Desmond Morris

The Naked Ape

This was one of the hottest books of the 60’s supposedly responsible for the hunter gatherer dichotomy. There are certainly some statements in the book, which he brings out right in the front, as you will see in this, the introduction to the book, and the book cover, which is designed to piss people off. :p

Without further ado, let’s get to it.

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Introduction to The Naked Ape

Desmond Morris (1967).



There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones. He is proud that he has the biggest brain of all the primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord  this honour falsely to the mighty gorilla. He is an intensely vocal, acutely exploratory, over-crowded ape, and it is high time we examined his basic behaviour.

I am a zoologist and the naked ape is an animal. He is therefore fair game for my pen and I refuse to avoid him any longer simply because some of his behaviour patterns are rather complex and impressive. My excuse is that, in becoming so erudite, Homo sapiens has remained a naked ape nevertheless; in acquiring lofty new motives, he has lost none of the early old ones. This is frequently a cause of some embarrassment to him, but his old impulses have been with him for millions of years, his new ones only a few thousand at the most-and there is no hope of quickly shrugging off the accumulated genetic legacy of his whole evolutionary past. He would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if only he would face up to this fact. Perhaps this is where the zoologist can help.

One of the strangest features of previous studies of naked-ape behaviour is that they have nearly always avoided the obvious. 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. They then returned with startling facts about the bizarre mating customs, strange kinship systems, or weird ritual procedures of these tribes, and used this material as though it were of central importance to the behaviour of our species as a whole. 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. It revealed just how far from the normal our behaviour patterns can stray without a complete social collapse. What it did not tell us was anything about the typical behaviour of typical naked apes. This can only be done by examining the common behaviour patterns that are shared by all the ordinary, successful members of the major cultures-the mainstream specimens who together represent the vast majority. Biologically, this is the only sound approach. Against this, the old-style anthropologist would have argued that his technologically simple tribal groups are nearer the heart of the matter than the members of advanced civilisations. I submit that this is not so. The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified. Truly primitive tribes have not existed for thousands of years.

The naked ape is essentially an exploratory species and any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed, `gone wrong’. Something has happened to it to hold it back, something that is working against the natural tendencies of the species to explore and investigate the world around it. The characteristics that the earlier anthropologists studied in these tribes may well be the very features that have interfered with the progress of the groups concerned. It is therefore dangerous to use this information as the basis for any general scheme of our behaviour as a species.

Psychiatrists and psycho-analysts, by contrast, have stayed nearer home and have concentrated on clinical studies of mainstream specimens. Much of their earlier material, although not suffering from the weakness of the anthropological information, also has an unfortunate bias. The individuals on which they have based their pronouncements are, despite their mainstream background, inevitably aberrant or failed specimens in some respect. If they were healthy, successful and therefore typical individuals, they would not have had to seek psychiatric aid and would not have contributed to the psychiatrists’ store of information. Again, I do not wish to belittle the value of this research. It has given us an immensely important insight into the way in which our behaviour patterns can break down. I simply feel that in attempting to discuss the fundamental biological nature of our species as a whole, it is unwise to place too great an emphasis on the earlier anthropological and psychiatric findings.

(I should add that the situation in anthropology and psychiatry is changing rapidly.) Many modern research workers in these fields are recognising the limitations of the earlier investigations and are turning more and more studies of typical, healthy individuals. As one investigator expressed it recently: `We have put the cart before the horse. We have tackled the abnormals and we are only now beginning, a little late in the day, to concentrate on the normals.)  The approach I propose to use in this book draws its material from three main sources: (i) the information about our past as unearthed by palaeontologists and based on the fossil and other remains of our ancient ancestors; (2) the information available from the animal behaviour studies of the comparative ethologists, based on detailed observations of a wide range of animal species, especially our closest living relatives, the monkeys and apes; and (3) the information that can be assembled by simple, direct observation of the most basic and widely shared behaviour patterns of the successful mainstream specimens from the major contemporary cultures of the naked ape itself.

Because of the size of the task, it will be necessary to oversimplify in some manner. The way I shall do this is largely to ignore the detailed ramifications of technology and verbalisation, and concentrate instead on those aspects of our lives that have obvious counterparts in other species: such activities as feeding, grooming, sleeping, fighting, mating and care of the young. When faced with these fundamental problems, how does the naked ape react? How do his reactions compare with those of other monkeys and apes? In which particular respect is he unique, and how do his oddities relate to his special evolutionary story?

In dealing with these problems I realize that I shall run the risk of offending a number of people. There are some who will prefer not to contemplate their animal selves. They may consider that I have degraded our species by discussing it in crude animal terms. I can only assure them that this is not my intention. There are others who will resent any zoological invasion of their specialist arena. But I believe that this approach can be of great value and that, whatever its shortcomings, it will throw new (and in some ways unexpected) light on the complex nature of our extraordinary species.

-Desmond Morris