The human jungle

I've just finished Desmond Morris's The naked ape; it's a fascinating look at human behaviour examining its roots in our primate ancestry (hence the title) and how evolutionary changes have also affected our behaviour.

First published in 1967, the work provoked consternation at the time. Many people responded in the same way that they had to Darwin's theory of evolution - unable to accept that human behaviour, and humanity itself had animal roots. Much of Naked Ape is interesting stuff, but I was surprised at how badly it has aged. You would think that a study of human behaviour would not read that differently 45 years on, but the sexual revolution had a huge impact. And although much of what he says is sensible, and as true today as it was in the Sixties some of it is extraordinarily dated.

This is especially noticeable in the passages about human sexuality and work. When Morris was writing women were still a relatively small part of the workforce, and as far as sexuality was concerned, in spite of Masters and Johnson, and Kinsey, people were far less open where sex was concerned. So there were odd passages where I would find myself thinking "That surely can't be true" - and looking at more recent stats discovered that it would appear that unless human behaviour was extraordinarily different in the '60s, it would just appear that people were less honest about certain aspects of their behaviour.

So, it's an interesting and entertaining read, and there were certainly moments when I thought "OOO, right, THAT'S why we do that". But there are also moments where Morris's logic escaped me, and I wasn't always convinced by his conclusions.

One of the most entertaining sections was the final chapter in which Morris looked at anthropomorphism and why we like the animals we do (it's all down to posture and facial features). A survey was done asking a group of children of all ages which animals they liked. As the answers were written down this caused some problems especially with the younger age groups. Some children stated that they liked "the coca-cola beast" while others went for the "bettle twigs". I would guess that the fearsome coca-cola beast was probably the koala bear, but if anyone can guess what bettle twigs is I will be very impressed!

Sadly aged but still well worth reading, try and get your hands on The Naked Ape


Aarti said…
Oh, what an interesting read! In some ways, I wonder if how dated it is will eventually work in its favor, to give us a glimpse into just how much impact women's liberation has on a culture. It could be the "before" picture.
Book-hound said…
You're right Aarti! I hadn't thought of it like that, but it was, inadvertently, a real eye opener about the difference feminism had made.

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