New Guinea. To everyone's astonishment, the Grand Valley proved to be densely populated—by fifty thousand Papuans, living in the Stone Age, previously unknown to the rest of humanity and themselves unaware of others' existence. In search of undiscovered birds and mammals, Archbold had found an undiscovered human society. [p. 223]

This is the way into his discussion of another favorite topic of his: world conquest. Why was it that Europeans conquered the Americas, and not the other way around? This is the big question Diamond address in his later book Guns, Germs, and Steel, but he begins working out his answer in this book, and links the early rise of civilization in the middle east with a couple of general factors, geography being one, the availability of grasses amenable to cultivation, and the number of animals capable of domestication are others.

Humans have caused a number of animal species to go extinct. Humans have also exterminated races of people. When white settlers in Australia arrived in Tasmania, conflict with the indigenous Tasmanians was immediate, rounds of violence ensued that quickly escalated.

Naturally, Tasmanians retaliated, and whites counterretaliated in turn. To end the escalation, Governor Arthur in April 1828 ordered all Tasmanians to leave the part of their island already settled by Europeans. To enforce this order, government-sponsored groups called "roving parties," consisting of convicts led by police, hunted down and killed Tasmanians. With the declaration of martial law in November 1828, soldiers were authorized to kill on sight any Tasmanian in the settled areas. Next, a bounty was declared on the natives: five British pounds for each adult, two pounds for each child, caught alive. "Black catching," as it was called because of the Tasmanians' dark skins, became big business pursued by private as well as official roving parties. At the same time a commission headed by William Broughton, The Anglican archdeacon of Australia, was set up to recommend an overall policy toward the natives. After considering proposals to capture them for sale as slaves, poison or trap them, or hunt them with dogs, the commission settled on continued bounties and the use of mounted police. c In 1830 a remarkable missionary, George Augustus Robinson, was hired to round up the remaining Tasmanians and take them to Flinders Island, thirty miles away. Robinson was convinced that he was acting for the good of the Tasmanians. He was paid 300 pounds in advance, 700 pounds on completing the job. Undergoing real dangers and hardship, and aided by a courageous native woman named Truganini, he succeeded in bringing in the remaining natives—initially, by persuading them that a worse fate awaited them if they did not surrender, but later at gunpoint. Many of Robinson's captives dies en route to Flinders, but about two hundred reached there, the last survivors of the former population of five thousand.

On Flinders Island Robinson was determined to civilize and christianize the survivors. His settlement was run like a jail, at a windy site with little fresh water. Children were separated from parents to facilitate the work of civilizing them. The regimented daily schedule included Bible reading, hymn singing, and inspection of beds and dishes for cleanness and neatness. However, the jail diet caused malnutrition, which combined with illness to make the natives die. Few infants survived more than a few weeks. The government reduced expenditures in the hope that the natives would die out. By 1869 only Truganini, one other woman, and one man remained alive. [Truganini, that last Tasmanian, died in 1876.]

In a late chapter, "The Golden Age that Never Was", Diamond talks about a myth that has long irked me: the notion that earlier people once lived in "perfect harmony" with their environment. They didn't: they exterminated species and destroyed habitat—even their own. (That destruction would be the topic of Diamond's later book Collapse).

Mammoths once roamed North America, but they disappeared about the time that humans entered the continent across the land-bridge that once crossed the Bearing Strait. Could these earliest humans in North America, known as the Clovis people, have exterminated the mammoths? Diamond does a calculation for plausibility and concludes that it's possible, but that evidence might not be abundant.

Could Clovis hunters have killed mammoths fast enough to exterminate them? Assume again that an average square mile supports one hunter-gatherer and (by comparison with elephants in Africa today) one mammoth, and that one-quarter of the Clovis population consisted of adult male hunters who each killed a mammoth every two months. That means six mammoths killed per four square miles per year, so the mammoths would have had to reproduce their numbers in less than a year to keep up with the killing. Yet modern elephants are slow breeders that take about twenty years to reproduce their numbers, and few other large mammal species breed fast enough to reproduce their numbers in less than three years. Thus, it could plausibly have taken Clovis hunters only a few years to exterminate the large mammals locally and to move on to the next are. Archaeologists trying to document the slaughter today are searching for needles in a fossil haystack: a few years' worth of butchered mammoth bones among the bones of all the mammoths that dies naturally over hundreds of thousands of years. It's no wonder that so few mammoth carcasses with Clovis points among the ribs have been found. [pp. 346—347]

The book is perhaps starting to show its age, and in some ways has been superseded by Diamond's later books, but it still makes for good reading, and there's plenty of material that does not show up in the later books that makes it worthwhile.

-- Notes by JNS

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