The Third Chimpanzee: the evolution and future of the human animal by Jared Diamond
Diamond is likely to become the new Stephen Jay Gould, a scientific popularizer who studies evolution and makes it easy for those of us who don’t work in the field to understand. Moving in his own direction, though, Diamond uses evolutionary theories to illuminate important things about our own cultures. This book spans territory from all three of his other books: sexuality, history, and the rise and fall of civilizations.
The Chimpanzee of the title, by the way, is homo sapiens, genetically almost identical to the common chimp and pygmy chimp.
Lessee . . . some years ago, a girl with a large birthmark on her face was born in or near the palace of the Sultan. Big dark mark around her eyes. Most people decided that she was a demon of some kind, or touched by a demon, so she was allowed to run wild and live in the garden around the Palace. The other children avoid her, but finally one of the Sultan’s younger sons asks her about the mark. What she tells him is that it’s stories, printed on her face so small that only she could possibly read them. And then she tells him one of those stories, about a prince who flees a palace and encounters a witch, and accidentally harms her. And while she’s trying to decide what to do with him, the Witch tells the Prince a story, about her childhood. And within that story, the young witch is told a story . . . this happens several times. At one point I counted five levels of stories within stories, not counting the story that we are being told. This should be annoying, and/or confusing, and/or pretentious. It isn’t. It’s too well told to be annoying or pretentious, and too easy to follow to be confusing. Each level of story illuminates the levels above it, and some of the stories to follow. What emerges is a story of human loss, of magic, and myths turned real. Each story makes sense in itself, and each fills a role in the larger story that the girl is telling. Nor do we lose track of the highest level story, as the Sultan’s son’s life keeps intruding in the story that is told to him.
The end result is a book that is beautiful and intelligent, and well worth the $20.00 cost of a trade paperback. Highly, highly recommended.