Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Dec. 1, 1992
Published on: 21C Magazine
7 min read

By Wilson da Silva 

THERE IS NOTHING new about the cruelty of humanity. Chimpanzees massacre chimpanzees. They commit genocide, conduct war, murder, adultery. Orangutans rape their females and gorillas kill their young. Humans are primates too, and recent genetic studies even tell us we are, for all intents and purposes, the world’s third species of chimpanzee.

It may not be politically correct or very popular, but what Professor Jared Diamond and a growing number of scientists around the world tell us is that, far from these being aberrant human traits these are natural impulses we share with many in the animal world.

“Murder goes a long way back,” said Diamond, a renowned biologist and the professor of physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Chimps practise it. The only difference is that we do it a lot more efficiently. The murderous impulses themselves, they’re something we inherit.

“The commonest cause of death in male adult gorillas is to get murdered by another male gorilla. One of the commonest causes of death for a baby gorilla is to get murdered by a male gorilla that has just killed the father of the baby,” Diamond told 21C.

Much of this has only recently started reaching beyond the rarefied world of academia, and Diamond is one of those leading the push. In his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, the American biologist carefully dissects the essence of human customs and practices, and with countless examples from the animal world, cuts a swathe through sacred cows. 

Seen from the perspective of the animal world, human activity can often seem curious and barbaric. Its frank and matter-of-fact style uncovers some uncomfortable truths about human nature and has been hailed by some scientists as ground-breaking.

Diamond’s book suggests that humans, with a thin 100,000-year veneer of civilization cannot ignore seven million years of our primate past. In fact, in many ways we have not evolved very far at all from the nasty traits of our distant, hairy evolutionary cousins.

Professor Jared Diamond in the highlands of Papau New Guinea

Like Desmond Morris and his The Naked Ape bestseller of the 1960s, the 54-year-old Diamond studies humans as animals to gain insights which our culture and human ‘common sense’ blinkers obscure. 

“What he’s done with his book is pull together an overview of humanity, warts and all, relying on the huge advances of the last five years,” said Dr Tim Flannery, the Australian Museum’s senior research biologist, who was full of praise for the book and its author.

Diamond’s detailed but very readable tome says war, rape, infanticide, racism and genocide are all parts of our past that were practised often.

“Rape is common in orangutans and ducks. Groups of male ducks gang-rape a female, often injuring the female in the process. Among orangutans, sex is either consensual or rape sex,” Diamond said.

In mammals, the bigger the male compared with the female, the more polygamous he is, whereas if both are the same size, monogamy rules. The slightly larger frame and body muscle of men compared with women suggests humans are largely monogamous ... but have a tendency toward straying, the book says. Parentage studies of babies in Britain and the United States back this up: a surprising 10 to 30 percent of births in studies were of blood groups that could not have resulted from anything but adultery.

War is also common in the animal world, Diamond’s book argues: “Almost any animal species that has the physical capabilities to murder does it. Not just murder, but mass murder – there’s war between prides of lions, packs of wolves and neighbouring troops of chimpanzees.”

In the late 1970s, biologists in the wilds of Africa watched with dismay and horror over two years as a troop of chimpanzees made war on a competing group and, one by one, exterminated all the males.

“It’s inefficient – they didn’t have rockets, atomic bombs or spears. The only way they could kill was for six chimpanzees to jump on a single chimp and beat him for half an hour. Those are the animal precedents for human war,” said the biologist who often travels to the Papua New Guinea highlands on anthropological and other field trips.

Studies also show humans tend to mate with those most similar to themselves – not just in religious, political and cultural ways, but in physical attributes right down to eye and lip shapes. Humans with similar characteristics inherently club together and label those not like them as ‘outsiders’. This is a tribal, animal instinct and the root of racism, Diamond’s book says.

But the balding, mild-mannered biologist is quick to point out, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean we should condone it. If anything makes us human it is our ability to control these age-old impulses and say “No, I will not kill today”.  He argues that by acknowledging the origins of our darker selves, we better learn to deal with them. We are much less barbaric now than we ever have been, he says.

“You can say war is in our genes, but like murder, rape and infanticide, it’s something society can choose to suppress,” Diamond said.

“In traditional societies, murder is widespread. But in then 20th century, despite two world wars, far fewer people have died violent deaths than regularly as a result of murder in traditional societies.”

Many of these darker practices still go on: “Most animals practise infanticide, and traditional human societies practise it. But modern industrialised states don’t tolerate that. It’s natural, it has animal precursors but for the most part we’ve stamped it out [in the West]” Diamond said.

Why have humans developed so differently from animals? It is a perplexing mystery. A tiny two percent difference was enough for humans to develop language, complex tools, farming and art.

Diamond has a theory: speech did it. With the incredible range of the voice and its ability for pronunciation – unmatched in the animal world – it has allowed humans to explode into the ecosystem and come to dominate the planet.