For the twenty-first-century disciple of Darwin, man—though he possesses no essential, intrinsic worth that separates him from his chimpanzee cousins—has proven himself a most effective destroyer of that very mother nature who evolved him into his present form…
The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond (432 pages, Harper Perennial, 2006)
Of the three founding fathers of modernism—Freud, Marx, and Darwin—only the third remains unscathed in the halls of academia. Over the last three decades, scores of secular humanist academics have criticized, if not discredited the theories of Freud and Marx. But not Darwin. He is the untouchable one: the one who must not be dethroned, abandoned, or questioned. For on his shoulders rests the modern world. Even the most clear- and open-minded of modernists find themselves unable to think outside of the Darwinian paradigm… or to escape the implications of that paradigm.
The truth of this statement was brought home to me again as I read a book by Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). In that best-selling book, Dr. Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, famously argued that the West’s conquest of Africa, Australia, and the New World was due to geographical rather than genetic differences. His argument is a compelling one, but it was not until I read his earlier work, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1992), that I realized how utterly grounded his thought is in Darwinism.
I choose to focus here on Dr. Diamond rather than Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Sam Harris, for Dr. Diamond is an irenic, non-combative person with no axe to grind. Unlike the new atheists, he does not seek to tear down the religious beliefs of his readers or prevent them from passing on those beliefs to their children. There is a deep humanity and empathy to Dr. Diamond, a passion to gain wisdom about his world and his fellow man that will help preserve our species. Yet, he too proves unable to escape the foundational beliefs and logical consequences of Darwinian survival of the fittest.
In what follows, I will show how Dr. Diamond, in his otherwise fascinating and entertaining Third Chimpanzee, proves unable either to imagine a world that is not run by the random, purposeless forces of natural selection or to avoid the finally anti-humanistic view of man that is forced upon him by his evolutionary presuppositions.
Diamond Clings to Darwin
From the outset of The Third Chimpanzee, Dr. Diamond makes no secret of his absolute allegiance to a theory that has gotten weaker, not stronger, since it was proposed in the middle of the nineteenth century. “Since Darwin’s time, fossilized bones of hundreds of creatures variously intermediate between apes and modern humans have been discovered, making it impossible for a reasonable person to deny the overwhelming evidence. What once seemed absurd—our evolution from apes—actually happened” (Harper, 2006, 2). A century and a half of paleontology has not only failed to substantiate Darwin’s branching tree; it has shown it to be false. Far from overwhelming, the fossil evidence from amoeba to primates contradicts Darwin’s tree while the “evidence” from ape to man simply does not exist. The touted “missing link” continues to be just that—missing.
The only reason why it is “impossible” for a “reasonable person” to deny man’s evolution from apes is that “reasonable” persons like Dr. Diamond who refuse—on philosophical rather than scientific grounds—to accept the possibility that we were created are left with no other option than Darwin to account for their own existence. Just as the partisan politician must spin every new fact, no matter how contradictory, to favor his side, so Darwinists like Dr. Diamond will never question the “fact” of evolution, only the best way to force the evidence to fit common descent by means of natural selection.
Consider the two sentences that follow directly after the ones quoted above: “Yet the discoveries of many missing links have only made the problem more fascinating without fully solving it. The few bits of new baggage we acquired—the 2 percent difference between our genes and those of chimps—must have been responsible for all of our seemingly unique properties” (2). Note that Dr. Diamond was not expecting to find “many missing links”; the paleontological evidence is not behaving. No matter, a little more finessing of the “facts” will clear up any and all discrepancies.
Note even more his use of the word “must” in the second sentence. That a two percent difference in DNA between man and chimp could account for the vast, qualitative differences between the two species is as absurd as the notion that we could have evolved from apes, but that does not matter. That difference must have done it, for Darwinism says it must, and if Darwin is wrong, then we are left with no option but a supernatural creator. Well, not exactly.
Ironically, the only real evidence Dr. Diamond offers for our evolution from chimps is that two percent difference in our DNA. I call it ironic for the discovery of DNA and how it works has exploded any possibility that life could have evolved solely by Darwinian means. The method by which DNA replicates itself, a method that allows for mutations, can cause some evolutionary changes—though on the micro rather than the macro level—but the DNA itself, frontloaded with information and evincing a specified and irreducible complexity of the highest order, could not have evolved by Darwinian means. New atheist Richard Dawkins and the equally Darwinian, anti-theistic Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of the double helix structure of the DNA, are well aware of this; that is why they have both proposed our DNA might have been seeded by aliens.
Dr. Diamond, to his credit, does not seek refuge in science-fiction, though he does pull a clever sleight of hand in which he “proves” the probability of Darwinian evolution by claiming that the immense size of our universe would surely have led to the evolution of other rational species on other planets—and then assures us that, though those alien species must exist, they would have destroyed themselves before they could contact us! Instead, refusing to consider that the two percent DNA difference between man and chimp is equally consistent with evolution as it is with a common creator/designer of all life on earth, Dr. Diamond tries to show that a minor evolutionary adaptation some 40,000 years ago to our tongue and larynx anatomy might have supplied us with the vocal capability of speech, a modification that led to language and all those other elements that separate man from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Dr. Diamond devotes most of the first half of The Third Chimpanzee to finding animal precedents for sexuality, art, and agriculture. Though most of his findings conflate animal instinct with human choice, the greater problem with his just-so stories is that they are inconsistent. Whenever he is unable to find a parallel amongst the chimpanzee ninety-eight percenters (which is most of the time), he blithely turns to birds or ants for a parallel—claiming that, when it came time for man, nature/natural selection miraculously rediscovered a strategy she had “forgotten” since the time of the ants. Even if we ignore Dr. Diamond’s tendency to invest nature/natural selection with agency—a tendency he shares with Dr. Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and all the other popularizers of Darwin—it surely stretches the bounds of reason and logic to think a helpful adaptation strategy would lie dormant between the evolution of ants and the evolution of humans.
Absent the paleontological evidence for common descent by natural selection, and given what we now know about the specified and irreducible complexity of the DNA and the micro-machines that run our cells, most of the evidence Dr. Diamond amasses for evolution is better accounted for by a common creator who endowed each species with its own adaptation strategies. That such a creator would make use of the same adaptation strategy for different species across the spectrum of life makes much more sense than random, undirected nature “forgetting” a strategy for millions of years and then conveniently “remembering” it during Dr. Diamond’s hypothetical Great Leap Forward 40,000 years ago.
Darwin Clings to Diamond
According to Karl Popper’s influential falsifiability filter, one of the characteristics of a true, scientifically valid system is that it can be refuted by empirical evidence. If Popper is correct, then Darwin’s theory of evolution, at least as it is held by such thinkers as Dr. Diamond, Dr. Dawkins, and Dr. Dennett, is non-falsifiable. There is simply no type or amount of evidence that could budge Diamond from his absolute allegiance to what he considers the self-evident, scientific truth of Darwinism.
Still, I applaud Dr. Diamond for at least attempting to convince his readers, and himself, that the Darwinian mechanisms that birthed and shaped us need not rob us of our free will. In The Third Chimpanzee, and again in Guns, Germs, and Steel, he insists that the aboriginal peoples of Africa, Australia, and the Americas were not genetically disposed to being defeated and subjugated by the West. It was only because their respective climates did not allow them to cultivate grains and domestic animals with the same success as the men of Europe and the Near East that they were unable to defend themselves from the colonizers and the conquistadors.
On the surface, this sounds like an affirmation of human dignity, but it is a hollow one. For all his attempts to assert the essential equality of all races and all peoples, Dr. Diamond cannot evade that fact that the Darwinian assumptions on which his theories rest are reductive and deterministic. He works hard to free us from genetic determinism only to replace it with geographical determinism. His moral fervor is strong and admirable, but it loses all meaning if we are nothing more than a chimpanzee whose evolved vocal chords allowed us to invent speech, language, and civilization. By breaking down the dividing line between man and animal—rather as the movers and shakers in the fields of transhumanism are currently rushing to break down the barrier between the organic and the inorganic—Dr. Diamond deconstructs the basis of our uniqueness, our dignity, and our status as conscience-bearing free-will agents accountable to a standard that transcends both us and the natural world.
For all his moral seriousness, Dr. Diamond has come to play a role amongst Western elites that is analogous to that of Bart Ehrman. Just as Ehrman’s flippant, seemingly-scholarly dismantling of the authority and reliability of the Bible has been gobbled up by rich white liberals who want to be able to maintain the respectable label of Christian while evading accountability to a holy God, so Dr. Diamond’s far more sober and admirable attempt to disassociate Darwinian (survival-of-the-fittest) genetics from the European conquest of Australia, Africa, and the Americas has been gobbled up by those who want to embrace Darwinian evolution without having to also embrace its necessary racist implications. (Let us not forget the full title of Darwin’s manifesto: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.) The line from Darwin to Dachau is as firm as that from Marx to the Gulag.
There is an unsettling paradox at the heart of The Third Chimpanzee, as there is at the heart of all modern books that champion freedom, tolerance, and equality while simultaneously advocating Darwinian macroevolution. Dr. Diamond’s noble attempt in the second half of his book to break down human inequality is rendered impotent in the wake of the first half of his book, where he traces our evolution from the chimpanzee.
In order to help resolve, or at least unpack this central paradox of the modern world, I would like to offer up a passage from a Spanish Catholic philosopher who deserves to be better known in America: Julian Marias (1914-2005). After mapping out the theological, philosophical, and anthropological vision of reality that energized medieval and renaissance Christendom, Marias, in The Christian Perspective, pauses to put his finger on a strange element in modern Europe’s hostility toward Christianity.
Behind the deep anti-clericalism and the avoidance of accountability to a divine standard that motivates this hostility, writes Marias, lies something subtler and more troubling: “an odd will to degrade the idea of humanity, as if human excellence were irritating. This has been tried from very different approaches. One of them, under the mantle of ‘modesty,’ has been to deny the importance and dignity of mankind and to disavow any ‘central’ position for humankind within reality…. Throughout history, and uninterruptedly so since the eighteenth century, a succession of teams have devoted themselves to the task of ‘reducing’ man to what, properly speaking, is the non-human. A series of such replacements has eradicated the personal nature of man. They have looked on human beings as ‘organisms’ subject to the mere natural laws of physics, biology and economics and lacking the decisive attribute of freedom and the responsibility that arises from it” (Halcyon Press, 2000, 109).
Despite its compassionate treatment of the victims of colonialism, The Third Chimpanzee is shot through with that very “odd will” that Marias so keenly and succinctly identifies. Dr. Diamond subjects and reduces mankind to the same natural laws and biological urges that drive and determine the animal kingdom. Not only human excellence but the very idea of humanity itself loses all power and substance when the differences between man and animal become quantitative rather that qualitative, a matter of degree rather than kind. Marxism was responsible for creating a lowest-common-denominator world in which revolutionaries did all they could to tear down the excellence that they envied in their betters. But Darwin started us down an even darker path, a Peter Singer world where unborn children, and even newborns, are to be afforded less personhood status than full grown chimpanzees.
Dr. Diamond, thankfully, harbors a higher view of humanity than Singer; yet, a close reading of The Third Chimpanzee reveals Dr. Diamond as a disciple and champion of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Midway through his book, Dr. Diamond has this to say of ancient farmers: “Forced to choose between limiting population growth and trying to increase food production, we opted for the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny” (190). This theme returns in the final chapter where he complains that “many people who should know better dispute the need for limiting our population” (365).
For the twenty-first-century disciple of Darwin, man—though he possesses no essential, intrinsic worth that separates him from his chimpanzee cousins—has proven himself a most effective destroyer of that very mother nature who evolved him into his present form. No longer a special creation of a loving Creator, man de-evolves into an infestation, a parasite, a dangerous animal who excels only in his ability to lay waste his natural habitat.
Humanitarian ideals aside, it seems that the Darwinian Diamond believes, with Ehrlich, that people are the problem.
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