Monkey see, ape do.
With evolution and inheritance back on the primary science programme of study, now is a great time to delve into the family tree of Homo sapiens with an outstanding new adaptation of Jared Diamond’s fascinating book The Third Chimpanzee.
First published in 1992 as The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, this is the story of human evolution and an examination of how and why we upright chimpanzees developed language, art, agriculture and other skills that set us apart as a different kind of animal.
The history is long (monkeys and apes separated more than 30 million years ago), the science often complex (with DNA and molecules to the fore) and the ethical questions profound (an ill human child, an experimental vaccine, a hapless chimp in a cage…). Fortunately, children’s science author Rebecca Stefoff and the team at Oneworld Publications have moulded Diamond’s work into an entertaining and accessible book for youngsters, just in time for the start of the 2014-15 school year.
Many people find it uncomfortable or even insulting to accept that we humans – Homo sapiens – are animals. On this note, Diamond begins by presenting the clear and undeniable links between human beings and the four other species of ape – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons. From a vast mountain range of evidence, let us select just one overwhelming statistic: with chimpanzees – both common chimps and pygmy chimps (bonobos) – we share 98.4 percent of our deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. (And if you miss the initial clarification of such tricky terms, the book contains a helpful glossary). We are much closer to chimps than chimps are to gorillas.
Less obvious and perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the aforementioned distinctly human capacities – art, language and agriculture – are not, in fact, unique to Homo sapiens: the bower bird of New Guinea (where Diamond began his career) creates and elaborately decorates large nests in the quest to attract a mate; vervet monkeys have distinct warning calls for leopards, eagles and snakes; and leaf cutter ants harvest leaves to grow a fungus that they then consume as food.
Speaking of agriculture, contrary to popular belief, the agricultural revolution that began around 10,000 years ago was not quite a catalyst for universal happiness. As Diamond writes, “[Agriculture] is a halfway point between our noble traits, such as language and art, and our vices, such as drug abuse, genocide, and environmental destructiveness.”
Those vices, like our better traits, trace their origins to our animal ancestors. Take drug abuse. Injecting mind-altering chemicals into one’s body might appear unaccountably stupid, but in fact such behaviour advertises one’s fortitude and bravado. The same goes for elaborate piercings and tattoos. The human animal will go to great lengths to attract a mate.
Sexual selection lies at the heart of one of the most interesting and relevant topics for the many multi-ethnic classrooms of the UK, the question of racial differences. We may prefer the outwardly logical explanation of climate – dark-skinned people do better in the tropical regions; lighter-skinned people are better suited to the cold, dark northern regions. Where this theory collapses is in the inconsistencies of racial distribution. Across the tropical and sub-tropical regions skin colour varies from jet-black in parts of Africa to medium in Southeast Asia. Darwin noted that in many species the male is equipped with features that are simply attractive to certain females (and perhaps also intimidating to a rival) and not useful in the battle for survival. The same is true of human skin, hair and eye colour.
A natural fit for a biology syllabus, The Third Chimpanzee would also be an invaluable resource for teachers of social science, geography and ethics. In fact, whatever your discipline, the mere fact of being a human – adult or juvenile – ought to compel you to read this brilliant, mind-expanding book.