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The Third Chimpanzee

08 Oct 2008

A prequel to Collapse and one of my all-time favorites, Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond here focuses on the evolution of the human species.

While his later books go into greater detail of the evolution of human society, Diamond started at the basics a few years ago with this one. It’s well written and easy to read, with Diamond’s typical half-data, half-anecdote style. I used to have a real problem with this kind of style, but I’m starting to understand that, done right, this is the only way to apply historical perspective.

I’m not sure I would recommend this to be the top of any reading list, as I would GG&S. Diamond spends a lot of time talking about the evolution of language, for example, and that’s a topic explored in much greater detail and with better supporting data by Pinker in The Language Insinct. Further, the book is already dated, more recent human evolutionary data has settled some arguments that Diamond spends several pages discussing.

The best parts are easily the first-hand experiences of stone-age tribes in New Guinea and how they interact with each other. Whenever I read Diamond’s descriptions of tribes slaughtering each other for wives and hunting grounds, it makes me remember just how ridiculous some modern plans for large-scale social engagement really are, and the resilient community concept has a chance to succeed where other forms of sustainable social organization must inevitably fail.

Diamond writes well, and even recovering some old ground is fun. I got the book for 33% off and certainly feel like I got my money’s worth.