The Naked Ape: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by Desmond Morris

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The Naked Ape: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by Desmond Morris

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: James Donald
Reviewed by James Donald
Summary: A book that started a publishing revolution and that rightfully stands even now 50 years later as one of the greatest works in popular science. This is a book every human needs to read but sadly only those who know how to think will understand.
Buy? YES Borrow? YES
Pages: 272 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099482017

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Desmond Morris explores the concept of Humans as animals. With a deft touch he strips away our overblown self-centred pomposity and yet at the same time manages to elevate us. A staggering, controversial and inspiring book that fifty years on should still be recognised as the work of genius it is.

It is impossible to discuss this book properly nor to do it justice without talking about two other works alongside it. The first is the book that made this work possible – On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin. The second is a book that is the true sequel to Darwin's work that was made possible by The Naked ApeThe Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Darwin's work is remarkable for many reasons not least of which was his utterly revolutionary presentation of Natural Selection. Darwin presented evidence effortlessly and crafted a book that utterly changed the way we looked at the natural world. Compared to many other works of its type Darwin also pulled off a very neat trick indeed by making his work relatively accessible to the casual intelligent reader. Around a hundred and ten years later Morris pulled off the same trick and in his own way started another revolution.

Richard Dawkins is often referred to as Darwin's bulldog. Verbose, articulate and utterly without mercy, Dawkins will attack anything he judges as unscientific, not for the sake of understanding but as a moral duty. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins took the concept of Natural Selection to an uncomfortable conclusion and proposed that it was not the species being acted upon but the genetic codes themselves self-replicating and endlessly seeking to survive. Whilst Dawkins very much needed Darwin's work to build on, his opus could not have existed if not for The Naked Ape paving the way for a whole slew of popular science books. Morris showed that it is not necessary to make any concessions or to pull any punches with the science in order to make concepts comprehensible. All it takes is great communication skills.

Reading The Naked Ape for the first time in at least 25 years I am reminded of why I was so inspired to study Biology at degree level and I regret not following it to a higher level. Looking back at this work I can see clearly in my mind an image of a youthful Richard Dawkins being inspired to throw himself into the study of evolution and then an older, wiser Dawkins wincing in pain at the anthropomorphising of the power of Natural Selection. Morris was writing at a different time and he was introducing difficult concepts. There is the potential to walk away from this work with some misconceptions but you will be so inspired to find out more by it that these will soon be corrected.

Darwin told us that humans, like all forms of life on Earth, evolved from earlier forms of life through the acquisition of useful traits that were passed on. Dawkins explained exactly how this happened at a genetic level (although he neatly side-steps the dirty secret at the heart of Biology… there aren't enough genes!). What Morris does is far more esoteric and yet simultaneously more concrete – he simply reminds us that we are animals too. That is it. We are animals, everything that we know of evolution, of zoology, of nature… all of it is as true of us as it is of all other animals.

I do have criticisms of this book. Most are purely due to its age but there is one fairly serious point I want to make first and it is that this edition is a wasted opportunity. There is one single footnote in the book that has been added since the original. One. That note comes on the third from last page and it simply states what the world's population is now (it was 3000 Million when the book was first published and now stands at 7500 Million). A scary statistic but hardly the one I'd highlight out of all those possible. Morris does say very clearly that his original goal was to create a clean and accessible work free from footnotes and referencing and that is admirable but it misses the point. This is not the original book, this is the 50th Anniversary edition. Morris' new foreword describes some of his battles on TV and in the press with various people. He admits some parts of his work have proven to be over or understated. Frans De Waal, a superb scientist and very clear communicator starts to point out the influence of the book and that this is rarely credited and then he stops.

To see what has been missed you need only look at the aforementioned Selfish Gene. Dawkins faced immediate misconceptions, deliberate misinterpretations and outright attacks on his ground-breaking work so almost immediately he started work on new editions. When I finally read it at 14, around 15 years after it was published half the book was footnotes, references and appendices. It was far from the clean and accessible work that Morris had produced with The Naked Ape (nor indeed the streamlined original The Selfish Gene) but the original book was still in there and had with it a whole bunch of 'DVD extras'. Whilst I hope that The Naked Ape will still act as an entry level work for sociology, naturalism or evolutionary biology an update or expansion of it by Morris or De Waal would not have detracted at all from the beautiful original.

To be completely fair to Morris he does have a huge catalogue of works to read through and his naked series does look at aspects of his original idea in more depth and in different contexts but it would have been nice to see a reflection on the original.

Before I take a few things to task on a book (that are only worth mentioning due to the way society or research has moved on since it was written) that I love I should talk a little more about what it is.

The Naked Ape is us. Every part of our modern society, our routine behaviours, our habits and our vices are all a product of our animal nature. Chimpanzees throwing faeces are no different to a human smile or laugh – they are natural responses to a situation that have evolved over time. Nothing is taboo to Morris and he pitches straight in by looking very bluntly at sex. Over 8 simple chapters (Origins, Sex, Rearing, Exploration, Fighting, Feeding, Comfort and Animals) we are left knowing in no uncertain terms that we are animals and yet we are also made to feel special.

There are two distinct threads to the issues I have with the book as it stands now. One is purely based on how language and social issues have moved on and the other is how research has. Tackling the former first there is some language in the book such as negro that makes me cringe with White Guilt. Unlike many books from its time and before, however, the word is used not as a substitute for a stronger N-word nor is any negativity attached to it. Morris simply uses the term to describe those of ancestral origin (after the initial human migration, of course) in the mid to southern African regions. Morris never judges anyone: he simply and very autistically states the facts as he sees them, all are equal. At times it is very much like watching Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory or Temperance Brennon from Bones stumble through an interaction.

Another example is his discussion of homosexuality. Being gay is described as aberrant which perfectly suits the climate of a time when it was illegal to have a relationship with someone of the same gender. Just a few lines on from this turn of phrase we suddenly realise that Morris is being deliberately subversive and having lulled us into the negative normality of the culture against homosexuality he slaps us around the face, says he is not making judgements but only describing it in terms of reproductive success and then points out that monks and others who live in enforced celibacy are just as aberrant. Following this up he then hits us with the stark fact that we are not alone in the animal kingdom in having homosexuality and that it may be a natural response to overcrowding.

Gender too suffers and Morris unashameably subscribes to old-fashioned gender roles… or he seems to. Morris never says that this is the way things have to be and since the book was written we have legislated in change that previously would have been considered impossible. The aim is no longer equal but different but instead simply equal. Morris himself may look on all of this as unnatural but he does so without judgement.

None of his uncomfortable comments ever leave you thinking that your hero of old has been exposed as a bigot (quite the opposite in retrospect) but they are uncomfortable all the same.

The second category is how our understanding of ourselves and the animal kingdom has improved since the book was written. There is a prime example of this early in the book where we are compared to the other primates. Morris describes part of our uniqueness as being the product of a gatherer species integrating carnivore behaviours. We are, he says, the only primates to organise coordinated hunts and attacks in the intelligent and organised method as seen in wolves.

He is wrong.

Studies have seen that wild Chimpanzees can not only hunt monkeys in a very coordinated fashion but that they may also go to war over territory. It is true that many of these behaviours may be in response to their dwindling habitats but the fact is that it happens.

But… damn it… in being wrong Morris is proven to be correct. The whole point of his book is to examine us as animals, as a primate. By proving that one of our closest relatives, a genetic cousin, is more like us than we previously thought doesn't erode his argument but instead strengthens it. Score one for science.

Morris does not outright state that we are the only primate (or indeed animal) that engages in what he describes as information talking but it is strongly implied. Here again our understanding has moved on dramatically. By teaching Bonobos, Chimpanzees and Gorillas sign language we have discovered that they understand the concepts of naming objects, describing places/people and that they understand the past, present and future (to an extent). It is impossible to think that this understanding only arrived when we gave them the tools to express it. It is more realistic to assume that their own communications are far more subtle and nuanced than we realised. Yes it is likely we've expanded their abilities to describe the soap-opera lives that they live within their hierarchical communities but to what degree? Watching Koko with the late Robin Williams it seems that there is a lot more understanding than we are aware of…

…and again all I've done is strengthen Morris' original point.

We are just animals.

We accept our place in the animal kingdom begrudgingly and we seek to quantify and qualify it but Morris is here to remind us to shut up and accept it. The research keeps on proving and expanding upon Morris' original ideas. Many of these researchers would never think to reference a silly little popular science book as being influential but it is. Desmond Morris kicked the doors down, opened our minds and forced a new generation of researchers to look at us in our rightful place within the animal kingdom.

Popular Science books are incredibly important. Our society needs to understand the big and complicated things in order to make informed decisions (and to simply further our understanding of the world). Scientific Papers are inaccessible to most (even, in some cases, those with a background in sciences that don't exactly match the subject being studied) so we need Popular Science to help us. Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape was one of the first and it still is one of the best.

This book is a celebration but it is also tinged with despair. Repeatedly Morris very plainly states that he expected the human race to wipe itself out in the near future. If you asked Morris at the time of writing if he expected there to be a 50th anniversary version of his book he would have laughed hysterically at you. I'm old enough to remember the shadow of the Cold War. The War on Terror is nothing in comparison. We consoled ourselves as kids that WHEN the bombs fell (not IF) that at least it would be quick because we lived near a first wave target. Morris tried to be positive but his fears were clear – we will all die in a nuclear holocaust but if we don't we will run out of food but if we don't we will have to change to a more brutal… and so on. Our only hope (a declaration shared by many scientifically qualified science fiction writers and top scientists of today) is to spread to the stars. When we do I hope we take this book with us to keep us grounded.

Further reading: A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins and The Naked Man by Desmond Morris.

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