Jared Diamond on drugs

March 24, 2009

Just finished reading Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” in which, according to Wikipedia, ‘Diamond addresses two issues: how and why human beings transformed in a short period from “just another species of big mammal” into a world-dominating force; and the degree to which our immense progress has been coupled with the seeds of self-destruction, particularly through genocide and environmental degradation.’

It’s a brilliant book, as you might expect, but one chapter – “Why do we smoke, drink and take dangerous drugs?” – just didn’t ring true for me. Diamond proposes that narcotic use is a handicap principle behaviour like stotting in gazelles or a peacock’s tail – basically something wasteful or dangerous that has evolved because it proves to the opposite sex that you are tough enough to waste your energy in this way, and are therefore a good bet to have babies with.

Two things struck me when I first read the chapter. The first was that he seemed to think drugs’ dangerousness (and by “drugs” here I mean nicotine and booze as well as illegal drugs) is their primary characteristic –  even though, for example, it didn’t become common knowledge that tobacco is bad for you until quite recently in the history of its use. The second was his apparent complete ignorance of the fact that people enjoy using drugs.

Even so it took me a little while to come up with a counter-argument, but I did eventually and here it is – if people take drugs primarily because they’re dangerous, then why don’t people ingest dangerous substances that don’t get you high? Rhubarb leaves, say, or ragwort, or human shit? The answer is, of course, that getting high is the point, not showing off in order to get laid.

Of course Jared Diamond would classify “getting high” as a proximate reason, rather than an ultimate reason, for doing something – “cos I like it” is be the proximate reason people have sex, but the ultimate reason can be found in the millions of years of evolution that has made sex enjoyable for humans. So what’s the ultimate reason people like to get high? Well, we have opiod and cannabinoid and zillion other chemical receptors in our brains,  and, through an accident of evolution, plants make these chemicals too and therefore we can override our own hormonal emotional controls and make ourselves euphoric using plant extracts. Drug use is just a form of tool use where we satisfy (or manipulate) our instinctive/emotional drives directly using chemicals rather than indirectly via manipulation of the physical world.

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4 Responses to “Jared Diamond on drugs”


  1. […] Stoat bassplayer’s blog placed an interesting blog post on Jared Diamond on drugsHere’s a brief overviewJust finished reading Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” in which, according to Wikipedia, ‘Diamond addresses two issues: how and why human beings transformed in a short period from “just another species of big mammal” into a world-dominating force; and the degree to which our immense progress has been coupled with the seeds of self-destruction, particularly through genocide and environmental degradation.’ It’s a brilliant book, as you might expect, but one chapter – “Why do we smoke, drin […]

  2. giorgio Says:

    i should suggest to mr. Diamond to read “animali che si drogano” by Samorini. he will discover that a lot of animals uses drugs!

  3. giorgio Says:

    no english version unfortunately
    http://www.fuoriluogo.it/libri/animali.htm


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