Part 3: Uniquely Human
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Author:  Chris OConnor [ Thu Dec 28, 2006 10:31 am ]
Post subject:  Part 3: Uniquely Human

Part 3

Uniquely Human

Please use this thread for discussing Part Three of The Third Chimpanzee, which covers Chapters 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 from pages 137 through 215. ::204

Author:  Rich206 [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 6:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Part 3: Uniquely Human

I found Diamond's theory of drug abuse in Chapter 11 to be rather dubious. He compared it to a peacock's flamboyant tail and other cases where animals have evolved things that seem to play a role in reproduction yet don't increase their chance of survival. He referred to a theory put forward by Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli biologist who proposed that costly or self-destructive traits might actually attract females because a male who survives in spite of them would presumably have good genes. According to Wikipedia, it's called the Handicap Principle.

The problem I have with Diamond's extending this idea to drug abuse is that so much of it goes on in private. There are exceptions of course, like binge drinking during spring break, but this would seem to be just one of many risk-taking behaviors young men engage in to flaunt their prowess or whatever. The key difference between drugs and other risky behaviors would seem to be the euphoric effects that the drugs have themselves combined with the perceived low initial risk - i.e. the apparent risk in starting to get high as opposed to bungee jumping, which is obviously a risk from the outset.

I think factors such as peer pressure, curiosity and "self-medicating" (i.e. "drowning one's sorrows") combined with an insufficient awareness of the threat of addiction are more likely explanations of drug abuse than faulty signaling. I suppose the Handicap Principle might be extended to explain some risky behaviors, but I thought it was a bit of a stretch to apply it to drug use.

Edited by: Rich206 at: 1/19/07 8:21 pm

Author:  Rich206 [ Fri Jan 19, 2007 9:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Part 3: Uniquely Human

I'm not crazy about chapter 12 either. Diamond seems to give a complicated topic a superficial and highly speculative treatment from which he draws far-reaching conclusions. In all of ten pages, he concludes that we are essentially alone in the Universe as an intelligent species (or at least alone in the galaxy). If there are other intelligent forms of life, he concludes that they will be either too short-lived to contact or hostile; therefore, we should avoid contacting them.

The equations used to determine the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe are obviously somewhat speculative since they inevitably involve variables whose values can only be guessed. I've always thought that this leads people to guess according to preconceived notions. Diamond seems to choose pessimistic estimates for the likelihood of intelligence evolving and surviving, which perhaps fits an overall pessimistic view of human society. Although we obviously face threats from environmental degradation and nuclear weapons, I think it's a tad premature to conclude that we will inevitably have only a narrow window during which we could detect or contact other intelligent species. I think it's even more speculative to assume that all other intelligent species will follow the same path and flourish only briefly before dying out.

I also think that Diamond's conclusion that any intelligent civilization we might come in contact with would be hostile and pose a deadly threat is highly speculative. No matter how advanced their technology, it would seem likely that they would still be bound by the laws of physics. Considering the vast amount of time and energy that would have to be invested in traveling between stars, it seems unlikely that an advanced civilization would be interested in colonizing or exploiting humans even if they were inclined to do so. I don't know that we can look at "first contact" between Europeans and Native Americans and draw any useful conclusions about the likely outcome of contact with an alien species. I also don't think that we can assume that an advanced civilization would necessarily be any more or less "moral" by our standards - indeed, they might have an entirely different concept of morality - but I think the logistical hurdles involved in interstellar travel make any sort of hostile encounter extremely unlikely.

Given the failure to detect radio signals from other civilizations to date, it may well be that the evolution of intelligent life is not as likely as some presume, but I think the raw numbers of stars (and presumably planets) make it almost inevitable, even if extremely unlikely. It's interesting to speculate about what forms other civilizations might take, but I don't think it's possible to reach the kind of conclusions that Diamond does based on the only technological civilization that we know to exist.

Author:  Loricat [ Wed Jan 24, 2007 10:51 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Part 3: Uniquely Human

In chapter 6, on Sexual Selection, near the end of the chapter (p119), Diamond summarizes some of his points by saying:
"Thus, Fijians, Hottentots, and Swedes each grow up with their own learned, arbitrary beauty standards, which tend to maintain each population in conformity with those standards, since individual deviating too far from the standards would find it hard to obtain a mate."

This immediately made me think of the effects of the movie industry on the beauty standards in non-Caucasian countries.

If those standards really depend on the 'look' of our most intimate friends & family, those we see as a baby, then they are not greatly affected. But once we're old enough to start noticing the world around us, how much are our standards affected?

Has the fascination of Tibetans with Phoebe Cates (anecdotal evidence from Pico Iyer, well-known travel writer & essayist), with posters of her everywhere, changed the standards of beauty in that population? Have the ubiquitous Hollywood movies warped the ideals of Taiwan, Korea, Japan? The big round eyes of anime characters, the fashion of using bleaching products to whiten one's skin (resulting, of course, in a full-reversal reaction from a group of young women, in Japan, who take it to the other extreme, by tanning themselves almost black) -- did these come before or after the influx of NA & European movies?

What long-term effects will be seen in humanities genetic makeup over the next 1000 years?

Just some food for thought. :p

"All beings are the owners of their deeds, the heirs to their deeds."

Loricat's Book Nook
Celebrating the Absurd

Author:  Loricat [ Tue Jan 30, 2007 11:32 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Part 3: Uniquely Human

Just finished Chapter 8, the one on language, and I wanted to comment on a meta-level about Diamond's style & approach.

My background is in linguistics, so here was a chapter where I was able to see more clearly how he writes, how thoroughly he covers a subject -- which also gives me a feel for how deeply he covers subjects I'm not familiar with. And it's heartening. His discussion of animal language (or communication, if you prefer) covered all the bases, as did his rather elegant description of childhood language acquisition. Sure, he took a bit of a shortcut by using his kids' utterances as his evidence, but the research is out there. Also, his discussion of pidgins & creoles seemed a little disorganized, backwards, but then, that's probably because I knew what he was leading up to. (I once dreamed of going down to Hawaii to work with Bickerton on his creole studies.)

In the end, this chapter made me feel good, mostly because it made it clear to me that I'm not missing much of the background information in other chapters (other fields). :)

"All beings are the owners of their deeds, the heirs to their deeds."

Loricat's Book Nook
Celebrating the Absurd

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