Steve Jones

  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: How our animal heritage affects the way we live by Jared Diamond
    Vintage, 360 pp, £6.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 09 991380 1

It is fatally easy to read into the animal world what we would like to see in our own, to explain the human condition as an inevitable consequence of our biology. Even Charles Darwin was at fault. Hidden in his unpublished notebooks is the damning passage: ‘Origin of Man now proved – metaphysics must flourish – he who understands baboons will do more towards metaphysics than Locke.’ Darwin, at least, had the excuse of being nearly right nearly all the time. Most of his successors have no such defence. Herbert Spencer – who coined the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ – was in favour of arranging society on Darwinian lines. Not surprisingly, his ideas were popular with Andrew Carnegie and his fellow steel magnates. Konrad Lorenz saw humans as ‘killer apes’, which may have explained his own flirtation with the Nazis.

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