by Jared Diamond (Harper Perennial 2006; originally published by HarperCollins, 1992)
I’ve read several Diamond books by now (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Collapse; Why Is Sex Fun?), and there is a lot of overlap among them, but they are all fascinating and thought-provoking. Diamond is a geographer by profession, but his wide-ranging interests and expertise (from bird-watching to cultural anthropology to history to biology to linguistics and beyond) and his first-person experiences in more countries than one person would normally have the time to visit in a lifetime, let alone live and work in, make his books special.
This one is a complete examination of all aspects of human biology and history, including language development, genocidal behavior, adultery, substance abuse, art, senescence, and the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. Diamond looks at human beings critically, compares them to their closest relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos), and asks whether this or that behavior hard-wired within us? Why do we do it?
For me, the most sobering chapter is the one on genocide, where Diamond lists the appallingly many such events (he lists 37) that have taken place since 1492 and describes several in excruciating detail. Genocide is not, as we would prefer to believe unusual in our species. Nor is it unknown in other species, although our guns, germs, and steel give us the power to annihilate more people faster.