Desmond Morris

The Naked Ape

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The Naked Ape Summary

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The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal is a 1967 book by English biologist and artist Desmond Morris. Spanning the fields of zoology and ethology, it considers the speciation of humankind, providing a differential analysis between the evolutionary legacy of Homo sapiens and other species of the animal kingdom. Deeply interested also in the anthropology and ethnography of humans, Morris wrote a follow-up to the book, The Human Zoo, which considers the evolution of human behavior in contemporary urban environments. The book has been controversial in feminist critical discourse for its application of pseudoscientific tropes of masculinity and femininity to evolutionary phenomena.

Morris begins with the thesis that human behavior has adapted primarily to fulfill the satisfaction of our basic needs of food and shelter. He equates these principal evolutionary traits to “nature,” while considering most other human evolutionary traits to belong in the category of “nurture.” Secondary to the evolution of hunting and gathering behavior, humans evolved the ability to coexist and exchange concepts by forming behavioral norms and other abstractions, including language. Morris labels Homo sapiens as the titular “naked apes” because they are the only primate species to lack hair that covers the entirety of their bodies. Morris states that the goal of his book is to make the current state of knowledge about human evolution accessible to the average reader.

Morris refers to the finding that Homo sapiens have the biggest brains of any primate in known evolutionary history. They also have the largest ratio of penis size to total body mass, owing to the phenomenon of sexual selection. He goes on to make several speculations about other evolved traits. For example, he postulates that earlobes, a ubiquitous but mystifying and seemingly useless body part, evolved to function as an extra erogenous zone; that is, a site of sexual pleasure. This adaptation satisfied the growing evolutionary need to sustain primates’ “extended sexuality,” which means intercourse that lasts long enough, and repeats enough times, to result in the creation of offspring. Continuing to analyze our predominant physical features, he also argues that the roundness of human breasts evolved primarily as a sexual signaling device. He argues against the prevailing scientific view that breasts are shaped this way simply to carry milk.

Though today some of Morris’s claims are considered biased by the prevailing social views of the mid-twentieth century, which included some sexist assumptions, he spends much of his work bringing scholarship about the origins of human behavior out of the domain of the cultural and into the evolutionary. In one instance, for example, Morris argues that the modern union of two individuals in a marriage, a state recognition that points to a deep, exclusive social bond, evolved not out of religious decree or any divine or socially normative order, but rather, out of men’s need to hunt with the comfort that their mates were not liberally procreating at home with other mates. He also speculates that our lack of body hair resulted from the sexual benefits of nakedness, which increased the exchange of haptic information.

At the end of his book, Morris delivers a warning about an imminent “population explosion” due to the fast erosion of selecting evolutionary factors. He expects that our social structures can only bear so many people and that the geographic condensation of communities may not be sustainable in the long run if they cause these structures to collapse.

Today, some of Morris’s claims about evolution still are considered compelling, while others have been rigorously disproven. Nonetheless, it constitutes a powerful argument to change the way people think about their everyday behavior and the structure of their bodies, as well as a pointed analysis about where our species might be headed.