Page count: 370 pages
Category: from English
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Separating the Men From the Apes
THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE
The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.
By Jared Diamond.
IN 1784, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe triumphantly announced that he had found the cornerstone of humanity: a tiny piece of bone in the human upper jaw. The bone, though present in other mammals, including apes, had long been thought absent in us. Goethe's bone, as it became known, confirmed our continuity with nature long before Darwin formulated his theory of evolution. It was a slap in the face -- the first of many -- to people who believed in human uniqueness.
To this day, those who see our species as part of the animal kingdom continue to lock horns with those who see us as separate. While zoologists treat humans as mere animals -- and not even particularly unusual ones given the incredible diversity of life -- many social scientists still place us somewhere between heaven and earth. What is particularly attractive about Jared Diamond's book, "The Third Chimpanzee," is that he tries to strike a balance. He emphasizes our undeniable primate heritage while searching for singularly human characteristics. And instead of focusing on opposable thumbs, tool-making abilities, cooperative hunting or other common claims to uniqueness, Mr. Diamond points to the larynx as the trait that makes us human. It seems as good a try as any.
The book, which includes material that was previously published in Discover and Natural History magazines, starts out with a discussion of the genetic differences between humans and other primates. The DNA molecules of two ape species, the chimpanzee and the bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee), are so similar to human DNA molecules (a difference of only 1.6 percent) that there is no good reason, Mr. Diamond says, to place us in a separate genus. The book's title drives the message home: we are just another pongid, the "human chimpanzee."
Mr. Diamond, a physiologist at the University of California Medical School, Los Angeles, then ponders the mystery of what he calls the "Great Leap Forward" in human prehistory, which was reflected in the rather sudden appearance in the archeological record of sophisticated tools and artwork. While this leap occurred a mere 40,000 years ago, he says, most or all of our distinctly human traits, including our large brains, had been established well before this time. The magic twist allowing for the leap, according to the author, was our ability to exert fine control over spoken sounds. Hence his emphasis on the evolution of laryngeal anatomy.
IN trying to tease out which human features are directly evolved from apes and which are peculiar to us, Mr. Diamond treats a wide range of topics -- the behavior of monkeys and apes, the evolution of human sexuality, the rise of agriculture, the conquest of the world by a few dominant cultures, genocide and the environmental crisis resulting from our technological successes. All these components are discussed in lucid detail and woven together in one story of human history.
The book is written with great wit and is a pleasure to read, particularly when Mr. Diamond describes his firsthand experiences (for example, his field trips to Papua New Guinea) or deals with linguistic diversity, which appears to hold a special fascination for him. Much weaker is his treatment of primate behavior. He ignores or minimizes recent advances in this field, such as the discovery of extensive stone tool technology in some wild chimpanzee communities and the profound similarities found between human and bonobo sexuality. And he proudly perpetuates the rumor, started by Desmond Morris in "The Naked Ape," that the human penis is the longest of the primate order, a claim that anyone who has seen a bonobo's erection would hesitate to make.
WITHOUT speculation on a massive scale, it is impossible to reconstruct our past. And this book contains some rather implausible scenarios. For example, Mr. Diamond suggests that the absence of hybrids between Cro-Magnons and their predecessors, the Neanderthals, is due mainly to language; Cro-Magnons weren't attracted to the dumb Neanderthals, he suggests, because they were linguistically superior. Unlikely. After all, sexual attraction in modern humans hardly seems to know a language barrier. Yet I see such farfetched theses as this as an asset. The book's provocative style forces one to reflect thoroughly on the puzzle of human evolution, on where we came from and where we may be heading.
By recognizing that our noblest traits evolved hand-in-hand with a proclivity for murder and environmental exploitation, the author believes that we can eliminate the current clouds above our heads: the possibility of a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. If we can learn from our past, we may be able to create a somewhat brighter future. Yet the author also quotes an early explorer's bitter comment on the endlessly repeated stupidities and oversights of his predecessors: "Nothing learned, and everything forgotten." A WAY WITH STICKS
Reflect what it means when a female bowerbird finds a male with a good bower. She knows at once that that male is strong, since the bower he assembled weighs hundreds of times his own weight. . . . She knows that the male has the mechanical dexterity needed to weave hundreds of sticks into a hut, tower or walls. He must have a good brain, to carry out the complex design correctly. He must have good vision and memory to search out the required hundreds of decorations. . . . And he must be dominant over other males . . . since males spend much of their leisure time trying to wreck and steal from each other's bowers. . . . By comparison with bowerbirds, our efforts to identify mates with good genes are pathetic. -- From "The Third Chimpanzee."
Frans B. M. de Waal is a professor of psychology at Emory University, a primatologist at the Yerkes Primate Research Center and the author of "Chimpanzee Politics" and "Peacemaking Among Primates."
- Separating the Men From the Apes (Frans B. M. de Waal, The New York Times, March 15, 1992)