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Reply of the Literate Ape

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal - Desmond Morris

Morris makes a great song and dance about the 'outrage' with which his book was first received. Why, he wonders, are people so resistant to contemplating, in the cool light of scientific 'objectivity', their 'animal nature'? However, Morris' claim to neutrality is highly suspect. He urges us to learn from and accept the picture he presents of human beings, saying

homo sapiens has remained a naked ape... in acquiring lofty new motives, he has lost none of the earthy old ones. This is frequently a cause of embarrassment to him, but his old impulses have been with him for millions of years, his new ones only a few thousand at the most - and there is no hope of shrugging off the accumulated genetic legacy of his evolutionary past. He would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if he would face up to this fact

He contrasts the 'biological view' with that of anthropologists, whose methods he treats with derision, since they have tended to give attention to exceptional, often fairly isolated societies. His comments on this subject are not encouraging:

The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified... the naked ape is essentially an exploratory species and any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed

This amounts to a ringing endorsement for imperialist colonisation and cultural hegemony. He compares such 'biological failures' with 'the ordinary successful members of the major cultures'.

As well as anthropologists, he has issues with psychologists who have, laudably(!) stuck to 'mainstream specimens' but these have unfortunately been 'aberrant or failed... in some respect' he quotes an unnamed practitioner from the field in question approvingly: 'We have tackled the abnormals and we are only now beginning, a little late in the day, to concentrate on the normals'. Apparently this horrifically ableist language is unproblematic because we are dealing with the human animal as a mere meaty hunk of biological data, not with personhood. I begin to wonder about Morris' views on eugenics, or rather more saliently, eugenicists' views on Morris.

As usual, my heckles are raised by the use of the male pronoun for humans in general, and I usually try hard to make allowances for this old-fashioned unmarked masculine, but in this case 'he' is indicative of Morris' stance. His naked ape is a male and hislifestyle is characteristic of the species and shaped its evolution. He describes how males became hunters and thus developed sophisticated cooperative, communicative and planning skills. There must be something missing from this picture, as female humans have equally well-developed abilities in these areas and they are strictly excluded from hunting in Dennis' account. Perhaps child-rearing, which they are credited with, made equal demands (I doubt it) but in that case why is hunting the primary influence rather than infantilism and childcare?

On the fascinating subject of how homo sapiens became hairless (I prefer this description to Morris' sexually loaded term 'naked' which he claims is neutral), he outlines various theories. I'm most interested in the aquatic ape hypothesis, and keen to read about it next, but Dennis favours a hunting-related hypothesis, which leaves the hairlessness of female humans unexplained. Morris' fondness for hunting is much in evidence, in the lack of mention afforded to the food gathering practices of our (probably mainly female) ancestors, description of carnivores vs omnivorous primates, his derision for vegetarians, and most importantly in his description of work as the direct modern analogue of hunting. Thus, women ought not to work/hunt; their 'biologically correct' place is at home caring for the young. All-male clubs and sporting activities are obvious extensions of the need to hunt. I'm grateful to Morris for thereby explaining why women have no interest in sports, athletic pursuits or group socialising activities.

This book apparently caused much offence with its 'frank' descriptions of sexual activity. Morris admits these are based on studies in North America, but claims this is fine because 'that culture' is 'biologically large and successful' and therefore 'representative of the naked ape' in general. Morris' account of intercourse is clinical. What offends me is his unabashedly homophobic stance. He explains homosexual behaviour, which must be 'normal' since all mammals engage in it, as adolescent exploration and an inevitable consequence of young people spending time in unisexual groups 'such as boys schools' but long-term homosexuality is an 'aberrant' 'fixation'. Grudgingly he admits that 'permanent homosexuals' are 'valuable non-contributors' in the present context of the current population explosion, which Dennis regards as a serious coming crisis.

These regressive views on sexuality were commonplace when Dennis wrote the book in 1967, but when he was invited to update it in 1994, he saw no reason to change anything but the figure he originally gave for the size of the population. Man's essential biological nature can change only over evolutionary time scales, he might say. There's the rub. Morris is an essentialist, for whom biology is destiny. However hard we try to 'twist' and 'distort' our true nature, we will keep returning to the animal truth.

This position has generally been rejected by philosophers and social scientists, with good reason. Since zoology is a field of study undertaken by socialised humans, its premises are culturally constructed and determined. I am not trying to deny physical reality or suggest that nothing can be learned from research, but we can't seriously talk about 'facts' isolated from culture, as Morris tries to do. The simple example of his account of taste sensation is instructive. He repeats the 'fact' that we detect four tastes and the 'fact' that different parts of the tongue are sensitive to each of them. Both of these 'facts' are wrong - they are mistaken interpretations which other cultures have not shared. This reminds me of a lecture I once heard, in which we were asked to state the number of our senses. Pliny said five, and so we English all say; it's a cultural commonplace. But, our teacher said, it's no more than that; consider the sense of 'touch', in our five-sense framing made to cover hot/cold, pain, proprioception, contact detection. Are these not rather distinct 'senses'?

Morris says that as his book is intended for popular consumption it would be silly to include references. Except on the rare occasions when he actually indicates that 'research has shown' etc, I have to assume that this book is educated speculation. His procedure is to reverse-engineer primitive humans based on a white male North American interpretation of what is observed in the species today, supplementing this with our knowledge of prehistoric environmental conditions, the famously patchy fossil record and comparisons with primates and predators. And why not? The effort is worthy and the results interesting, though I believe they have been much-contested since first published. Where Dennis oversteps the mark is in attempting to apply his picture of our ancestors, gained from studying modern humans, to show us modern humans where we are going wrong. Call me culturally indoctrinated Morris, but that sounds like circular reasoning. 

Morris claims that he wants us to embrace our biological nature, and poses the zoological perspective as ideologically neutral, but it's obvious that this book is drenched in the ideology of 'biological morality', the agenda of the gene. My genes regard me as an instrument for their replication, and everything else I do (and feel and think) is irrelevant to them. Their motive is identical to that of a virus. My glorious birthright, as a human being, is the ability to choose otherwise.