A Portrait of the Sexiest Animal

A review of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal

When the medieval Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo drew portraits, his power was the ability to create the proportion of a human face; not just human face but comparatively to fruits and flowers with such mystic power.

Likewise, when English zoologist Desmond Morris (1928–) wrote the classic The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, his power was his profound understanding of the animal world and he presented his observation with such artistry that has made this book a classic. Incidentally, he is also an accomplished surrealist painter.

A Portrait of the Sexiest Animal

Paperback: 171 pages
Publisher: Vintage Books (1997)
Language: English
ISBN 97800 994 82017

First published in 1967, The Naked Ape have remained the seminal book in evolutionary anthropology, with its typical form and style but in these days of real-virtual world the element that has transformed is the deeper understanding of how the naked ape reacts to his/her environment. I have never heard the author’s voice but maybe from the year of this book’s publication, on several occasions as I flip through the pages, I could hear the sound of that old-ish yet commanding voiceover in the South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980).  

Five decades ago, Morris delved into our simian past to categorise human beings under the category of animal, much to the chagrin of the theists. His proposition is simple: humans or the self-styled apes called Homo sapiens that can be translated as ‘wise man’ from Latin, are much closer to the animal world than we would want to admit. He shows without telling that human beings are not at the centre of the universe too.

While reading this book—carefully divided into eight sections on Origins, Sex, Rearing, Exploration, Fighting, Feeding, Comfort and Animals—it is like looking ourselves in the mirror but devoid of our pride and ego and sans our morality and spirituality. At other times, it appears like putting human beings inside a zoo cage with certain textual descriptions that we can easily read and understand. Talking about zoos, he also has a sequel to this book, titled The Human Zoo, which was published in 1969 and another book, Intimate Behavior: A Zoologist’s Classic Study of Human Intimacy that was published in 1971.

In the prologue of the book, Morris admits modestly that he intends not to hurt those religious people by comparing human beings with monkeys and apes. But he has an entire book (or two) to prove that, in essence, we are an animal: a naked ape to be precise; and naked, because all our 192 cousins, read the ‘monkey family’, have hairs almost all over their bodies while we don’t, except in certain areas. In contrast to the religious resistance, Morris remarks that we are not a fallen angel but a risen ape with an amazing power of endurance and imagination and that we had arose from the ‘Eden of Savannah’.

But then such an expression inspired by Christianity would hardly make any difference in the world of evolution that knows neither race nor religion. The Tanzanian Hadza people, who are still living as a hunter-gatherer in the 21st century, have been flattered with modern religion (again Christianity) and deception. All of these, however, have proven to be merely counterproductive.
A screengrab of the book from a preview on Amazon site

Back to The Naked Ape, the clarity of language and riddance of scholarly jargons are another reason why this book is quite a hit. In fact, this book was intended for popularising science in the early days of broadcast media. Its narrative smoothly flows from how we evolve and become a human being to what make us that very human being. His argument is convincing, some of which are presented with intentional contradictions but nevertheless are facts. For instance, we are an animal but we are ‘marvellous’ and the ‘sexiest’; and we have evolved so much but we are still made of primitive instincts. All of these can be attributed to the fact that our biological requirements have shaped the concept of the personal and the political and not the other way round.

A radiometric dating technique shows the formation of Earth is about 4.5 billion years young but for such an unimaginably long time, human beings are still too small to comprehend the purposes of our existence.

Amidst the sheer ignorance of our beginning, the ever-evolving study of evolution, genetics and paleoanthropology has challenged and even negated some of the claims made by Morris, though with reasons and evidences. To take an example, it had been believed that bipedalism (the form of movement using two rear limbs or legs) was a turning point in human evolution and the author had also based many of his ideas on this phenomenon clubbed under the controversial Savannah Hypothesis. Unsurprisingly, this has been at a receiving end, from contestations made by critics such as the likes of Owen Lovejoys and Elaine Morgans.

Detractors posit that quadrupeds are more efficient in certain areas. They also find it hard to believe in the speculation on the curves of feminine gender. This particular viewpoint is fashioned not only according to western sense of aesthetics but also from a seemingly contemporary world view of beauty. If we talk about feminine gender, their better halves are the one who do all the hunting and work while they existed as ‘cave-warmers’. That’s how the story sounds like, however without any sexist agenda though feminists are not very impressed on this topic.

In a preface to another book, Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behaviour (1978), Morris had responded that he was using ‘man’ as a neutral gender but that in the following editions he had re-written it and the book title changed to Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language (2002). After all human evolution is a WIP and even Darwin has been taking flaks ‘in’ his Westminster Abbey tomb till today for his ‘monkey-stories’.

As much as this book in a lucid style was written for general readers, The Naked Ape offers an easy-to-understand missing link between history and evolution, between the past-human and the present-human and between the human and other animals.

In the chapter on Sex, the description on human sexual acts is so lucid that for a moment it sounds objective and non-sexual, nevertheless, like a running commentary from one of Sunny Leone’s clips from her pre-Bollywood days. The same chapter offers as well remarkable insights into courtship, mating, monogamy, polygamy, child-rearing, marriage, homosexuality (as inherent in humans and apes) and other related issues with a scientific comparison between humans and other animals of lesser gods. Yes, we also have the most powerful gods who can even create a universe. 

Some people, in bookstores, would place this book on the pop science shelf but those who want to learn seriously about evolution, adaption, natural selection, extinction and other such studies will miss Morris’ pioneering ideas, if we go by that kind of classification. Sometimes we complain that we have become savage, that we have lost our values and all. Those could be a matter of concern for people belonging to certain stations of life but to a zoologist like Morris, those are just as natural as puberty.

Another feature of The Naked Ape is its extraordinary insight culled from the ordinary. Theories about life in the earliest period of human evolution might be subject to multiple interpretations and obviously more disagreements, but nobody can deny that we are the naked apes. That Morris has shown us with his expertise in zoology, biology, psychology and sociology in a fascinating way in this book.

Today, after 49 years of its first publication, a revised version—while doing away with the obsolete ideas and outdated concepts—would still make it ‘a book that no human animal can miss reading’ as it is described in the back cover. Or perhaps, Morris, who is an old timer with more than 30 titles under his name, he can write an entirely new book on the subject.


Summer Reading Wishlist

•    The Moral Animal Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright
•    Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
•    The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle by Amotz Zahavi and Avishag Zahavi
•    The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
•    The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller

Primitive Narcissist PS    I share my birthday with Desmond Morris!



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