The Third Chimpanzee Summary and Review

by Jared Diamond
  Has The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. The humankind has always had a fascination with chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and other primates. Tarzan, King Kong, The Planet of the Apes, and other such movies prove that people seem unable to get enough of these animals. And since these primates are our closest evolutionary relatives, our fascination with them makes total sense. In fact our connection with primates might be stronger than we previously thought. Our species, the Homo sapiens is extremely fascinating and complex. Therefore, understanding as much as we can about our own species has never been more important than it is today. Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee discusses a recent breakthrough that might allow us to understand human evolution and the human essence much better. But understanding these aspects might be amazing and beautiful, but also brutal. From our summary of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, you’ll learn:
  • why some taxonomists consider chimpanzees to be humans;
  • how human language has evolved; and
  • why being hunter-gatherers might have been better for the human species.

THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE CHAPTER #1: Recent studies have shown that humans and primates are more genetically similar than it was previously thought.

It is not hard to find similarities between humans and primates. But how similar are we from a genetical point of view to our wild relatives and which of them are closest to us? Because scientists are now able to analyze the human genome, they can also calculate the similarities between humans and apes. The results are extremely interesting. As it turns out, humans share no less than 98.6 percent of their genes with chimpanzees, 97.7 percent with gorillas, and 96.4 percent with orangutans. In other words, the only difference between us and chimpanzees consists of a mere 1.4 percent of our DNA configuration. Of this percentage, only a relatively small portion is made up of the extremely valuable genetic tools that allowed us to evolve towards what we consider to be human and to create language, technology, and art. In fact, because the genetic differences between us and chimpanzees are so small, some scientists go as far as to consider us members of the same family. In a lot of encyclopedias, you’ll find that both humans and chimpanzees are classed in the order of Primates, and the Hominoidea superfamily. Although we share the order and the superfamily, humans are classed as part of the Hominidae family, while chimpanzees are part of the Pongidae family. However, according to another important taxonomy school called the cladistics, species can also be arranged and classified based on their relative genetic distance. Their classification puts chimps and humans not just in the same family, but also in the same genus. Within the Homo genus, the cladistics include not just one, but three different species: us, the Homo sapiens, the common chimpanzees, also known as Homo troglodytes, and the bonobo, also known as Homo paniscus. When two species are in the same genus, this means that they are very closely related. In some cases, it can become difficult to distinguish species of the same genus, especially when they are very similar. Take the chiffchaffs and the willow warblers as an example. These European birds look almost identical and they share precisely 97.7 percent of the same DNA. As you might have noticed, this percentage indicates that these almost identical birds are less genetically similar than humans and chimps are. So it is true that we have a lot in common with our chimpanzee cousins and yet there are many things that differentiate us including the fact that we were able to create language, technology, and art.

THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE CHAPTER #2: Although humans were evolving continuously, their ability to speak was what really made a difference.

According to a lot of anthropologists, there was a “great leap forward” in human evolution that took place in Europe about 40,000 years ago. But if we want to have a good understanding of human development, we need to look at the much earlier periods when the first stages of human evolution took place. Scientists have discovered that 3 million years ago, there were two very different species of early humans. These species are now known as Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus and, unfortunately, they died out 1.2 million years ago. One of these two ancestors, the Australopithecus africanus, evolved over time into Homo habilis, which in turn, evolved into Homo erectus. The Homo erectus was generally larger in size and had a bigger brain. As a result, this species of early humans managed to expand their territories and eventually reached Asia and Europe. But the Homo erectus did not stop evolving. So, around 500,000 years ago, it underwent further anatomical changes and evolved in what we now call the Homo sapiens. It is true that all species of humans saw great anatomical changes over their evolution, but these changes could only get them so far. It was the creation and development of language, a uniquely human ability, that really allowed them to make bigger steps. In order to speak and to use language, humans need to use their tongues, larynx, and their associated muscles. By using these body parts, humans can produce a wide range of sounds that are manipulated and combined in order to produce language. Because they don’t have the same anatomical structure, gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees are unable to speak. Scientists think that the proto-humans were similar to primates in that they were also unable to speak. The first human species that was physically equipped for this effective type of communication was the Homo sapiens. Interestingly enough, the Homo sapiens was also incapable of speech for the first 460,000 years of its existence. But a great leap forward happened as soon as the Homo sapiens developed language. When the Homo sapiens’ anatomy saw a subtle change, the species suddenly had control over their voice and was able to develop and speak a language. Humans could now finally describe ideas and images and communicate instructions faster and more effectively. We now know that language enabled humans to develop technology and art. But what did the early language of Homo Sapiens sound like?

THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE CHAPTER #3: If we want to understand human language development, we need to look at comparative and historical scientific models.

For centuries, we were certain of the fact that our communication methods and languages were sophisticated and extremely different from the howls and grunts of the less evolved species. But after studying the animal communication methods more closely, scientists have learned they are more similar to the human language than we thought. The small African monkey, also known as the vervet is the animal that has come closest to developing a communication method that is extremely similar to our languages. Scientists have analyzed vervets electronically and they found that different environmental stimuli make the vervets react through different vocalizations.  An attach from a snake or from a leopard can cause a vervet to produce a wide range of sounds that have an alarming nature. They are also able to produce different sounds depending on the social context. In order to indicate if something is edible or inedible, the vervets communicate through grunts. So, we now know that the ability to speak might not be uniquely human. If we want to imagine how early humans first developed their languages, we can. The first wave of European colonization that happened throughout the fifteenth century and lasted for four centuries lead to the establishment of countless trading posts. But, as we can imagine, trading was extremely difficult at first since people spoke different languages. And so, in order to communicate, people developed simple languages that were called pidgins. These languages borrowed the most important elements from different native languages. Later generations ended up speaking pidgins as their native languages, and thus, enriched these languages with complex grammars and more vocabulary. These new languages are referred to as creoles. A very interesting fact about the pidgin and creole languages is that they all share similar grammar and features despite being completely independent of one another. Some examples of features that are similar in pidgins and creoles are the frequent use of double negatives, the toneless monosyllabic words, the frequent use of prepositions, and the order of words in statements (subject-verb-object). These aforementioned features show us that there’s a possibility that the human languages have developed in a similar way to pidgins and creoles. Now that we are familiar with language evolution, let’s take a look at another essential part of human diversity: the characteristics of different races.

THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE CHAPTER #4: “Racial characteristics” appeared as a result of natural and sexual selection.

You have certainly noticed that not all humans look the same. There are short humans and tall humans, humans with dark skin and humans with light skin, etc. These features are known as racial characteristics, and scientists believe that they were developed through natural and sexual selection. The great majority of biologists support the natural selection theories, which claim that racial characteristics appeared in order to improve the chances of survival for a group of humans. For example, Andean Indians who live at high altitudes have larger chests, therefore, their bodies allow them to absorb more oxygen. But there are many characteristics that can’t really be explained by natural selection, such as skin color. Scientists who are proponents of natural selection believe that people developed darker skin in very sunny areas of the world. But that doesn’t explain why people from places like equatorial West Africa and Tasmania have dark skin. Other physical differences that have no explanation related to natural selection are differences in eye and hair color or genitalia. But Charles Darwin proposed an additional theory, one that is based on sexual selection. According to him, this theory may help us understand some of the things that are not explained by natural selection. The theory of sexual selection is relatively simple. For instance, a female has certain physical traits that a lot of males find attractive. As a result, this female and others who look like her will have an easier time finding a partner and procreating. It is extremely likely for her offspring to inherit her attractive features, thus increasing their chances of finding partners and procreating as well. Over the course of several generations, these attractive physical traits – such as eye color, hair color, or shape and size of genitalia are more likely to be perpetuated, while unattractive features might disappear. This means that through sexual selection, a lot of features that are not particularly useful to increase the rate of survival will become more common. Thus, we believe that the gradual evolution of racial characteristics and differences is most likely explained by both of these theories.

THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE CHAPTER #5: if you thought that agriculture was beneficial for humans, you were probably wrong.

A large number of anthropologists and historians believe that our lives were greatly improved by agriculture. After all, it was this innovation that allowed us to develop new technologies and to focus on art. Nowadays, however, scientists believe that this logic might be flawed. Recent studies that focused on the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies have shown that these people have better lives than a lot of farmers. What’s more, hunter-gatherers even had a lot of leisure time and they didn’t necessarily work harder than farmers did. The Kalahari bushmen, for instance, only spend between twelve and nineteen hours per week hunting and gathering food, while most farmers work a lot more than that. Furthermore, recent archeological findings have shown that people who were living in a hunter-gatherer society were much healthier than people who inhabited the same areas but practiced agriculture at a later date. In order to have a better understanding of how agriculture changed people’s lives, paleontologists analyzed different skeletons that date back from the end of the last Ice Age and that were found in Turkey and Greece. They found that the average height of hunter-gatherers that inhabited that region was 172 cm. But when people switched to farming, their average height dropped to just 157 cm. This significant change proves the fact that despite growing their own food, people were less healthy and more hungry than hunter-gatherers. But we all know that agriculture replaced hunting and gathering because it could supply a lot more food per capita than the latter. And it is true, a lot of settlements took up agriculture and they saw a rapid increase in population. Furthermore, once farmers became greater in number, they also pushed the fewer hunter-gatherers that were left to the margins of their societies. From then on, agriculture became the main method that people used to supply food. The adoption of agriculture was quickly followed by a population boom, which helped societies progress much faster in terms of culture, technology, and art than hunter-gatherers. Because they had more people, there were more minds available to come up with valuable ideas.

THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE CHAPTER #6: Genocide is awfully human.

You probably think that genocide is usually the result of a perverted psychopath's actions. But, unfortunately, you would be wrong. History teaches us that genocide is more common than we think and in certain conditions, each one of us would be capable to commit it. For starters, the vast majority of the human population has simply forgotten about many instances of genocide that have happened throughout history. Consider, for example, the ways in which the British settlers mistreated the native population of Tasmania. In about 1800, when the Brits arrived on the Tasmanian island, they discovered a native population of hunter-gatherers that had around 5,000 members. The Tasmanian technology was not very advanced and, sadly, by 1869, almost the entire population of the island had been wiped out by the British settlers. With the exception of three native Tasmanians who were still alive on the island in 1869, everyone else had been kidnapped or killed. In the twentieth century alone, there were at least 26 genocides that consisted of wiping out groups of people due to their religion, race, ethnicity, or political ideology. Some of these genocides were relatively small, such as the mistreatment of Aché Indians in the 1970s in Paraguay. Others, such as the Armenian genocide that took place in Turkey, were much larger in scale. In this particular case, more than one million Armenians were killed in Turkey between 1915 and 1917. In fact, genocide – or attempted genocide – is such a common human act that is considered by specialists a key part of human nature. As repugnant as this idea might sound, it is, unfortunately true, and we might all take part in a genocidal massacre in certain conditions. Furthermore, each human that has ever committed genocide has found ways to explain why they did what they did. Some people might claim that it was self-defense like the Hutu people did after they murdered 500,000 Tutsi people in Rwanda in 1994. Others justify their crimes by claiming that they only did it out of necessity in order to advance what they consider the “correct” race, religion, or political ideology. This type of justification seemed logical between 1965 and 1966 for the Indonesians who murdered around one million people who were suspected of being communist sympathizers. Comparing the victims of genocide to animals is another common way to justify one’s actions. For instance, the French settlers who reached Algeria referred to the local Muslims as rats. Whether humans are able to overcome their genocidal tendencies in the future is debatable. Hopefully, we can.

THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE CHAPTER #7: in order to satisfy our needs, we’ve exploited our environment without hesitation.

Ever since the eighteenth century’s Enlightenment, primitive peoples have been illustrated by civilized societies as noble savages – as people who are able to live in harmony with their environment in a pure and harmless way. However, we are now aware of the fact that our society is currently posing a great threat to the environment. It has recently been discovered that shortly after reaching the island of New Zealand, the Māori people managed to exterminate a large, flightless bird known as the moa. Later on, when the Europeans reached the island, they found eggshells and bones of this already-extinct bird. Scientists have been trying to find out why and how did the moa become extinct ever since. Initially, because people were convinced that the Māori had always had a deep respect for nature, they rejected the idea that they killed the bird intentionally. However, upon studying hundreds of archaeological sites, scientists have found that the nature-loving Māori used to kill moa birds for eggs, meat, and bones. All signs, including the 100,000 moa bird skeletons found in the previously mentioned archaeological fields, indicate that it was probably the Māori people who drove the moa to extinction. And this is certainly not a singular case. The ruthless exploitation of the environment is an integral part of human existence. Just think of the advanced societies of indigenous people who managed to exploit the environment in a way that eventually backfired on them. When Spanish explorers discovered New Mexico, they found huge, uninhabited structures that were built by the indigenous Americans known as the “Ancient Ones” in the middle of the desert. Paleobotanists who studied these structures by using remains and plant fossils to recreate the landscape and the environment were able to demonstrate that when the “Ancient Ones” first started to build their cities, woodland grew everywhere. However, these hardworking and ambitious people exploited the woodland as they needed timber and firewood and eventually transformed the area into a barren wasteland. By cutting down every single tree, this ancient civilization ruined the underground-water system that they depended upon. Eventually, their fields required much more irrigation than they had left and the drought was the main reason that this incredible society collapsed. It has become very clear that the ideas that past societies were mainly nature-loving and had an environmentalist approach couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, the majority of our ancestors had no idea how much damage they were actually doing. In this day and age, however, our ignorance couldn’t be used to justify the destruction of the planet, but instead, we would be guilty of catastrophic negligence.


What is the key message of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee? Throughout the long history of the human species, we have shown that we are capable of incredible achievements and catastrophic mistakes. But now, as we live in an era of advanced technology, our potential for both good and evil has also been maximized. What we desperately need in order to avoid our downfall is to have a deeper understanding of human history and human nature. Valuable advice: Don’t be afraid to walk on the wild side. Have you ever wondered if your life would have been better as a hunter-gatherer? If you did, then you should leave the city for a day and take a hike in a forest or a field. Use the nature as a guide and see what animals, birds, and plants you can identify and ask yourself what you would do if you had to survive in that environment without any technology.