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.

Book Review: My Man Jeeves

(Note: this is not the cover of the edition I read; but this one is awesome.)

My Man Jeeves

by P.G. Wodehouse

This is the second Jeeves book I’ve read. I liked it, but not as much as the first. If you don’t know P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, then here’s the basic setup: Jeeves is a butler who works for a – toff? Is that the word? – an upper-class British gentleman by the name of Bertie Wooster. Bertie is a lovable dolt who has a tremendous amount of money and even more friends; because he has all this money, he has no need to do anything with himself other than buy new clothes and attend social events, which is pretty much all that happens in these stories. Unless one of Bertie’s friends gets in trouble: then Bertie springs into action. Because Bertie has a heart of gold, which is one of the charming things about these books; as much of a dolt as Bertie is, he really is a lovable one. More important for the stories and for Bertie’s friends, Bertie has a secret weapon: Jeeves. When I say “Bertie springs into action,” I mean he turns to his butler and asks him what he thinks they should do. Jeeves is a genius, and no matter how delicate or intractable the problem is that Bertie brings to him, Jeeves inevitably finds the solution. The stories work because Bertie is more appealing than all of his doofus friends, who are dolts without the golden tickers; because Jeeves is fantastic, both in his unflappable-British-butler demeanor and in his solutions, which all rely on common sense and logic more than a Sherlock-Holmes-ian insight. They also work because Wodehouse was a fantastic writer, a splendid craftsman who writes some of the best dialogue I know, and who can use slang better than anyone I can think of – which is hilarious, because it’s Jazz Age upper-class British slang, and it’s fabulous. They’re basically the lightest-hearted mystery stories I know, with the mysteries being things like, “Jeeves, my chum Reggie has to convince his rich uncle that he is married, but not to his actual wife,” rather than “Who killed that family of four” or “Who stole the Hope Diamond?” Basically, they are adorable. They are also an amusing commentary on the worthlessness – but also the essential harmlessness – of the bourgeoisie, and the wisdom of the working class, the value of street smarts, so to speak. Though it is very clear in the books that Jeeves is the only one of these two who reads.

As for this book I read, I’m not actually sure if this is an original publication; it’s an on-demand printing, with absolutely no extraneous information; no back cover, no book jacket, no author bio, no list of other works by Wodehouse or titles in the Jeeves series. It’s possible this is like a book club knock-off collection, in some way, or one of those Hey-the-author-died-but-here-are-half-a-dozen-obscure-stories kind of “new” title in a classic series.

Because that’s what this is: a half a dozen short stories by Wodehouse. Three of them aren’t even Bertie Wooster/Jeeves stories, which was a bit disappointing. They were still Wodehouse, so they were good, and the character – one Reggie Pepper – was almost exactly like Bertie in that he was an upper class idler with a trust fund and not a whole lot of brains. But without Jeeves there to bring about resolution, the story becomes a bunch of upper-class dolts fumbling around until something happens, which is not nearly as fun. The Jeeves stories in this book were great, but I do wonder if there is some other edition or title that has these same stories out there; in which case, don’t worry about getting this particular one. But do go out and read you some P.G. Wodehouse. I highly recommend it.


**Note: Having looked at some Amazon reviews of this book, turns out these are the very first Jeeves stories, when Wodehouse was still working out his characters and style and all; Reggie Pepper was an early version of Bertie Wooster, and not nearly as cool as the final product. These stories were re-written later, and re-published in a different book. The fact that this is the first Jeeves book is, I now remember, entirely why I got this one. So I’d recommend giving this edition a miss and looking for something else. I have a few other Jeeves books; I’ll read them and figure out if it’s important to go chronologically. I doubt it.