Tag Archives: evolution

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.

Humans and men: there are differences

The tendency to equate men with humankind is an old one, evidenced by little things like the age-old icon of evolution seen here:


Bob McDonald, on his CBC show Quirks and Quarks, did a masterful job of talking about humankind without ever mentioning or speaking to a woman on his August 22nd “best of” show, which was a re-broadcast of his show from April 25th, 2009 (available in full here). In attempting to answer the question “Are we inherently violent, or are we a naturally peaceful creature trapped in a violent culture?” Mr. McDonald, not surprisingly, seeks out academic sources who support the former option.

The first person he talks to is Dr. Richard Wrangham, professor of “biological anthropology” at Harvard University and coauthor of the book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Dr. Wrangham describes to Mr. McDonald the incident in chimpanzee research that led to the idea that chimpanzees may be inherently violent; prior to 1974, the bulk of chimpanzee observation, primarily constituted by Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania, had revealed that chimpanzees are only mildly violent, with most altercations being only minor (with the exception of one incident in which they stole and killed a human baby). In 1974, a group of chimpanzees was observed to silently approach a male member of a neighbouring chimpanzee community and then ambush and brutally kill him.  Since then, the same behaviour has been observed a number of times, and is in fact featured prominently in the popular BBC series Planet Earth. Prof. Wrangham explains that this behaviour is evolved as a way for groups of chimpanzees to expand their territory so as to have more resources to support more children.

The second person Mr. McDonald speaks with is Dr. David Carrier, a comparative physiologist at the University of Utah. Dr. Carrier points out that there is an energy cost to bipedalism, which suggests that there must be some evolutionary advantage to standing upright. This advantage is the ability of bipeds to use their forelimbs as weapons. Dr. Carrier rejects the notion that there might be other uses for one’s forelimbs that might offset the mechanical disadvantage of being two-legged, based on the two facts that a) Australopithecines had short legs, which would have given them a stabler base for hand-to-hand combat, and b) human hands are better-proportioned for forming fists than those of any other primates. [He really said this! I recommend to Dr. Carrier that he punch someone, and see how well-evolved his  metacarpals are.]

The third person invited on the show is Dr. Aaron Sell, an evolutionary psychologist from UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Sell did an experiement where he took male participants to the gym and had them lift weights to determine their level of strength, then they photographed the participants’ faces and had other participants look at the photos to see how well they could judge the strength of these people by their looks. As it turns out, “at least with men,” people were generally able to determine the strength of a person by looking at their face. Dr. Sell suggests that facial structures such as the brow and the jawbone are determined by testosterone, which is the same hormone that makes men big and strong; thus, men with low brows and big jawbones are more likely to be strong. That’s why, when someone makes an angry face, the muscles they use tend to accentuate the brow and the jawbone.

The fourth and final guest on the show is Dr. Craig Kennedy, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He noticed that trained male mice are able to learn a complex task (in this case, pushing a button) in order to get the chance at fighting with another male mouse. The same mice, with their dopamine receptors disabled, do not exhibit the same behaviour; this suggests that the mice’s brains release dopamine – the “pleasure chemical” – when they experience aggression. Dr. Kennedy wanted to see if humans were the same way, so he designed an experiment that involved young men watching things such as hockey fights and scantily clad young women. He found that watching a hockey fight and ogling a scantily clad woman had similar effects on the dopamine receptors in these men’s brains, thus supporting the hypothesis that watching violence is pleasurable. [He conventiently declined to remark on the effects of partaking in violence.]

Although they all have their flaws and quirks, these particular experiments and hypotheses are not what I have a problem with. I have a problem with the fact that Bob McDonald had four men on his show and used their observations about male behaviour as grounds for the conclusion that “humans are inherently violent.” It shouldn’t take a university degree to notice that the guests on Quirks and Quarks were only talking about half of humankind. Using evidence from a small and non-representative sample to make conclusions about a whole population is known in philosophy as a hasty generalization, the bane of inductive reasoning. It’s a scientists job to avoid making generalizations by using as representative a sample as  possible; with the exception of Dr. Carrier, who appears to have his own set of problems, all of these scientists do their job very poorly in this regard, as does Mr. McDonald.