August 10, 1992

Article at The Advertiser

A different form of chimpanzee

“Murder goes a long way back” – University of California biologist Prof Jared Diamond

Some of humanity’s nasty traits may be in genes we share with other animals; but WILSON da SILVA finds that, by acknowledging our dark side, we can deal with it.

INFANTICIDE, murder, racism, adultery, war, rape and genocide are natural human traits rather than aberrations; and, says University of California biologist Professor Jared Diamond, they are traits we share with many other animals.

“Murder goes a long way back,” he says of his uncovering of some uncomfortable but ground-breaking facts about human nature. “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 being murdered by another male gorilla. One of the commonest causes of death for a baby gorilla is to be murdered by a male gorilla that has just killed the father of the baby,” he says.

Professor Diamond, who recently visited Sydney’s Australian Museum, suggests that as humans we have not evolved very far beyond the nasty traits of our distant evolutionary cousins.

He says tests have found there is only a 1.6 per cent sliver of difference between our genes and those of the two species of murderous and genocidal chimpanzees, although humans and chimps parted evolutionary ways some seven million years ago.

Compared with gorillas, our genes diverge only 2.3 per cent, Professor Diamond says; this is a smaller difference than that between the willow warbler and chiff-chaff warbler, two similar European birds.

Hence the title of Professor Diamond’s new book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, which won this year’s Rhone-Poulenc Science Book of the Year award in Britain.

Like Desmond Morris, who wrote the 1960s best-seller The Naked Ape, the 54-year-old professor studies humans as animals to gain insights that our culture and human “common sense” have obscured.

The Australian Museum’s senior research biologist, Dr Tim Flannery, is full of praise for Professor Diamond and his work. “What he’s done with his book is pull together an overview of humanity, warts and all, (especially) relying on the huge advances of the past five years,” he says.

Professor Diamond’s book says war, rape, infanticide, racism and genocide all are elements from our evolutionary past.

“Rape is common in orang-outangs and ducks,” he says.

War also is common in the animal world, Professor Diamond’s research shows.

“Almost any animal species that has the physical capabilities to murder, does it,” he says. “Not just murder but mass murder

- there’s war between prides of lions, packs of wolves and neighboring troops of chimpanzees.”

In the late ‘70s, biologists in the wilds of Africa watched with horror for years as a group 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,” Professor Diamond says. “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.”

Studies also show humans tend to mate with those most similar to themselves, not just in religious, political and cultural ways but also in physical attributes such as 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 is the root of racism, Professor Diamond says in his book.

He argues that by acknowledging the origins of our darker selves we can better learn to deal with them. We are much less barbaric now than we have ever been.

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

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