Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris

Back in the days when I was a biology student in Lausanne I had a great time reading Desmond Morris' best seller The Naked Ape (1967), in which the British zoologist discusses what sort of curious social animals we are—and he does so with a lot of wit and humor.  

The Human Zoo (1969) is his follow-up book, thus when I found a copy of it in a second-hand bookshop I happily bought it (probably equally motivated by the lovely vintage yellow cover!). Newer editions are available, as you can see in the author's bibliography.

The Human Zoo still deals with the human animal, but this time the focus is on the social ties that we develop between each other and the sort of society in which we live. The underlying question is: How beings used to living in tribes of at most hundreds of individuals can cope with our modern society and its super-tribes of millions? The city, writes Morris, is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo. In the modern life and its crowded places, we tend to behave as animals in captivity.

It is indeed extraordinary that overall we are doing so well under such unnatural conditions, and it tells us a lot about the plasticity of our species. The demographic problem was already present in The Naked Ape, but here Morris discusses it at length. He then writes about all the different interactions that social animals can experience, notably dominance fights, sexual activities, and hostility towards those who don't belong to our group.

The prose is excellent and the ideas are baffling. I like particularly when Morris describes—in a chapter entitled Imprinting and mal-imprinting—how we breed our pet dogs to turn them into pseudo-infants: making them smaller, with shorter legs, softer hair and bigger eyes (think of the Pekinese!). Of course, one may argue that Morris pushes his frame of analysis a bit too far, that his capacity to provide an explanation to every human behavior is suspiciously too convenient. It's probably a fair criticism. But considering that we are often misguided about our own behavioral motifs, my feeling is that we can do with a little more thinking in the line of Morris. Complex beings such as we are cannot be explained easily ; it is clear, however, that if we hope to gain understanding we mustn't dismiss our biological components and history.

I recently heard a talk by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson (who happens to live in Davis, CA!) during which he evoked a somewhat similar argument: we are not different (notably genomewise) from our Paleolithic ancestors. We still enjoy the same primitive pleasures (interacting with small groups, watching a fire, raising the young, etc.), thus in order to maximize our happiness in this world we should focus on these simple pleasures rather than seeking fancy and expensive amusements. This would be all the better for the world's sustainability and our personal health...

(for some of the newest editions:) 
  • Morris D., 1999 (first published 1967). The Naked Ape. Delta. 256 p.
  • Morris D., 1996 (first published 1969). The Human Zoo. Kodansha Globe. 272 p.

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