Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

First American edition, 1967
"There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones. He is proud that he has the biggest brain of all primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honour falsely to the mighty gorilla. He is an intensely vocal, acutely exploratory, over-crowded ape, and it is high time we examined his basic behaviour."

Desmond Morris is a wonderful writer, and I think this shows in the first paragraph of his best-seller book "The Naked Ape" (1967), reproduced above. I hadn't read it for at least ten years, and this second reading (but first time in English) was as enjoyable as the first one.

The Naked Apesubtitled A zoologist's study of the human animal—is Morris' attempt to teach us some anthropological and biological facts about ourselves, and this in a very clear and funny way. Morris is a British scientist who studied animal behavior at Oxford. He later worked at the London zoo  and he has participated to many radio and television programs. Last but not least, he's the author of many popular science books! (You can read his full biography and find his complete works on his personal website.)

The book's chapters focus on large topics that deal with our nature: origins, sex, rearing, exploration, fighting, feeding, comfort, with the last chapter being on our interactions with other animals. The main point made by Morris in his book is that the human animala term also popularized by the great biologist Jean Rostandhas evolved from an ancestor ape, and that this heritage still very much shows in our day-to-day behavior. He writes that "it is the biological nature of the beast that has moulded the social structure of civilization, rather than the other way around" (p. 84).

So, what made us who we are? (I yam what I yam, as the sailor man says.) It seems that a fundamental move was a literal one: from the forest to the savannah, and the subsequent adoption of territoriality and carnivorism, among other things. The body changes, such as the loss of our fur and the upright position, probably originated jointly. A likely mechanism for this evolution is the process of neoteny, in which traits present in the young are kept in the adult (a famous example is that young chimpanzees look more like humans than adult chimpanzees).

We thus live our modern lives in our big cities with bodies and minds that evolved to produce successful apes standing upright and hunting in packs. What we do is of course influenced by our culture, but the part of instinctive behavior is most certainly overlookedand this is as true today as it was in the 1960s.

Morris is at his best when he dissects our modern habits in the light of our prehistoric instincts. I particularly like the following example, and anyone used to giving public presentations will I'm sure feel better after reading it (p.164):
"Only a truly aggressive individual can fix you in the eye for any length of time. [...] A professional lecturer takes some time to train himself to look directly at the members of his audience, instead of over their heads, down at his rostrum, or out towards the side or back of the hall. Even though he is in such a dominant position, there are so many of them, all staring (from the safety of their seats) at him, that he experiences a basic and initially uncontrollable fear of them."
And this one about housings and territoriality (p.183):
"One of the important features of the family territory is that it must be easily distinguished in some way from all the others. [...] This is something which seems obvious enough, but which has frequently been overlooked or ignored, either as a result of economic pressures, or the lack of biological awareness of architects. Endless rows of uniformly repeated, identical houses have been erected in cities and towns all over the world. [...]The psychological damage done to the territorialism of the families forced by architects, planners and builders to live under these conditions is incalculable."
Other great and funny examples of ancient behaviors applied to modern life include the use of submission gestures to appease a policeman after having been pulled over (Morris tried it first-hand!), and the remarkable stability of our number of acquaintances, even in crowded cities, which approximates the size of a small tribe!

If Morris insists on our animal nature and our limitations, it is to help us "to keep a sense of proportion and to force us to consider what is going on just below the surface of our lives". He also acknowledges that we have great merits, of course, but since their is no shortage of praise for our species in other books, his aim is not to add on this. He beautifully concludes "The Naked Ape" as follows (p.241):
"We must somehow improve in quality rather than in sheer quantity. If we do this, we can continue to progress technologically in a dramatic and exciting way without denying our evolutionary inheritance. If we do not, then our suppressed biological urges will build up and up until the dam bursts and the whole of our elaborate existence is swept away in the flood."
To read more about Desmond Morris, this previous post is about "The Human Zoo", the follow-up of the Naked Ape, which focuses on the social relations of our species.  A recent and brilliant piece by Morris, written on the occasion of Darwin's bicentennial, is available on the Daily Mail website

  • Morris D. (1967) The Naked Ape. McGraw-Hill, New York. 252 pages.

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