Category Archives: Books

A few words on Irrational Man

I read a selection of an Al Purdy poem in Keath Fraser’s Bad Trips anthology—this was a few months ago now—which depicted a persona, perhaps Mr. Purdy himself, trying to take a shit in the arctic while reading Irrational Man, except a pack of dogs was trying to eat his shit at the same time and they kept nipping at his anus while an Inuit boy threw rocks to try to fend them off. Interesting, I thought, that he was reading Irrational Man, because there was a scene of the type Mr. Barrett’s modern artists would have proffered as an example of the ugly or the mundane, recontextualized into art. Poetry about taking a shit—a radical break from the epic teleology that characterizes Western poetry.

At any rate, Irrational Man is a good book, but what of the lack of criticism that Barrett might have otherwise levelled at existentialism? Perhaps my chagrin is related to the fact that I was educated in the postmodern tradition, for better or for worse, and Barrett wrote this book well into the modernist period, and thus ideas about reflexive self-criticism may not have been as entrenched in the academic left at that point in time; but that raises a question in my mind about how postmodernism relates to existentialism, because at face value they appear to be more or less the same thing: a detailed critique of Enlightenment techniques and values. Based on what I remember from The Condition of Postmodernity, I could say that postmodernism is maybe an intellectual extension of existential ideas, but that postmodernism is characterized in particular by an aesthetic break from modernism, as exemplified by those modernist apartment complexes, the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis, that were dynamited at 3:32 pm on July 15, 1972. But this doesn’t seem exactly right; it seems to be leaving something out; and I think that something is closely related to the atomizing of grand theories.

Barrett still talks about existentialism as a solution to the problems with Enlightenment arts and sciences, as if it’s getting closer to the truth of the matter than the enlightenment did by examining all of those dirty and unpleasant aspects of life that the enlightenment left out; he talks about existentialism as if it’s a more complete picture that should be substituted for the Enlightenment stuff, more or less; and even though he refers to the embracing of the fractured and contradictory nature of man as a central tenet of existentialism, he still depicts it as a coherent worldview, or at least a complete one. Postmodernism criticizes the ability of a worldview to be complete. It questions the utility of substituting one view for another on the pretext that the new one is truer or more accurate than the first. Existentialists might criticize science and technology because it has little bearing on how we feel, but postmodernism would criticize science and technology for characterizing itself as the truth. Although these approaches might be different, I still think that the existential concern for how we feel in the age of spritual impoverishment (i.e., post-religion) still underlies a lot of postmodernist concerns; this, plus the relativity of truth, plus the acceptance of the fractured and contradictory nature of human life, leads to a focus on things like cultural relativism and identity politics and whatnot, where there is an effort made to listen to alternative points of view and give credence to them based on the fact of their making someone feel a certain way.

The Narcissistic Ape

Since last fall I’ve been simultaneously compiling and reading my way through a list of classic nonfiction books, which is an endeavour originally prompted by my receiving a copy of The New New Journalism many years ago for Christmas. Naturally, after I finally got around to reading it, I had to follow up by reading Tom Wolfe’s classic anthology The New Journalism, and the rest is you-know-what. A recent recipient of the proverbial check mark was The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris:

The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris.

Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, is a now-elderly English zoologist-turned-anthropologist (and later -turned-surrealist-painter), who apparently became concerned about the rapidly escalating rates of human population growth and decided to do something about it in the form of a zoologist’s take on the human animal. An odd choice of action for someone concerned about population growth, perhaps, but although his reasoning is convoluted, is is extant nonetheless: he believes that it’s our ignorance of our limitations as animals that leads to our substituting sappy humanistic sentiment for good ecological or evolutionary sense. “There is no hope of shrugging off the accumulated genetic legacy of [man’s] whole evolutionary past,” he argues, and man “would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if only he would face up to this fact.”

“Ladies love my fleshy earlobes.”

Of course, the book is couched at first as more of an expression of the ecstacy of scientific exploration, and it’s not until the end of the book that Morris admits the political nature of his motivation:

Sooner or later we shall go, and make way for something else. If it is to be later rather than sooner, then we must take a long, hard look at ourselves as biological specimens and gain some understanding of our limitations. This is why I have written this book, and why I have deliberately insulted us by referring to use as naked apes, rather than by the more usual name we use for ourselves.

This insult was received largely as he intended; the book received a lot of criticism, enough that dust jackets of subsequent editions hailed the book as a “controversial classic.” Morris posited that our simian heritage is frequently a source of embarassment, and there’s little doubt that in conceiving of the book the way he did, he was aiming to generate some bad publicity for himself (which is to say, good publicity) by hitting Homo sapiens below the belt. Russell H. Tuttle, of the University of Chicago, said of the “unfortunately chosen” title:

Morris states on page 15 that “At this point and without further investigation, it is justifiable to name this species (viz. man) the ‘naked ape.'” One suspects that “further investigation” stopped shortly after it was realized that “the naked ape” would make a catchy title for the book.

Some humanists chomped on this bait as expected. George Gaylord Simpson, in reviewing the book for the New York Times, opined that “the overt intention of treating man as a zoological species or a biological specimen is not only unobjectionable but is also admirable,” yet he ultimately objects to the book because of his conviction that “man is not an ape, not by far.”

Actually man is an ape, and Morris was right in trying to pull some of the wool away from our eyes. Next time you scratch an itch, think about how that reflex helps to keep bugs from crawling on your skin, and realize how clumsy an animal you really are. The problem isn’t that Morris treats humans as apes, it’s that his approach to doing so is predominantly bad biology; large swaths of the book read like nothing more than drawn-out, rambling hypotheses, with little in the way of evidence. If such and such is the case about humans today, he’ll say, then perhaps so and so is the explanation. Hypotheses are fun to think about, but they’re hardly science unless they’re followed by experimental verification. In the cases where he does draw on existing research, his conclusions are mostly audacious and his generalizations are indefensible.

Morris’s goal, as stated, is clear—to elucidate our biological limitations. Yet throughout the book, he tends to vacillate between knocking humans down from their “grandiose ideas and . . . lofty self-conceits” and lifting them up as prototypes of evolutionary success. At times, in exchange for a theological anthropocentric view, Morris substitutes fitness as a measure of a creature’s rank on the Great Chain of Being. This latter tendency is inherent in Morris’s teleological account of evolution—many of his hypotheses are posited as though certain adaptations were devised as solutions to some kind of problem. Thus, he writes things like, “As the battle was to be won by brain rather than brawn, some kind of dramatic evolutionary step had to be taken to greatly increase his brain power.” Or, “The males had to be sure that their females were going to be faithful to them when they left them alone to go hunting. So the females had to develop a pairing tendency.” This isn’t actually how evolution works; see Wikipedia for details.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding leads him to imply in a lot of cases that certain creatures are more highly evolved than others. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this mistaken view of evolution, and the aspect of the book that’s most worthy of criticism, is in Morris’s ranking of human cultures in terms of evolutionary fitness. Most of Morris’s hypothesizing is derived from research conducted on whiteys from Western Europe and North America:

Most of the detailed information we have available stems from a number of painstaking studies carried out in recent years in North America and based largely on that culture. Fortunately it is biologically a very large and successful culture and can, without undue fear of distortion, be taken as representative of the modern naked ape.

Note the appeal to biological success: white people are numerous and powerful, and therefore they are the purest manifestation of the naked ape’s evolutionary goals. Nevermind that when the book was written, North Americans constituted just 220 million out of 3.5 billion people on earth. Morris justifies this leap of faith by characterizing other, non-white cultures as backward failures:

The earlier anthropologists rushed off to all kinds of unlikely corners of the world in order to unravel the basic truth about our nature, scattering to remote cultural backwaters so atypical and unsuccessful that they are nearly extinct . . . . The work done by these investigators was, of course, extremely interesting and most valuable in showing us what can happen when a group of naked apes becomes side-tracked into a cultural blind alley . . . . The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified.

And later:

Only if a culture becomes too rigid as a result of its slavery to imitative repitition, or too daring and rashly exploratory, will it flounder . . . . We can see plenty of examples of the too rigid and too rash cultures around the world today. The small, backward societies, completely dominated by their heavy burden of taboos and ancient customs, are cases of the former. The same societies, when converted and ‘aided’ by advanced cultures, rapidly become examples of the latter.

I might note that two of the worlds biggest religions, Christianity and Islam, are burdened with taboos and customs, and they constituted about half the people on earth when this book was written. Clearly his regard of the cultural East and economic South is so low that he can write them all off—two or three million people in Africa, a couple billion Asians, about two hundred million Central and South Americans—as being no more typical than the people of Papua New Guinea. This isn’t necessarily an impediment to Morris’s worldview, though, because culturally sophisticated, relatively wealthy white scientists like himself are even purer expressions of evolutionary destiny:

Certain types of belief are more wasteful and sultifying than others and can side-track a community into rigidifying patters of behaviour that hamper its qualitative development . . . . A belief in the validity of the acquisition of knowledge and a scientific understanding of the world we live in, the creation and appreciation of aesthetic phenomena . . . , and the broadening and deepening of our range of experiences in day-to-day living, is rapidly becoming the ‘religion’ of our time.

Not surprisingly, these assumptions—that upper-middle class 1950s America is more or less representative of the entirety of humankind—bleeds over into his discussion of work and leisure.

When the pseudo-hunter is relaxing he goes to all-male ‘clubs’, from which the females are completely excluded. Younger males tend to form into all-male gangs, often ‘predatory’ in nature. Throughout the whole range of these organizations, from learned societies, social clubs, fraternities, trade unions, sports clubs, masonic groups, secret societies, right down to teenage gangs, there is a strong emotional feeling of male ‘togetherness’ . . . . Females frequently resent the departure of their males to ‘join the boys’, reacting to it as though it signified some kind of family disloyalty. But they are wrong to do so. All they are witnessing is the modern expression of the age-old male-grouping hunting tendency of the species.

Indeed, going to all-male clubs is part of our nature, so get over it, woman!

“Excuse me while I express my primitive hunting urges.”

When you conceive of evolution as a process designed to meet certain goals, and your goal is to produce an organism exactly like Desmond Morris, it’s inevitable that your examination of humankind will come out looking like The Naked Ape. Overall, Morris’s goal to turn his pen on Homo sapiens to provide a much-needed account of the species from a zoologist’s perspective was unmet–there’s very little in this book to tempt a practicing zoologist. But his goal to make a name for himself by inflaming passions worldwide, in a style that would later be adopted by people like Anne Coulter, was wildly successful; the book has sold over twelve million copies, and Morris went on to apply his money-making formula to a number of subsequent books, like The Human Zoo and The Naked Woman, that I have no intention of reading.