mars 2016

The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee - by Jared Diamond

How did humans evolve from one out of many large animals to aquire language, art, music, to become aware of its own history and place in the universe? Jared Diamond tells an exciting,  coherent and relatively accurate story in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee - How our animal heritage affect the way we live. 

A book that tries to tell a story that spans several million years will have to be very selective. Especially when it draws data from fields such as biology, archeology, linguistics, genetics, human psychology, ecology, etc The author obviously has cut a few corners but it doesnīt really matter. There is a section at the end of the book with further reading for those that want to read more about the subjects at hand. This book is a must read for those that want to learn more about our human origins. 

Brief synopsis
There are five parts to this book. It starts off with Just another species of big mammal, a short description about our evolutionary history from several million years ago up until right before agriculture was discovered about 10 000 years ago.

The second part, An animal with a strange lifecycle, deals with what makes us different from the other primates. Changes in life-cycles were crucial to the development of language and other aspects of modern human activity. We are talking about monogamy, infidelity, sexual selection, why humans have hidden ovulation and menopause (come on! what is up with that?)

Part three continues with discussions about the development of language, art, agriculture, drug use and whether we are alone in the universe or not. I found the part about language especially intriguing. It turns out that the linguistics experts have reconstructed alot of PIE (Proto-Indo-European), a language that hasnīt been spoken for thousands of years. This part also discusses the advantages and disadvantages of agriculture, which was very interesting. Because I always figured that there was no real negative side to agriculture. Well it turns out that agriculture gives you alot of calories, but the diet will be less varied. This makes you more affected by caries and malnourishment. Not to mention that you are more affected by droughts. Most diseases could not have spread if we didnīt live in large concentrations that agriculture permits.  

The fourth part of the book is called World Conquerors. As soon as people have entered areas that previously hadnīt been discovered it usually spelled disaster for a majority of the species living there. This has led to the extinction of many many species of animals, birds, reptiles etc. Too many to count. Islands like Mauritius, Madagaskar, Crete, Hawaii, New Zealand and numerous other islands in the Pacific have lost an incredible amount of wildlife when humans arrived. "Dead as a Dodo" has even become an expression. The discovery of the american continent(asians crossing the Bering Straits about 12-14 000 years ago, not that italian sailor dude) also coincided with an entire fauna of large mammals getting extinct. So far I had heard about most of this before, but the really chilling part of the book shows that we not only conquers nature, but we also conquer each other. Through the spreading of disease, interbreeding, and even genocide. I remember from biology class in high school that most animals have the hardest competition with members of their own species. Because they fit the exact same niche they compete for the same partners and resources. Other species also fight each other and you could even say that some species have conflicts with neighbor groups. Lions, hyenas, and chimpanzees are among the species where small scale warfare has been observed.  We humans are no exception.

Xenophobia is a natural instinct and it is made much worse by our capacity for mass murder and genocide. This chapter lists all kinds of genocide through out history, from ancient times up until the 20th century. Jared Diamond discusses at length how seemingly normal people can take part in genocide. They are not necessarily crazy or different from any one of us. We all have the potential for violence. According to Diamond there are three major principles to how normal people justifies in taking part in genocide. A usefully elastic definition of "self defense", possessing the "right" religion, race or political belief and finally a different ethical code for animals. And by reducing other people to the same level as animal permits you to treat them much worse. All three rationalizations were used both in the USA and in Australia in reducing the number of natives. Not only by civilians but also by military and the government. This is also completely common to see in wartime propaganda. This part of the book is coldly rational and it all makes sense. Even if it is completely terrifying. I chill went through my spine when he discussed what the world looked like in the early 1990s. And what areas we should watch out for when it comes to genocide. He lists areas like Northern Ireland, New Caledonia, Sri Lanka, the middle east and last but not least Yugoslavia. Several of these places have experienced if not an all out genocide, definetly mass murder. Just the other day Radovan Karadzic was sentenced in Haag for his actions during the genocide in Screbenica. In trying to understand how genocide is possible we are able to minimize the chances of it happening. Globalisation of media and the understanding that we are all the same species are among the factors that will hopefully reduce violence. And according to Steven Pinker and his book The Better Angels of our Nature, this is exactly what has happened. I will have to read that book some other time. 

Reversing our progress overnight is the title for the fifth and last part of the book and it deals with the myth that species live in constant balance with each other and the environment. This is normally not true, maybe only true for short periods of time. Species migrate and whenever a predator expands into an area where the prey is not able to defend themselves disaster is usually spelled for the unlucky ones. This should be no secret as we know of many examples when rats, goats, snakes, cats etc have wiped out some indigenous species. This is especially true when predators are generalists and not dependent on any one single type of prey. The same principle applies to humans, and have done so numerous times in the past. There are countless examples after the (re)discovery of the american continent, but there are also several earlier ones. such as the extinction of the Moas from New Zealand. There are also strong indications that humans eradicated a lot of large mammals like mammoths, horses and other large herbivores from the american continent. It is obviously much harder to prove since it happened more than 10 000 years ago, but the author makes a very convincing case nonetheless.

Jared Diamond is a very interesting author, lecturer and science educator. He started out his career by studying the physiology of the gallbladder. He studied at both Harvard and Cambridge and in 1968 he became a professor in physiology at UCLA medical school.  
Ever since his childhood he had very diverse interests. Everything from learning languages, to geography, to birds and astronomy. He started writing articles for a magazine in the late 1970s, and he could finally explore his other interests. By chance he won a scholarship from the MacArthur Foundation in 1985 and this encouraged him to focus his writing for the public. He started writing The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, in 1985 and finished it in 1990. The book was published in 1992 and it turned out to be a great success. He has later expanded on the topics and published them in other books such as Why is Sex fun (1997), Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), Collapse; How societies choose to fail or succeed (2005). 
It is seems quite obvious that his later books are expansions of chapters and topics found in this book. Iīve previously read Guns, Germs and Steel, and Why Sex is Fun, whereas the book Collapse is still sitting at the book shelf. I can definitively recommend the first two books. Especially Guns Germs and Steel. It is a great read. I might write a review of that later some time. 

I really like Jared Diamonds work. He connects ancient evolutionary history with modern world events, and by doing that he demonstrates that knowledge of the natural world is crucial. If we do not understand where we are coming from how will we be able to make the best decisions? He is a great science educator and a skilled storyteller, both in writing and in the documentaries he has made. Several of his lectures, documentaries, TED Talks can be found on Youtube. I suggest you check them out. You can also buy The Third Chimpanzee at Amazon, or any other book store, or why not stop by your local library and borrow it there?

Memorable Quote:
"Along with drinking a strychnine cocktail, poking an adult rhinoceros or Cape buffalo with a spear ranks as one of the most effective means of suicide that I know." 

Have you read any of his books? What do you think? What books do you read? 

Iīve already started my next book. Itīs a short story written by no other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So far an english army doctor from the war in Afhanistan has decided to move in with a man with remarkable observation skills. A Study in Scarlet is the first of many stories of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes.... ;-) 

#JaredDiamond #TheThirdChimpanzee #Evolution #Humanorigin #Science

515 Books left!

516 books left!

Some time ago I was reading a book in the sauna at the gym I train at. I believe the author was Bertrand Russel, but it doesnīt really matter. An old man walked in and sat down next to me. We started talking and the conversation quickly started to revolve around reading. We take reading for granted in our society today and I think we forget what an amazing invention writing really is. By reading the works of Bertrand Russel, Shakespear, Julius Cesar or any other writer,  I am suddenly in the writers head hearing the thoughts about a particular subject.

Whether the writer is still alive or has been dead for a millenium is irrelevant. 
The written word is potentially immortal. We humans are definitely not immortal. 

I asked the old man what he liked to read, and I donīt really remember the subjects he talked about. But I do remember that he told me that he had to be very selective in his reading. He was in his early 60s and based on his family history he had about 10-15 years left. He normally read quite alot and probably averaged 20 books a year. Which adds up to something between 200 and 300 books left before he dies. He was very aware of his own mortality. And my own suddenly became much more real. 

I am now 37 years old, and I guess I read an average of 10-12 books every year. Based on my family history I should have about 43 years left.
If Iīm able to read 12 books a year it will be a total of 516 books. Which is not that many. I will also have to be quite selective about the books I read. 

516 books left! Letīs get cracking!

#MementoMori #reading #books 

, Notodden

Iīm interested in the natural world and normally read books about science such as biology, our evolutionary history, astronomy, and general popscience. I occasionally dabble in archeology, philosophy, ancient history, and world religions too. To mention a few interests. Iīve also been interested in Diving, Kayaking, and Triathlon for years. Have also done all kinds of martial arts for more than 10 years. Iīve now been working for the Norwegian Humanist Association (Human-Etisk Forbund) since 2012.