Popular Science

Jared Diamond Talks About His New Book for Young Readers

The author of Guns, Germs, and Steel is out with an adaptation for young people of The Third Chimpanzee. He also has some strong words for his critics.

04.12.14 4:00 AM ET

It turns out the incident of the chimp who tore off his owner’s friend's face was more family feud than disgruntled pet.

Much like the humans he documents who came to rule Earth, Jared Diamond is out with a new book sure to increase his rule in the classroom. Most students known Diamond from the PBS documentary based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Now, Diamond is out with a new edition of his popular book The Third Chimpanzee, this time adapted “for young people” by Seven Stories Press and Rebecca Stefoff. The book, for those who missed the original, discusses how and why humans evolved differently than did chimpanzees, who differ from us in DNA by only 2 percent.

“I found that high school classes and even middle school classes would come to my lectures,” Diamond said in an interview with The Daily Beast, when asked why he wrote the book. “But sometimes they would get read chapter by chapter because they were slow-going.” So when he was approached by Seven Stories Press with the idea for the current edition, “it appealed to me.”

As a consumer of his past works, I can attest to the veracity of Diamond’s claim that “the style is not much simpler than the style of my original books, so it’s not dumbed down.” The text has been shortened and condensed in some places, while in others it has been expanded to define terms in more detail than in the original books. “The physical layout,” confessed Diamond, “is much more appealing than my books because there’s more space on the page,” as well as photos, graphs, and illustrations.

The book is also a plea from a generation that had its time in the sun to do better to save the earth. The second half of the book focuses on the negative impact of human’s evolution—genocide, ecological destruction, and nuclear weapons. Anybody familiar with Diamond is aware of his environmental work. That was also a major impetus for the new edition.

“I’ve children of my own, so I’m concerned about the world they’re going to end up in, whether it’s going to be a world worth living in or not,” he explained.

The book is an investment in the future. “It’s young people who will be affected by the state of the world, who will also be the ones who eventually make the decisions that determine the state of the world,” declared Diamond.

Diamond, 76, grew up in Boston, and within seconds it’s apparent that years in Los Angeles haven’t dulled the accent. And he’s professor-ly from head to toe. Only the way his eyes light up when talking about New Guinea convinces you that he really has an Indiana Jones side to him.

Diamond also didn’t exactly set out to be in many ways the Michael Lewis of evolution and anthropology.

“Initially, my technical training, my Ph.D., was on sodium transport in the gall bladder, and my job at UCLA medical school was to do gall bladder research and teach medical students about gall bladders,” chuckles Diamond.

What drove him was his lifelong love of bird watching, which began at age seven, and took him to New Guinea. The rest, they say, is history. Bird watching triggered his lifelong pursuits of evolution and biogeography, as well as conservation.

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But Diamond’s background in many ways is a godsend for the reader. “I’m in the position of the average reader initially,” confided Diamond, “I was learning as I went, and I was having to explain it to myself.”  All of his books come out of that process and are the result of “explaining things to other people in the way I’ve explained to myself.”

Beyond the generally enlightening narrative and eye-opening hypothesis about how and why we are the way we are now (for Diamond it was the development of language), part of the joy of reading his books has always been the neat little aperçus he drops in. In the case of this text, it’s tidbits like how the difference in size between males and females is related to the size of the harem. For southern elephant seals, in which the male is three tons and the female is seven hundred pounds, a male has an average of 48 females in his harem.

Or how leaf-cutter ants cultivate a specific type of fungus so precious it is carried by the queen when she starts a new colony.

And there’s the jaw-dropping anecdote that the highest recorded number of offspring for a human male is 888—by Emperor Ismail the Bloodthirsty of Morocco; for a female the high is 69, by a 19th century Russian woman who had multiple triplets.

But don’t miss the section on the most magnificent of all, the bowerbirds, who build and decorate complex huts to seduce the females.

Diamond, due in large part to his success, has his critics, some of whom are quite vocal and passionate. Some take particular issue with Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Diamond’s theories of how agricultural developments led to white Europeans on Native American lands instead of the other way around (it certainly did not help when Mitt Romney cited him). His response, however, is simple.

“When you say pushback, in my opinion, that’s much too flattering. There’s not a serious competing theory,” he sighs.

“The few people in the area who object, there are some vocal people, one hears a slogan, ‘environmental determinism’,” chided Diamond. “But those who use that slogan never spell out what they think accounts for the pattern of the last 13,000 years.”

The new book may say “for young people” on the cover, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not so young any longer. Anyone not looking to wade through the sometimes dense pages of Guns, Germs, and Steel or the original Third Chimpanzee is welcome here. This edition is definitely a digestible and informative dip into our past.