Interview

With zoologist Desmond Morris

January 23 1978
Interview

With zoologist Desmond Morris

January 23 1978

With zoologist Desmond Morris

Interview

Few scientists have been as successful as Desmond Morris in popularizing their work. The 50-year-old zoologist has impeccable credentials—doctorate from Oxford, numerous academic papers published, curator of mammals at the fabulous London Zoo for eight years (until 1967). But there’s another facet to Morris—an urge to communicate his science and his theories on human behavior not just to other scientists but to the general public. For 11 years he was host of a popular zoology program on British television. Then, in the late Sixties, he burst onto the international scene with the publication of The Naked Ape, a worldwide best seller that accused the human race of spending an enormous time examining its higher motives and ignoring its basic, primative drives. Popular success was tempered by academic criticism— "sweeping generalizations," "more than a little speculative," "racy rehash of Kinsey." But Morris went on to write The Human Zoo, Intimate Behavior and, published late last year, a lavishly illustrated work on "body language" called Manwatching: A Field Guide To Human Behavior, all aimed at a general audience. In Toronto recently, Morris talked at his hotel with Maclean's senior editor Robert Marshall.

Maclean’s: What got you into writing in the first place?

Morris: Well, I come from a long line of journalists. My great-grandfather started a newspaper about 100 years ago. In fact, he started the first penny newspaper in England. Within a few years, cheap newspapers followed all around England. Then his son was a newspaper proprietor, carried on the family business which got bigger and bigger, and became eventually a daily newspaper. It’s still going now, a local paper called The Swindon Advertiser. My father wrote boys’ adventure stories and so I grew up in a world of words. One of my first gifts was a typewriter. It was very natural for me to want to be a popular communicator. But it wasn’t conscious—I mean, I didn’t say “I’m going to be a popularist.” What happened was that once I’d become a zoologist and I had written about 40 to 50 scientific papers and had been doing scientific research for a number of years, suddenly someone said, “Will you come to London and set up a television unit and make animal programs, zoological programs and films?” And I said, “Yes, that’s great,” and I went to London in ’56 and took over the Granada TV unit at the

It’s hardly surprising if the abnormally successful man is also abnormal in other ways

zoo. I presented about 600 programs. I was on the air every week for 11 years. And then I decided that I had been writing enough and talking about other species and I was going to turn my attention to the human animal. I took a month’s leave and went away and wrote The Naked Ape. And that, of course, totally changed my life. Maclean’s: Do you see yourself then as a translator of your science for the public? Morris: Well, to me, it’s very natural if you enjoy something to want to communicate it to other people. I think the unnatural thing is the specialist’s fear of popularization. It’s not so much that I had an urge to popularize my work as that other people have a fear of doing so.

Maclean’s: Communicating among themselves rather than with the public.

Morris: Well, yes, there is a kind of elitist approach to the academic world. It seems to me to be denying the basis of what they are there for, which is to increase learning.

Maclean’s: Your critics have used that word. They also say you speculate and the casual reader might misinterpret that and confuse some of your speculations for fact. Morris: Oh, I think this is perfectly true. Absolutely true. And my answer to that is that I have written books in which I have

put in dependent clauses, qualifying phrases, footnotes, carefully balanced nuances and so forth, and no one ever reads them. When I wrote The Naked Ape, I said to myself I’m going over the top with this one. I’m going to go 20% further than I dare go and I’m going to dare myself to go 20% further than I know I should go, right over the top, and I’m going to hit it hard and I’m going to get these items across because I would rather communicate with people, excite people, make them argue, make them think, even if in the process by oversimplifying I am in danger of doing the thing you said. When I wrote The Naked Ape I kept in my mind the reader, which is what most academics don’t do. If they do try to write a popular book, because they haven’t been trained in it, they appear to be writing for some curious sort of mentally retarded cretin and they become condescending.

Maclean’s: Konrad Lorenz attracted the same kind of criticism that you have for some of his books, On Aggression and King Solomon’s Ring, and now he ’s a Nobel Laureate and presumably has retrieved his respect in the field.

Morris: Well, no, Konrad is a very controversial figure. He always has been. I call him the Nobel Savage. What Konrad did, of course, was to introduce a new branch of science, ethology. Inside that science, within animal behavior, anyone who knows him knows him to be a genius. A genius in terms of observation; a very, very brilliant, accurate detection of tiny movement. When he steps outside that into the areas of sort of human idealism and phi-

losophy and so forth, we all tend to wince a bit.

Maclean’s: In your writing you often point out that man is in danger of separating himselffrom his primate roots. Why should we bear our origin in mind?

Morris: The main danger is that if we ... if you said to me that there is this new theory that we should stop urinating and people think that urinating is dirty so we must all stop doing it. Right. It’s just crazy. I’ve picked a stupid case deliberately because no one would argue in favor of such a philosophy. However, if you take another kind of philosophy which says that people should not do this or should do this, people should live like this or people should live like that, the social structure should be like this, the pattern of life should be like that, and if it doesn’t relate to something as basic as urination, say, or feeding behavior or whatever you like, then immediately you are into an area where people can actually start to believe some stupid philosophy which is based on the aberrant character of the philosopher. And the nasty trick in this is that very often the thing that drives a man on to become a major power figure in a particular philosophy or political party or whatever, very often it is some personal aberration of his own behavior. Because, you know, to be abnormally successful in politics or philosophy or social pressure or power or gangsterdom or whatever it is, it is not surprising that such people are abnormal, perhaps in some other private way as well. The danger is that the philosophies they put forward to match their own idiosyncrasies may be way off the mainstream of our species and alien to the evolutionary pattern with which we are stuck.

Maclean’s: Okay, then you are deliberately setting out to remind us of the parts of us that we have no choice about. So if somebody suggests that we move in a different direction, we should bear in mind that we can V. Morris: No, that’s putting me too much into the political field. What I’m really saying is that dictators and tyrants are in fact going to get destroyed sooner or later. If they try and swing us too far one way or too far the other—and I don’t care which way it is because I’m not a political animal—then sooner or later (and unfortunately it’s often later and in the meantime a lot of the people have died) but, sooner or later, the human animal will rebel.

Maclean’s: What I see as the fascinating thing about man is not that he is a naked ape but that he’s not merely a naked ape. Morris: I agree entirely with you. And that is why in Manwatching I left all of that behind. Somebody said, “You don’t mention animals much in the new book.” I said, “No, no I’ve done that.” I made the point with The Naked Ape. We do have a lot of things in common with other animals. We can benefit by making the comparison. But I stated my case. I’m not going to go on stating it. So, in the new book animals are hardly mentioned at all.

Maclean’s: Manwatching is a remarkable record of what people have come to call “body language” in the past few years. It is easy to read, it’s an attractive book, but what is its practical purpose?

Morris: The practical purpose of the book is simply to make people see the familiar in an unfamiliar way and, to use my corny phrase, “to enjoy the wonder of the commonplace.” What I’m really saying is this: if you were an athlete, say you wanted to run a race, you wouldn’t just go along and say, I want to run in this race. What you would do is start to exercise, learn about

In an urban society, sooner or later the demands of sexual curiosity overpower

muscles, you’d have a coach who would train you. You would learn about energy and balance and all the rest of it. You’d go into training, right? Then you’d run your race. And when you run it, you forget all about your training, you just run. But you have a trained body. What I’m trying to say is this—we all see one another’s facial expressions and body postures every day. And of course we respond to them. We understand but we haven’t trained our eyes. The difference between the person who has read the book and becomes a manwatcher and the ordinary person who just watches, as we all do, is that training that you go through, those three stages. First of all, you see expressions. You know what they mean, you get a message. Then you become a manwatcher, you read the book, you study all of this and it becomes rather analytical and self-conscious for a while there. You’re doing the training process. At the end of it all, you have a trained eye and the self-consciousness goes. I mean, you go into a room that is full of people and you can indulge in a social occasion in the way an athlete runs a race. You don’t get blisters any more.

Maclean’s: Okay, supposing you can do this, manwatching, what good do you derive?

Morris: It gives you deep understanding of people that you meet. It gives you, very often, a greater tolerance. It tells you just a little bit more, not a lot, but a little bit more, maybe just 5% more by intuition. But it’s a valuable 5%.

Maclean’s: If a Hungarian pointed two fingers at you, you could look up what he was trying to say?

Morris: That’s right. I mean it would be a complete record of the whole repertoire of human actions, gestures and postures, whether they were signals or not. Maclean’s: In the past you’ve been criticized by people who say that you are making a mistake to appeal to popular tastes in science. Now you have produced a classic coffee table book. You’re really thumbing your nose at the critics.

Morris: I already thumbed it earlier when I said that, in my view, anyone who really cares about their subject must want to communicate it. And those people who don’t want to communicate it are being snotty, stuck up and elitist and I disapprove very strongly of anyone who says: “My work is too grand or too special for ordinary people to understand it.” Maclean’s: Are you feeling under any pressure yourself to produce a more recognizably scholarly work after this?

Morris: Well, no. I start on my next book in 10 days (God help me!) and I have to have it finished in a few months. The three coauthors . . . we’re producing an academic book called Gesture Maps which is still being run through computers and it’s all very quantitative and a bit academic. But writing that book will be a joy because it’s much easier to write academic books. You can put in all the ifs and buts and the dependent clauses, qualifying phrases, the footnotes. It’s very, very difficult to write popular things because you have to think about the audience. You have to be sure that you’re communicating your idea and you have to reduce to the minimum the distortions that occur with simplification. Maclean’s: Our primitive sexual desires you refer to in both The Naked Ape and Manwatching, are they compatible with the kind of life that modern day man is trying to live?

Morris: Not entirely, no. One problem is that man has an enormous curiosity, an intense curiosity. It’s one of his great strengths. This level of curiosity is so powerful, I’ve given it a name. I call it the neophilic urge—the love of the new, the love of the novel. This is so strong that it invades a whole lot of areas where it doesn’t really belong and one of them is sex. We fall in love ; most species of primates don’t. There is the whole pattern of family life which is quite clearly based on our ability to fall in love. In modern society men and women get mixed up in the city in a way they never got mixed up in a small tribal community. Men and women are meeting who are strangers and who are unfamiliar to one another and who are sexually attracted to one another. And so you get exploratory

sex, curiosity sex, where a man and woman just want to share a sexual occasion in rather the same way you want to see the latest play or see the newest film or wear the latest clothes or whatever it is. It becomes an urge to satisfy curiosity because you want to find out what that particular person is going to be like when making love. And this curiosity is so strong that it clashes with the basic function, really, of sexual behavior which is within the family unit. You’re in danger of setting up a new loving bond with this person that you’ve just started having a curiosity satisfaction with. And now you’ve suddenly got two bonds going, two attachments going, and they clash. All you wanted was to satisfy your curiosity about what this other person would be like in bed. And once you’ve found out, instead of saying, “Gee, thanks that was great,” suddenly love is on the scene and love means caring and so on. There’s no problem in a village because the relationships are more stable. But when you get into an urban society where people are encountering other young and virile or sexually active members of the opposite sex almost every day of the week, sooner or later the demands of curiosity are going to overpower. It’s opportunity... Maclean’s: During the last couple of decades it has become apparent that sex roles are being confused, changed or expanded upon. How does that fit into your theories of our primitive urges?

Morris: I’ve always had to say that because people have always sort of misunderstood me when I talk about this. You see, when our species was evolving we developed a division of labor between the males and females. The males went off hunting and the females went food gathering, preparing food, looking after the babies and so on in the tribal home. Now, although there was a division of labor, the females were not second citizens. They were right at the heart of where the action was. Now we change the scene and we come to an urban situation and what have we got? We don’t have the centre of the action in the dormitory suburb outside the city with a little hunting ground in the distance. Hunting now has become work. Work is done in the city and the city has become the centre of action. It’s where it’s all at. Now the women are stuck in some God-awful dormitory out there with nothing to do except clean nappies and find a whiter soap powder and all the rest of it. And that has become a grotesque insult to the female intelligence because the females were always just as important and just as active as the males. But there was a difference. I mean, women and men are different not only in their anatomy but in their behavior.

Maclean’s: Where would you identify the difference?

Morris: I don’t think I’m really equipped to give that answer yet. I think it’s something that has to be investigated. I’m not happy with the results.

Maclean’s: You’re intuiting it so far?

Morris: Well, I’m making an assumption based on our evolution that there was no way that the difference could not exist. And I think I know in which way the difference exists but since it’s a very sensitive area I think one should be careful. But let me put it this way: there is a great deal of work being done in infant schools and among young children in which there has not been pressure on boys and girls to behave differently. Because that’s always the answer to it—you say, “Well, he’s a little boy and he’s behaving like a little boy,” and he’s pushed in that direction. And little

Women should try to go further than just equal social status, to merely match the man

girls are taught to sit there and play with dolls and little boys are given guns to play with and it’s the parents who make them different. But careful studies are now being carried out which indicate very, very clearly that there are all kinds of details in which men and women already—referring to little girls—behave differently, where there is no pressure put on them to behave differently. I am not entirely intuiting, as you put it, because I do know of this research and I listen to lectures about it. But to answer your original question, what about the new scene? The answer is quite simply that the females are unjustifiably urban. It was the urban revolution that did them in. Because when men decided to convert hunting into working and working replaced hunting as a masculine pursuit and the town arid the city became the centre of action, women were left out and they felt angry about it. The male reacted or behaved tyrannically toward the females over the centuries. But now, happily, that tyranny is being reduced.

Maclean’s: And what is the alternative? Morris: The alternative, and I have found

one or two feminists—women’s lib, or whatever the word is—anyhow I have found one or two who actually, to my surprise, through quite a different channel of thinking, have come to the same conclusion which is that the structure of urban society has to be changed. It’s terrible that women don’t get equal pay. That is absolutely indefensible. But to get that right isn’t enough because if they get equal pay what they’re getting is equal pay for behaving as if they were men. It’s half the battle to get that equal social status. But they want to go and they should go further. And what I mean by going further is not trying to match the man but to actually get back to a situation where they are the centre of where the action is.

Maclean’s: You were a curator of mammals at the London Zoo for about eight years. Do you miss your flock?

Morris: A bit occasionally. When I finished Manwatching, I had a chance to refresh myself with a safari in Africa. Those were marvelous days. It was wonderful to get back to being surrounded by elephants and giraffes. It’s the sheer beauty of the variety of animal life that delights me. Maclean’s: Do you have house pets? Morris: We did until quite recently. We had a Chinese water deer, a dwarf deer. She died only last year, just short of a world record for longevity in fact. She survived 10 years and some months and the world record is something like 11 years and 11 days. She moved with us from London to Oxford. When she was young and vigorous she got onto the London Underground and I had to pursue her with a six-foot butterfly net.

Maclean’s: After your experience with zoos, what do you think of them?

Morris: One of the reasons I left the London Zoo is learning more and more about the damage that confinement can do to animals. I didn’t like the idea of getting animals from the wild and putting them in restricted conditions. What we needed were much more extensive spaces. The emphasis in England now is on safari parks where the animals roam in large spaces. I’ve never been to one in winter; I would like to be sure that in the winter the animals don’t suffer. In the summer they’re a damn sight better off than they are in Africa. One night while we were in Africa, poachers killed three rhinos, eight elephants and one game warden. Hundreds of tons of ivory are being exported to the Orient for trinkets. I’m afraid the dream of the conservationists is being undone. Beautifully organized conservation policy depends on political stability and a tourism industry. How many tourists are going to Uganda now? Who has time to worry about the plight of the animals there? I hate the old “naked cage,” as I have called it, but I don’t want to see zoos disappear altogether. One day there will be a united Africa and the Africans are going to say, “What’s become of our animals?” Our zoos or circuses will be able to send them lions and cheetahs.^