What Evolution Teaches Us About Humanity's Grim Future: A Conversation With Jared Diamond
“How did I convince my beautiful wife to marry me?” asked America’s best-known geographer, Jared Diamond. Sitting at his breakfast table in a cheery yellow kitchen in Los Angeles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was attempting to answer my question of why we as humans evolved to create art, with a question of his own.
Although Diamond is best known for his 1997 work “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” in which he explained the history of Eurasian conquest, years earlier he wrote a masterful treatise on human evolution called “The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: How Our Animal Heritage Affects the Way We Live.” In subsequent editions, the book was renamed “The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.”
Today, 23 years after the book was originally published, Diamond has reissued a special edition aimed at young adults. Adapted with the help of Rebecca Stefoff, “The Third Chimpanzee for Young People” incorporates much of the latest research on human evolution to paint an increasingly intricate picture of how we as humans evolved to our current state and what lessons there are for the future of our species.
So how did Diamond ask his wife to marry him? “Since I could not give her a genetic printout, showing that I had superior genes,” continued Diamond, as an explanation for why humans pursue art, “I practiced the piano piece that I knew she loved most. And that evening I played the piece for her, and then I turned to her and I popped the question and she said yes. I can personally attest to the fact that art has contributed to my having two sons.”
The jovial 76-year-old was explaining to me in an interview the evolutionary impetus for many uniquely human developments such as language, culture and technology. It turns out that the passing down of our genes from one generation to the next drives such things as monogamous relationships, women’s menopause, and even the creation of art and music. Humans who share art, language and culture have cohesion within a group and are “bound together,” giving them an evolutionary advantage over other groups and individuals.
Modern dynamics between male and female humans have also evolved to ensure that genes are passed down from one generation to the next with great efficiency. For example, humans are among very few species in which males tend to stick around a particular female mate before, during and after pregnancy to ensure that any resulting children are actually their biological heirs. This is important given how elusive women’s fertility is to the external observer and consequently how uncertain paternity is. Because human children are so entirely dependent on adult care for many years, child care has evolved into a two-person job, and the vast majority of males and females (although not all) tend to arrange themselves as couples.
Diamond explained that it isn’t the case that our behavior is ruled by genes, as much as those genes that have survived have been the result of certain behaviors, saying, “[T]hose men who did not stay around and help raise their babies, their babies died, and whatever genes that contributed to them not staying around and helping care for their babies didn’t leave descendants in the next generation.”
Women have also evolved to abruptly lose fertility at menopause, enabling relief from the life-risking, extremely painful, and highly unpleasant task of pregnancy and childbirth, and thereby actually enabling their genes to survive through children borne in their youth. This is because women are actually more likely to be around to care for those children rather than dying in childbirth that gets riskier with age. Women in their 40s and 50s can thank evolutionary pressures for that.
Race, as seen through an evolutionary lens, is a different matter. We are told that race is a social construct, but Diamond says that’s only partially true. For one thing, it is difficult to categorize people’s race. He clarified: “Humans differ around the world but there are not sharp lines. There’s inter-gradation.” Additionally, characteristics that are visible and invisible are grouped in nonobvious ways. Diamond cited an example in which Swedes and Italians may share skin color but Italians and people from the African continent share a gene protecting them from malaria because of geographic evolution. So, should people be racially categorized by skin color or malaria genes? Since we categorize people by skin color rather than other factors, race is indeed a social construct, albeit one with many exceptions and fuzzy boundaries.
The level of racial animus that Homo sapiens have adopted against one another throughout our history may be reflective of how we treated our fellow humans of different species. Although Neanderthals no longer exist, we modern humans have some Neanderthal genes in our DNA as new research proves, indicating that at some point Homo sapiens conceived children with our fellow hominids. The question of why Neanderthals vanished has serious implications for our past, and more importantly for the future of our species and planet.
Diamond thinks that “the arrival of sapiens clearly had something to do with the end of the Neanderthals.” He explained that “Neanderthals carried on for 470,000 years and then came Homo sapiens and within a few thousand years Neanderthals are gone. In modern courts you can convict people of murder on correlative evidence less convincing than that. The least pleasant scenario is that we bopped them over the head and killed them. Another possibility is that we were just more efficient and outcompeted them and ate up their animal prey.”
The theory that Homo sapiens may have extinguished other human species that were so similar to our own ought to give great pause. I asked Diamond to imagine how we might treat Neanderthals today if some of them had survived. He had little faith in human compassion, saying, “When humans encounter other humans the result has usually not been nice. The group that has greater power or greater technology kills off or conquers the other humans. So if we encountered Neanderthals, [we would] kill them.” Given how frighteningly fast we are eradicating entire species today directly and indirectly, it is likely that we exterminated other human species like Neanderthals, and that unless we take concerted action to stop ourselves, we will continue to kill off other species as well.
Sadly, it is not clear that evolution has given modern humanity enough genetic foresight to stave off our own extinction. Our rapid pace of industrialization and the resultant climate change has led some scientists to believe we will kill ourselves off within a few decades.
There is perhaps no more distinct a period in human evolution in which we can trace back the start of our inevitable collision course with extinction than the agricultural revolution. The move from hunting and gathering to farming, which took place about 12,000 years ago, is often considered the starting point of human civilization. A greater surplus of food gave humans more free time to specialize and develop technologies. But it also resulted in poorer nutrition (people got 6 inches shorter compared with their hunter-gatherer ancestors), backbreaking labor, stark social and economic stratification, indentured servitude and widespread human misery — symptoms that remain with us today despite the outlawing of serfdom and slavery.
So why did humans choose agriculture if it brought so much misery for the majority? Diamond explained our stunning lack of foresight that even our genetic disposition for survival cannot counter, saying, “Nobody in human history has figured out how to design a new technology that will have only benefits and will not produce unexpected disadvantages.”
Today our scientific prowess has given us a clearer picture than ever before that we face extinction unless we take action immediately to mitigate climate change through revolutionary changes in how we live on this planet. According to Diamond, “The future is up for grabs.” The worst-case scenarios, according to him, are: “If we continue exploiting the world’s resources unsustainably, we will have destroyed the conditions for first world civilization and maybe for the human species at all within 30 to 50 years.” He warned, “Either we learn how to get onto a sustainable economy or else, if we don’t, there may be competition among human groups so we bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age. Or we will end up as hunter-gatherers again.”
Perhaps what humanity needs is a large dose of humility. The title of Diamond’s book offers a suggestion that perhaps we ought to look at ourselves simply as an animal, specifically “The Third Chimpanzee.” It turns out that we humans are so genetically similar to chimpanzees — with only 1.5 percent difference between our genes — that in purely genetic terms we could be considered a third species of chimps, after the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. After all, if the very same features that distinguish us from animals will lead to our demise, we are certainly no better than our fellow animals. On the contrary.
Click here to watch Sonali Kolhatkar’s unedited interview with Jared Diamond.