|The Independent (London)
May 22, 1991, Wednesday
BOOK REVIEW / Doing what comes naturally from animal instincts; 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee' - Jared Diamond: Radius, 16.99 pounds
By TOM WILKIE
HUMAN BEINGS are animals. We evolved, according to the traditional formula, from a common ancestor with the apes. As Jared Diamond points out in this book, we differ only marginally from chimpanzees. Yet by inventing a culture whereby the experience gained by individuals in one generation can be handed on to the next, we have, to some extent, escaped the constraints of Darwinian evolution. If you seek the source of the success of Homo sapiens, behold the schoolteacher.
Ours is a double life: our cultural inheritance sets us apart from animals, but we also have a biological inheritance. For a couple of decades now there has been a busy little industry, called sociobiology, which attempts to seek parallels from the animal kingdom with our social and cultural lives. This book is one of its latest products.
Sociobiology is, in my view, a deeply suspect enterprise. It risks a double jeopardy. One problem is that by explaining some unpleasant aspect of human behaviour - aggression, rape, war - in terms of the allegedly similar actions performed by animals, there is a risk of excusing the behaviour. To describe aggression, say, as ''natural'', because animals living in a state of nature exhibit aggression, is not very far from expressing approval of it: as the supermarkets and the advertising men know very well, the word ''natural'' has become virtually synomymous with ''good''. It is of little avail to claim that it has a specialised usage, which means ''living in a state of nature'', because the moral ambiguity is now inherent in the word.
If the first problem lies in the moral implications of the sociobiological account of humanity, the second is in the factual quality of that account. Human culture and society are different and unique. We may seek analogies and parallels in the rest of the living world, but we must always regard them as similies or metaphors and be conscious of the limits. Unfortunately, the sociobiologists often try to stretch things too far.
Professor Diamond's account of art is particularly crude. Since animals have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, he argues, art must be a clever stratagem by men to attract women and get them into bed. The problem is that such a contention is unprovable, so Professor Diamond turns to anecdotage instead of real evidence and ends up ''demonstrating'' his conclusion with a story about how the composer Haydn had two mistresses as well as a wife. So what went wrong with the homosexual Tchaikovsky or the respectable and monogamous Elgar?
Even when his account of human behaviour is closely argued and supported with detailed observations, Professor Diamond's enthusiasm sometimes leads him too far. Discussing the relationships between men and women, he remarks that sexual jealousy once loomed large in human history as a cause of war: ''It was the seduction (abduction, rape) by Paris of Menelaus's wife Helen that provoked the Trojan War''. Can he really believe that the Iliad is to be taken literally as a work of history? According to Homer, Greek gods and goddesses took part in the conflict: how are they to be accommodated by an evolutionary biologist? In so far as the history of that epoch can be reconstructed, the Trojan War appears to have been a normal sort of economic dispute over access to trade routes: if a real woman was involved, then it is likely she was party to a diplomatic marriage - and such marriages have more to do with the ownership of property than with reproduction of the genes.