Human beings have always liked to think of themselves as special. We are unique. We are distinctive in our actions, our bodies, our minds or our souls. The human animal is unparalleled among the creatures of Earth. Perhaps we are peculiar in all the known universe. Is it because of something in our genes, the very DNA that produces life, that we are rare? Or does it have to do with our ability to use language. The remarkable thing about us may be our minds; its ability to realize we exist and others exist separate from us. Possibly the miracle is a spark from some divine creator. We can see this belief in our mythology, our theology, and even in our early development and psychology. Perhaps what makes us different is not something special but something darker. Our propensity to hurt ourselves or others; to the point we are capable of destroying all life on our small blue globe.
So what, exactly, is it that does make us special? What is it that makes us different – some would even say better or more important – than the rest of all life on our planet? Are we, in fact, special at all or our we just another – albeit less harry – chimpanzee? Not even a great ape but just another in a long line of upright standing mammal?
This is the question Jared Diamond asks in The Third Chimpanzee: the Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. He asks it not with metaphysics or theology but with biology, geography and social science. He questions our unique construction, the places we live and how we interact; both inter-species and intra-species, and which of these key components that can be measured may – or may not – either separately or in combination be the key that makes us human.
I’ve read the other two books in what is colloquially known as Dr. Diamonds’ “trilogy”. With Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Dr. Diamond expounds on the questions asked in this book.
In Guns, Germs and Steel he concentrates on the geography of why human society, Western Eurasian society in particular, has spread across the globe. What was it that allowed European technology to flourish while African and American societies were hindered in their progress. Utilizing geography he demonstrates it was not any inherent superiority in the Europeans themselves but rather a quirk of good geographic luck. The wide open plains and steppe of Europe and Central Asia allowed the development of agriculture and animal husbandry; and hence advanced society, sooner in Eurasia. Likewise the sweeping continent allowed technological advances as well as disease to spread easily. Thus providing faster distribution of knowledge and immunity to a wider array of illness.
Collapse focuses on the social and environmental impact of the human species on both itself and the the world in which we live. Looking at societies from Indonesia, Mesoamerica, South Pacific Islands and even Africa, Dr. Diamond demonstrates human beings often act shortsightedly. We fail to see or wantonly ignore the damage we are responsible for until it is to late. Often the damage takes a long time to accrue; as in the fertile crescent or Petra, once the breadbasket of the Middle East. It can also happen within a few generations, as on small South Pacific islands; where the new human arrivals use up scarce resources. The effects of human intervention, either ignored or mistaken, often last long after those who caused the damage have moved on or perished.
The germs (if you’ll excuse the pun) of these ideas are found in The Third Chimpanzee. Dr. Diamond dedicates this book to, who at the time were small boys, his two young sons. He hopes that by trying to examine whether it is biology – the small 2% difference in DNA- or sociology – our use of language or development of society or propensity to hurt ourselves or others – which makes us more than just apes. With each exploration he shows we are not unique. Other animals use some form of language; tool use, while not wide spread, is there with other animals, even beyond primates. Even our use of drugs to our own detriment is not unique, and the trait we most abhor, the purposefully killing of another is practiced by other creatures as well.
It seems we are different not in kind but only in quantity to the rest of the animal kingdom. We seem to have the broadest vocabulary of all animals. Humans create the largest impact on the environment. We, and only we, have the ability to completely wipe ourselves from the face of the Earth. With his exploration of our similarities to the rest of the animal kingdom, Dr, Diamond has hope that we can learn. That we are able to see our similarities as well as our distinctiveness and embrace our true position in the universe. As the third chimpanzee.
Looking at our psychological development as individuals, it seems to mirror the journey the human race has taken in its own understanding of our place in the universe. Starting out we are the end all and be all of existence. The sun rises and sets for us and about us. As we grow we start to see that there are other creatures around, but surely they can’t be anywhere near as important as we are. Later, some of us at least, come to realize that there are others and they are just as important as we are. The world does not revolve around us but we interact with a much larger world. If we are very lucky we discover that we really see some of these others as more important than ourselves. So important their continued existence is worth more to us than anything – including our own. These are the people we claim to love, honor, revere and cherish.
If, as Dr. Diamond hopes throughout this book and the rest of his “trilogy”, we can learn to see beyond our simple means we can embrace not our uniqueness but our connection to the rest of the world. Then, perhaps, we will see this connection does not diminish us but broadens who we are as both species and individual. We can see that as a unique part of a greater whole we have a duty and a responsibility to think beyond our selfishness to the greater good.