The Third Chimpanzee is actually Jared Diamond’s first book, but I’m only getting to it now years after reading his more famous “Guns, Germs & Steel” & “Collapse”. I’ve heard the contrarian take that it’s actually his best book, but reading it now it comes across as frequently dated, as well as serving as a preview for those later books (each of which gets a chapter/section covering the same subject). Part of the issue is that I read this so close after The Secret of Our Success, and the material on early humans compared to our closest relatives has a lot of overlap with that less dated book. When I say dated, it’s on multiple levels.

For one thing, Diamond is bold enough to make predictions in the face of uncertainty we now know to be wrong, like the lack of any Neandertal ancestry in modern humans, or the lack of pre-Clovis humans in the Americas. His mistake for the latter is based on his accurate belief that Clovis humans were responsible for the extinctions of megafauna, not being aware of how marginal earlier ones could be despite mocking “man the hunter” earlier in the book. Another questionable prediction is related to his more dated concerns: he thought the environment might be ruined by the time his then-young sons were adults in the 21st century. The book was published in 1991, so it still references the USSR and the (overblown) risk from nuclear extinction from them, as well as some very 90s environmentalism railing against “developers” and fitting the anti-Promethean label vs modern concerns of innovative abundance being necessary to work against climate change (something he did not appear to be concerned with when he wrote this book).

Another of the concerns motivating his book was the very “Just Say No” era concerns about our species’ fondness for drugs. Of course, far fewer were dying directly from them then compared to the current opioid (mostly fentanyl) epidemic. He’s got an entertaining theory about how people signal fitness by subjecting their bodies to such toxins, but it doesn’t rise to the level of fearing for our future as a species. He brings up Easter Island as an example (I’ve discussed how he got its history wrong in “Collapse” before), but even those Islanders weren’t like the deer marooned on a Canadian island who ate all the lichen and then starved to death. They just continued living without trees (not because they cut them all down, but because rats ate the seeds). The Amerindians who fit his example of suddenly entering an environment they hadn’t culturally adapted to were still able to live just fine after killing off the megafauna, even creating agricultural civilizations (which I already knew Diamond regarded as a bad thing since he doesn’t value larger populations, even though hardly any actual humans as a proportion of those who’ve existed would not take a deal to be better fed if they couldn’t have children, seeing as how mothers almost universally feed their young).

The best argument in favor of reading this book is if you don’t plan on ever reading his more famous books (or Henrich), as the basic ideas of his other work can be found here. If you have, there will be some more material on our ape relatives (as well as some other animals, since he was original a bird researcher) not found there, in which case I hope you’re less of a completionist than me and willing to just put it down & move on when he gets to more familiar territory.

My plan is for my next non-fiction book to be Steven LeBlanc’s “Constant Battles”, which would not contradict Diamond’s fears about our species warlike inclinations (particularly among stateless societies like those of New Guinea tribes he’s studied) but would be more focused on that topic (although I’ve already read some other books on it) and untied to a general pessimism about our future prospects.