Jared Diamond has a way of making science readable and compelling. Basically he tells good stories bound in facts.
A 1991 publication. Preceding the content page states the theme of the book: “How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conqueror; and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight.”
P21. One view of anthropological classification sees humans as a branch of the Chimpanzee (the other two are the common chimp and the Pygmy chimp).
P25. Makes the case why if there’s a total ban on animal experiments, it should be on the chimps first.
P39. Modern genes, by themselves, are not enough to produce modern behaviours (e.g. Early homosapiens have similar genes but they did not achieve any great leap in technology).
P42. Elderly people in a pre-literate society could mean life and death. Diamond suggests the longer lifespans of Cro-magnons contributed to their success, compared to the Neantherthals.
P47. He suggests that the plausible answer (to why chimps and humans developed differently inspite of 98% similar genes) is the “anatomical basis for spoken complex language”.
P56. chapter on the evolution of human sexuality. Some questions: why human males have relatively larger penises; human women have larger breasts (even before their first pregnancy) than other animal species.
P57. Evolution of sex organs is related to the species’ social habits and lifecycle, which is related to food-gathering habits.
P62. How the size of testis is related to the breeding cycles of animals, i.e. Size has to do with competition with other males, to increase chances of passing one’s offspring.
P62/3. testis weight and penis lengths of chimps, gorillas, orangutans, humans.
P66-69. Six theories why human females do not show overt signs of ovulation, and why humans are the only animal species to have sex in private.
P74-83. A sociobiological view why humans (also a discussion of bird species) engage in extra martial sex.
P87. Studies that show “like marry like” (chapter on how we pick our marriage or sex partners, based on characteristics that were imprinted when young).
Chpt 6, on sexual selection i.e. Selection of traits because of sexual (and hence arbitrary in a sense) preferences rather than “natural selection” (or selection of traits that helps survival). Diamond supports Darwin’s case that racial characteristics are an outcome of sexual selection rather than natural selection. Also linked to the “like marry like” phenomenon.
P115. “… it is not worth as much to repair a man than to repair a woman” (on ageing; provides an evolutionary perspective why the females in most species trend to outlive males; possibly females evolve to spend more physiological resources repairing their bodies — childcare — while males, with their roles of fighting and gathering food, are better off channeling physiological resources for strength and built.)
Chpt 8. On language.
P128. Animal studies reveal how language/ verbal communication might have developed for humans. E.g. Vervets (a species of monkeys; different vocalisations consistently represent different things, actions – warnings, territory).
P131. Vervets are known to make a false call for “leopard” when their clan is losing a fight, so that the fight breaks up.
P133/ 134. Diamond suggests animal vocalisations might be much more sophisticated than we understand.
P139. On Neo-Melanesian, an independent evolved language in Papua New Guinea; a lingua franca that arose after the arrival of English-speaking traders and sailors in the early 1800s.
P145. Citing Chomsky and Bickerton; suggests language development is wired into humans following a creoles syntax (then later replaced by learned languages).
P150. Explanation of a Neo-Melanesian advertisement.
P152. Cites the positive reviews Expressionism art experts gave (unknowingly) to Siri the elephant.
P156. “Even some human art that later became famous was created by artists for their private satisfaction: the composer Charles Ives published little of his music, and Franz Kafka not only did not publish his three great novels but even forbade his executor to do so.”
P157/ 8. Makes the case that art has a purpose in sexual selection; How male bower birds weaving abilities (and attention to colours) is an indicator of survival skills, and traits of abilities like strength and mind. Diamond compares that to our often superficial reliance of a person’s appearance (Chpt 5) that our criteria for choosing mates seem “pathetic”.
Chpt 10, p163. On how agriculture, a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, is a mixed blessing. It made civilisation possible but also caused problems — social and sexual inequality, strife, disease, despotism (see Guns, Germs and Steel for a more indepth explanations).
P167. Dispels the myth that hunter-gatherer lifestyles were “short and brutish” and only focused on feeding oneself with time for little else. Cites the Australian aboriginal bushman, whose hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not necessarily more difficult; they spend relatively lesser time on feeding themselves and have more stable food consumptions than modern farmers.
P169. Work by paleopathologists showed that introduction of corn agriculture resulted in less diverse diets and more diseases and mortality rates than hunting-gathering lifestyles. P169. “In effect, the farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition.”
P173. On why we smoke, drink and engage in substance abuse. “drug abuse is also a hallmark virtually unique to the human species…”
P175. Interesting account of what made him think of the paradox of advertising self-defeating handicaps (e.g. drinking and smoking actually causes impotence and health problems so why advertise the fact?).
P176. Cites biologist Amotz Zahavi’s theory that advertising self-destructive signals are a fast and direct way of conveying messages (about one’s good genes) to potential mates or predators, and also conveying credibility that one does possess those traits. E.g. Grazelle’s ‘sotting’ (energy-wasting jumps) when chased by lions. But this animal instinct, Diamond suggests, has become maladaptive in modern humans.
P179. “The smoker’s kiss may taste awful, and the drinker may be impotent in bed, but he or she still hopes to impress peers or attract mates by the implicit message of superiority.”
P181. Mayan Indians ritual enema involving alcohol, drugs.
Chpt 12. On why humans may be unique in the universe, as opposed to the theory that there should be more than a few lifeforms out there.
P192. Cites how woodpeckers evolution is an example where convergence is not universal and not all evolutionary opportunities are taken. E.g. We may be the only species to develop radio or to have sustained its development.
P194. Author finds it mind-boggling that the scientists who plan to make contact with aliens don’t have a plan on what to do if it came to be so, or if aliens contacted us. Cites how humans treat our closest species the chimps badly, and suggests humans will always tend to be xenophobic (see P201).
P198. Two potential causes of our fall: our environmental destructiveness and our propensity to kill our own en mass.
P204. Descriptions of First Contact of New Guineans in 1930s.
P212. “Loss of cultural diversity may be the price that we have to pay for survival.”
Chpt 14. A concise version of Guns, Germs and Steel. P214. “In this chapter I shall argue that continental differences in level of civilization arose from geography’s effect on the development of our cultural hallmarks, not from human genetics.”
P227. Tracing lost languages.
P239. Discovery of a lost Indo-European language (now called Tocharian) on ancient documents in a hidden chamber in a Buddhist cave monastery. The documents written around 600-800 AD by Buddhist missionaries and traders.
P248. An example of a para written in Proto-Indo-European, with the English equivalent.
Chpt 16. Author makes the case that (mass) murder is “a phenomenon whose frequency few people appreciate”. Starts with an account of the systematic eradication and removal of Tasmanian aboriginals by white settlers around the 1800s. By 1869 only two adult aboriginals (a man and a woman) were left. The last died in 1876.
P256-8. tables the number of deaths, by victims (of race/ categories), the killers, the place and dates. Lists 17 entries from 1745 to 1976, from all parts of the world.
P226. “genocide has been part of our human and prehuman heritage for millions of years.”
Chpt 19. P313. Makes the case why the extinction crisis is already upon us. Explains in this manner: estimates of how many species have gone extinct since 1600 (more than 1%; cites the recording and verifIcation of bird species, and how there could be many other animal species that have yet to be recorded). Then an estimate of how many extinct species before 1600 (around 73 – 86% of large animals; cites human intrusion and overhunting). Prediction of future extinction rates (est 50% of current species).
P323. “Thus the claimed extinction crisis is neither a hysterical fantasy, nor just a serious risk for the future. Instead, it is an event that has already been accelerating for the past 50,000 years and will start to approach completion in our children’s lifetimes.”
P328. A summary of the themes in the book; traces human development over the last three million years.
Like his book, “Collapse”, this one also concludes that there is hope because the human species possess the ability to pass on our knowledge and also learn. If we choose to.