Saturday, February 05, 2005

Monkey Business

Just finished "The Third Chimpanzee", by Jared Diamond. I have recently seen 2-3 references to his more recent "Guns, Germs and Steel". This was mentioned as prequel (published 1992), thought I'd read it first. This is a great read, a history of the 3rd species of chimpanzees (homo sapiens), and what makes us human. Diamond sounds like he has had an interesting life: physiology prof at UCLA, but has spent lots of time in New Guinea as a bird watcher. He has a good sense of humor, and the book is full of fun facts:
  • My favorite percentage: chimps and humans share 98.4% of the same DNA, as opposed to chimps or us vs. gorillas: 97.7%. So chimps (and pygmy chimps or bonobos) are more closely related to us than to gorillas, hence "The Third Chimpanzee".
  • Chapters on human sexuality, how we choose our mates, "The Science of Adultery". Humans are unique in having hidden fertility in the female, hidden copulation, and menopause. And, we choose to marry people who look like us (correlation coefficient of length of middle fingers between spouses: .6).
  • A review of Darwin's theory of sexual selection, as leading to the creation of races.
  • Precursors of traits considered distinctively human seen in other animals: language, art, murder, war, ecological pillage.
  • His explanation of drug usage, like a peacock's tail advertising one's fitness by being able to engage in expensive, potentially destructive behavior, didn't ring true to me. I have always felt the urge to get high was innate in the species -- a two-year old will spin in circles until they get dizzy and fall over. Still, might explain why girls go for the dangerous, cool boys.
  • Hunter-gatherers prior to the invention of agriculture 10000 years ago were healthier: fewer cavities, less disease, taller. But, with agriculture the same land can support 10x the people. So, the human race choose quantity over quality. As I'm part of the quantity, I guess that's good.
  • The spread of Indo-European languages starting in 3300 BC coincides with the domestication of the horse: a military development that dominated warfare for the next 5000 years.
  • The natives (for 11000 years) of America and (for 50000 years) of Australia got a bad draw in that there were no domesticable animals comparable to the horse or cow. Domesticating a species is hard.
  • New Zealand appears to have had an ecology with all niches filled by birds, of all shapes and sizes (moas)! The Maori showed up in 1000AD and, over the next 500 years, wiped them all out.
  • The 1st Americans who crossed from Siberia took less than 1000 years to pretty completely fill North and South America, and wiped out the large mammals (mammoths, giant sloths and horses, sabertooth tigers) as they went. Anytime humans have moved to someplace new, they have pretty much extincted all the large animals there, who did not evolve to fear humans. Africa has retained the large mammals it has because they evolved with humans and know that we are bad news.
  • Genocide has been popular and in fact admired through much of human history. We ignore this historically because we don't like to think about it. Diamond hopes that improved communication will help us past this.
Anyway, this was a very enjoyable read, I was sorry when it was over.

I also started reading "America, the Book", by my hero Jon Stewart, which I got for xmas. I decided to read it a chapter at a time, I think my enjoyment of the humor will last longer that way.

Music-wise, made my second iTunes purchase: "Final Staw" by Snow Patrol. Boy pop, a little catchy, we'll see how much it grows on me, 3 stars. Also bought (used) 2 dance compilations "La Maison de l'Elephante".

Caribbean crusing starting 8 days from now. Enjoyed it the 1st time, looking forward to trying again. Plus, I have my iPod to travel with now (as well as my beautiful wife)!

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