How Our Animal Heritage Affects The Way We Live

Jared Diamond

London, 1991.

Covering the same grand story as Wills' book, but with different emphases, Diamond presents a brilliant panorama, with chapters like "The Science of Adultery", "Horses, Hittites and History", "Why Do We Smoke, Drink, and Use Dangerous Drugs?", and an appendix, "Neo-Melanesian in One Easy Lesson". The latter is just one example of Diamond's discussions of language in human culture, something he knows a good deal about, as well as working in the fields of physiology, zoology and ecology.

A staggering example of linguistic diversity is found in New Guinea, a place Diamond is very familiar with, studying both birds and human cultures there:

"New Guinea, with less than one-tenth of Europe's area and less than one-hundredth of its population, has about 1000 languages, many of them unrelated to any other known language in New Guinea or elsewhere!" (p.210)

In the opening chapter on taxonomy, the author explains the title of the book:

"there are not one but three species of genus Homo on Earth today: the common chimpanzee, Homo troglodytes; the pygmy chimpanzee, Homo paniscus; and the third chimpanzee or human chimpanzee, Homo sapiens." (p.21)

Of course, such a statement is not going to please those who grant themselves special status in the universe. But awkward difficulties arise when we look further afield:

"Creationists believe that our species had a separate origin through divine creation. Suppose, though, that we should detect on another planet a society of seven-legged creatures more intelligent and ethical than we are, and able to converse with us, but having a radio receiver and transmitter instead of eyes and a mouth. Shall we believe that these creatures (but still not chimps) share the afterlife with us, and that they too were divinely created?" (p.186)

Of course, this issue is compounded by the likelihood that aliens would treat us with about the same respect that we accord chimps, whom we imprison, kill, experiment with, and so on (p.194).

There is a great deal of discussion of the urgent problem of widespread extinction of species caused by human activity. As in Wilson's book, the complex inter-relationships are depicted here to make a plea for action to remedy the disastrous trends and practices. The useful annotated bibliography is followed by a list of environmental organizations.

Thus we are led to political considerations, and this aspect of human culture is discussed at various points in the book, especially in respect of extinguished cultures and groups. This is taken from the appendix, "Indian Policies of Some Famous Americans":

"PRESIDENT THEODORE ROOSEVELT. 'The settler and pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages.'" (p.278)





Paul Taylor 2001