Book Review: The Naked Ape

The Naked Ape

by Desmond Morris

I’ve been carrying this one around for a while, never sure how much I actually wanted to read it; the cover talks about how explosive and controversial the book is, and that’s cool, but it was published in 1967, so it’s unlikely the controversy would still feel controversial, and might not even feel interesting. I had no idea what to expect from a book about human sexuality and interpersonal relationships from an evolutionary standpoint.

Turns out it was what I should have expected: this book (I’m sure it’s not the only source) was where the ideas were codified that people still repeat in terms of the evolution of humanity. This is where you can read about how men are hunters, while women are caregivers, so that humans have created pair-bonds of unusual strength so that the men can go out and hunt while the women stay home and care for the children, and both can trust that the other won’t go out pair-bonding with some tramp or the hunter next door.

This is where you can read about everything about humans is designed specifically for sex: we have tiny hair (Despite the title, we actually aren’t less hairy than other apes; it’s just that our hairs are mostly really tiny – at least for Caucasians like me. Africans, Asians, and Native Americans are indeed less hairy than monkeys. Maybe instead of Honkies, we should be Hairies. Heh.) so that we can enjoy touching each other more; we have earlobes so that we can enjoy more variety of erogenous zones; women have breasts because men can’t see their butts from the front, and poofy red lips because – never mind. He also comments (and this little factoid is repeated in the Wikipedia article on the book —  can’t imagine why this one should be the one people pick out in describing the book) that humans have the biggest penises out of all the primates. Fancy that.

This book explains everything. Unfortunately, almost every single word of it is speculative. It’s funny, because there’s a point in the beginning when Morris scoffs at one particular theory which was made without direct evidence; and then he proceeds to spin theory after theory without even a scrap of direct evidence for any of them. (Because I thought it was interesting: the theory Morris scoffs at is the explanation that we lost our coarse body hair because in between the fruit-eating monkey we once were and the savannah-living hunter/gatherer hominid we became, there might have been a coastal/aquatic stage, when the monkeys discovered the abundance of rich food at the seashore. This might explain the evolution of hairlessness, as a means of streamlining in the water; this fits because the body hair that remains actually mimics the pattern of water flowing over a swimming body. It also explains our hands being wide and flat and paddle-like. It’s an interesting theory. It’s a better one than “We have earlobes so we don’t cheat on each other when we’re out hunting!”) Morris has a fair amount of negative evidence that he derives from the animals he knows so well (Morris was a zoologist and zookeeper); so the explanation that human women’s breasts don’t need to be large for the sake of nursing, because chimpanzees breastfeed but have essentially flat chests, makes sense; but the idea that they are therefore specifically erogenous because breasts, nipples, and areolae swell during sexual excitement, and particularly the idea that they are meant to imitate the buttocks because humans mate face-to-face, are entirely speculative and really pretty ridiculous. (I have to recommend this song, particularly the last verse; beware, it is not safe for work.)

Probably the most amusing thing in reading this book – other than the smutty dirty parts, which are always fun to read (and this book talks A LOT about sex) – was the glib way Morris plays up his own ethnocentrism. He mocks other ethnologists and anthropologists who study small, extraordinary populations, claiming that the real information should come from a study of the mainstream, “most successful” version of humanity – which, he assures us, is clearly the Western European and American culture. Just look how many of us there are! Obviously we’re the best and most normal human. (And again there is a remarkably oblivious hypocrisy in this, because Morris goes on to talk several times about rare and unusual ape behavior or traits as analogous explanations of human behavior; the breasts-as-front-facing-buttocks thing comes partly from one particular type of baboon that has a similar adaptation. One type of one species of ape. “Who would think it was a good idea to study small and atypical populations to understand a whole species? Ridiculous!”) It was fascinating because I know that at the time, the book was seen as incredibly radical and liberal and offensive, arguing as it did that our tendency to pick a single mate for life is evolved, not set down as right and good by Almighty God, et cetera; but now, the stances it espouses are become almost entirely conservative: American is the best kind of human; the family should stay as a single unit; the man should work outside the home (modern version of hunting, Morris tells us several times — and describes how men are always competitive, seeking “the kill” in their business lives because we don’t hunt mammoths any more. Not sure what “the kill” is for a high school teacher…) while the woman raises the children; the best sexual position is face-to-face, probably missionary style – “Good old-fashioned, man-on-top-get-it-over-with-quick,” to quote George Carlin. I wonder what Morris would have made of the current ideas about gender. Since he talks about how homosexuality is an evolutionary failure and therefore anomalous, I have a guess.

Overall, it was more interesting in terms of what it said about the author and the culture he was writing in, than in what the book actually purports to explain. As an ethnologic artifact, it’s not bad; as an explanation of humanity, I wasn’t impressed.

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