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Monkey Business

The Naked Ape

by Desmond Morris
McGraw-Hill, 252 pp., $5.95

The Stone Age Hunters

by Grahame Clark
McGraw-Hill, 144 pp., $5.50

It would be nice to think that Morris’s attempt to present a biology of Man is meant as a joke, not to be taken seriously. Indeed the author has obviously enjoyed writing it and judging by its success his readers like it too. It is not difficult to see the secret of the formula. Start out determined to shock and be unconventional (the attitude that puts you on the side of the reader against the experts—always a success this). Then make up a story about how the human race may have evolved. Use this to produce an ingenious explanation of human sexual habits and make this an excuse to fill nearly a quarter of your book with a racy re-hash of Kinsey. The rest you fill up with some elementary sections on child psychology, add a piece on aggression and conclude with a section on man’s loves and hates among animals. The formula is complete. The ordinary reader learns a bit more about things he has vaguely heard of. Some knowledge is painlessly dispensed, fun is had by all and no great harm done. The description of man’s strongly developed sexuality as the basis for his unusual “pair-bonding” may even help some people to understand their reactions better. But it is hard to think that therapists of any school will feel that the very naïve treatments, say of homosexuality or even masturbation, will help anyone. Let’s hope they aren’t meant to. Dr. Morris’s favorite theory is that breasts and red lips represent an ape turned back to front. He even returns to it to explain why sadistic schoolmasters make the boys take down their trousers for a beating.

It would be easy to criticize this book on many points of style, taste, and fact. The author tries to disarm with his claim that he is a zoologist, man is an animal and therefore “fair game for my pen.” But it is not fair for any biologist to describe only those aspects of an animal that interest him and titillate his readers, especially if the ones omitted are the essential biological foundations of the success of the species. Dr. Morris has pages and pages about sex, quite a lot about smiling, frowning, and much talk of displacement activities and many other ethological matters, but nothing at all about language. As there is no index nor list of contents it is hard to be sure whether the word is even mentioned. The only references to learning are repeated assertions about the child being “imprinted” on its mother (indeed on her heart-beats) and then later taking transitory “minor imprints” from sexual play before “pair-bonding.” So much for learning and education, mathematics, poetry, and literature. The author devotes a few lines to explaining why he has “omitted the growth of science and technology from this discussion [of exploratory behaviour] because it has largely been concerned with specific improvements employed in achieving the basic goals, such as fighting (weapons), feeding (agriculture), nest-building (architecture) and comfort (medicine).”

Biologists do a great disservice to their science when they imply that the only biological study of man that is worth-while is of what most people agree are in some sense his lower functions. Nobody denies their importance or that we need to study how to feed and breed to best advantage. But man is man just because this is not the limit of his ambitions. At least some biologists certainly would like to try to understand what it is that makes man more than a naked ape.

AS PROFESSOR CLARK says in the beginning of his book, “The essential predicament of man is that he is aware of his situation as an animal but. yet is potentially divine.” We may not be sure exactly what this means, but one of man’s special characteristics is that he is not limited only to doing what we may call obviously biological things, but is using symbolism and ingenuity to invent all kinds of new patterns and new instruments with which to explore and exploit the world. The special interest of the history of man is how he came to these powers of abstracting, symbolizing, and inventing. This can be done without forgetting the biological functions he shares with other animals. As Professor Clark puts it, “If through the power of his imagination he is capable of comprehending the working of the cosmos, penetrating the mystery of life and reconstructing his own past, he has to eat and reproduce like any beast of the field and like them he has to die. Even the apparent dichotomy between body and soul can only be appreciated by what is itself a physical organ, the brain, the seat of man’s powers of thought, discrimination and self-awareness….” Study of the brain is as much a part of biology as the study of sex, of which Morris makes so much, but it will not be much helped by giving man’s activities the labels used by ethologists.

Professor Clark gives us the anthropological and archaeological facts about the later phases of human evolution in a simple style and with beautiful documentation. He has a large series of original illustrations of tools, ornaments, and cave paintings, many of them in color. He uses cautiously the parallels with surviving populations that live by hunting, to elucidate the probable conditions of earlier cultures. If there is a disappointment for the non-specialist it is that he does not pursue the questions of the early stages of development of powers of symbolic representation, language, aesthetics, and religion. Of course the evidence is scanty and interpretation is little more than guesswork. But it is curiously tantalizing that although we have now human artefacts from Olduvai nearly two million years old no one has been able to reconstruct how and when man came to utter sounds in interchangeable contexts to convey meanings other than those expressive of his emotional states. If by then he was naked he was no longer a naked ape.

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