Review Of The
Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 6/19/08
Every human on the planet should at one time take a look at the human species from a detached point of view. What I mean is to really just look at people and view them from the mind of some alien species and then question if you think we’re a bit odd, predictable, or whatever descriptive word you want to use. What is interesting about Desmond Morris’ 1967 classic The Naked Ape is that he achieves just that. No, he is not pretending to be some alien species, but he is analyzing the human as an animal, from the view of a zoologist, rather than the more common means of a psychologist or sociologist.
The Naked Ape is in fact referring to the human body—one that is “naked” in the sense of less body hair than other apes and also a stripped down (literally) examination of our animal nature. Some of the topics Morris discuses are human sex, child rearing, exploration, fighting, feeding, and comfort. He compares our habits to those of the apes, noting some of the similarities beside some of the differences. After reading a book by Jane Goodall, where she talks about the Chimpanzee’s need to groom one another as a means for casual social interaction, Morris actually compares this behavior to our version of “grooming” which would be social chitchat. Humans do it when a group gathers, and as they grow more comfortable with one another, the conversational topics might delve into deeper issues, but then the chitchat, or “grooming” emerges once again when the group is parting ways.
Also, when Morris is discussing the patterns of human sexual interaction, he gives readers an entire chapter of the mechanical sexual process without a shred of eroticism. He discusses the idea of the “pair-bond” between two naked apes, how do they achieve such? Why do they engage in such a large amount of pre-copulation activity? If your first response is to answer this in reasons you’ve heard before, Morris takes it deeper as he discusses the biology behind it. Again, pretend you are some alien species and you’ll notice and recognize patterns that you might not have found otherwise.
It is important to also note that because of the year in which the book was written, some of the statistical information will not be accurate to that of today, and also some dated words are used, such as “Negro” to describe the black male. Yet this can’t be really criticism considering this was penned in 1967, and although there might be some minor differences as these, the overall text is timeless. Morris shows how since our origins, not much has changed in our behaviors.
Morris also makes an interesting observation involving young children and what their favorite animals are. When they are very young, Morris points out that children will list large animals as those they admire most (such as lions, tigers, bears, etcetera), yet as children age, their selections change to smaller animals (cats, dogs, rabbits), or in other words, animals they can physically nurture themselves, and claim the role of the “parent”. He also notes the patterns in what humans define as their least favorite animals (such as spiders and snakes) and discusses why this is the case. What is it that causes the Naked Ape, on average, to detest spiders and snakes so much? Read and find out.
I was fascinated by this book and knew I wanted to read it after having read the interview with Desmond Morris on Cosmoetica. Morris not only addresses the many similarities we share with other apes, but also the not so obvious differences we have. For example, female naked apes are the only animal species we know that can experience an orgasm, as well as having a hymen. He also notes that our primary sexual position is face to face, and that the female breasts serve more to sexually arouse males than for mere infant suckling alone since the breast is not as conducive to infant suckling the way the breasts on other apes are. (Noting that when a human mother breastfeeds, she must be aware that the breast could literally suffocate the child if she’s not paying attention. Just as a contrast, other female ape species’ breasts consist mainly of large nipples pointed outward, making it easy for the infants to feed).
I have only touched on the very little that is contained in this book, which is a delight to read. I encourage everyone to visit and revisit The Naked Ape and remove yourself from your own species for a while. And the next time you are drying off after a shower, all this talk just might lead you to look a little longer at that Naked Ape in that mirror. (It’s ok, just don’t get caught).
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
Return to Bylines