Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

I’m pretty sure I picked this one up at one the library’s semi-annual book sale. That means I paid only 50 cents for it or it was in a box of books that cost me only a dollar total. Here’s the opening paragraph:

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 the 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 behavior.

And I think, cool, we’re off to a good start. Morris is going to write from the perspective of a zoologist, studying an unusual species with the clinical detachment he would bring to any other species, primate or otherwise. But that quickly fades. In the next few paragraphs he introduces himself as a fellow human, as a member of this strange and unique species he’s going to critically examine. And when the “it” becomes a “we”, Morris fails in doing the revolutionary thing he sets out to do.

Otherwise the book is a mixed bag. Some things seem like deep and previously-unrecognized revelations—the 40+ years since his publication in these cases helping to prove Morris had flashes of extraordinary insight.

His analysis of the human evolutionary story as the primate turned predator has tremendous explanatory power—and indeed, Morris attributes a lot to it. At a minimum, it helps to explain why human society is so different from chimpanzee society and gorilla society, and why humans seem to struggle so much with the societal pressures that are placed upon them.

If we accept the history of our evolution as it has been outlined here, then one fact stands out clearly: namely, that we have arisen essentially as primate predators. Amongst existing monkeys and apes, this makes us unique … The point is that a major switch of this sort produces an animal with a split personality. Once over the threshold, it plunges into its new role with great evolutionary energy—so much so that it carries with it many of its old traits. Insufficient time has passed for it to throw off all its old characteristics while it is hurriedly donning the new ones. When the ancient fishes first conquered dry land, their new terrestrial qualities raced ahead while they continued to drag their old watery ones with them. It takes millions of years to perfect a dramatically new animal model, and the pioneer forms are usually very odd mixtures indeed. The naked ape is such a mixture. His whole body, his way of life, was geared to a forest existence, and then suddenly (suddenly in evolutionary terms) he was jettisoned into a world where he could survive only if he began to live like a brainy, weapon-toting wolf. We must examine now exactly how this affected not only his body, but especially his behavior, and in what form we experience the influence of this legacy at the present day.

Other things seem laughably wrong and contrived. Allow me to paraphrase a few prime examples (and no, I am not making these up):

• The female orgasm developed, in part, because of the female’s need to stay horizontal after the sexual act. If she were to get up and walk away, like other apes do, the seminal fluid would leak out of her vertically aligned vaginal passage and she would never conceive. The violent response of the female orgasm, leaving her sexually satiated and exhausted, has the effect of keeping her horizontal for the appropriate amount of time for insemination to occur.

• Weak and effeminate fathers raise lesbian daughters and strong and masculine mothers raise gay sons. Children or either gender, exposed to a behaviorally “inappropriate” parent, will seek those behaviors in a mate when they come of age, and may only find them in people of their same gender.

• Humans intentionally imbue commercial products and brands with a resemblance to our “threat-faces.” Car designers arrange headlights, metal grilles, and hoods so that they take on the appearance of an aggressive human face because roads have become increasingly crowded and driving has become an increasingly belligerent activity.

• The corporal punishment used in some schools, especially the spanking and paddling, are a cultural holdover from our evolutionary predisposition for male sexual dominance over females. The schoolboy assumes a classic submissive feminine posture of rump-presentation, and the teacher has replaced the repetitive pelvic thrusts of the dominant male with the rhythmic whipping of the switch.

• Girls think spiders are icky because their long legs remind them of the hair that sprouts on their bodies during puberty, and body hair is essentially a male characteristic, and therefore grotesque from a young girl’s point of view.

But the clincher for me was the following. It’s not so much wrong anachronistically but morally. It is a book that goes out of its way to treat and describe human beings as another species of primate, different in type but not in kind from gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees; and in doing so, often compares and contrasts behaviors of the different species. Here, Morris is talking about juvenile isolation and its effect on development and socialization.

Experiments with monkeys have revealed that not only does isolation in infancy produce a socially withdrawn adult, but it also creates an anti-sexual and anti-parental individual. Monkeys that were reared in isolation from other youngsters failed to participate in play-group activities when exposed to them later, as older juveniles. Although the isolates were physically healthy and had grown well in their solitary states, they were quite incapable of joining in the general rough and tumble. Instead they crouched, immobile, in the corner of the playroom, usually clasping their bodies tightly with their arms, or covering their eyes. When they matured, again as physically healthy specimens, they showed no interest in sexual partners. If forcibly mated, female isolates produced offspring in the normal way, but they proceeded to treat them as though they were huge parasites crawling on their bodies. They attacked them, drove them away, and either killed them or ignored them.

Something about that paragraph unsettled my stomach, and when I read the next sentence I knew what it was.

Similar experiments with young chimpanzees showed that, in this species, with prolonged rehabilitation and special care it was possible to undo, to some extent, this behavioral damage, but, even so, its dangers cannot be over-estimated.

Similar experiments? You mean experiments, like the ones described being performed on monkeys, where infants were taken away from their mothers, raised in complete isolation, and then forcibly mated, only to have the researchers watch with clinical fascination the way they attacked the parasitical infants that eventually came out of their wombs? That was done to chimpanzees? Who? Who did that? Aren’t chimpanzees sentient? Wouldn’t such actions be utterly immoral?

Sadly, none of these questions are ever answered in Morris’ text. I had to go to Google for that. See Project R&R. Morris just goes on with his critical analysis of the naked ape, speculating on how these experimental results are probably transferrable to that species as well.

Maybe asking for a completely detached treatment of the human species isn’t such a good idea after all.

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