DESMOND MORRIS, the man who brought us The Naked Ape and Manwatching now joins three colleagues in popular anthropology to bring us Gestures, a study of things we do with our hands and arms to transmit nonverbal opinions, moods, agreessions, desires and fears.

Remembering that The Naked Ape contained a bibliography that indicated Morris mainly consulted his own writings for source material, suspicions of anthropological snake oil danced through my head as I read that this time he, his three co-authors and scores of other colleages (including field researchers and interpreters) had spent two years interviewing 1,200 souls in 40 localities in 25 countires! Since none of the 40 places qualifies for the "disadvantaged" category, I was hard put to erase the specter of this knot of gesture-ologists out there taking the sun and sampling the grape from Ireland to Italy, from Sweden to Sardinia, stopping occasionally to ask some wildly gesticulating native in the bar or at the beach what all the excitement was about.

Moreover, the book begins on an oddly ameteurish note, with Morris actually apologizing for its "essentially preliminary quality." He then demures coyly that it is, well, "at least a start." Imagine if you can, the trainer, the rider and the owner of a horse announcing just before a big race that their horse was barily going to make it out of the starting gate. Only someone pathologically addicted to long shots would care to bet on such a creature.

There have been all too many outrageous boondoggles masquerading as serious work and too many volumes of pseudo-scientific claptrap undeservedly enriching the poseurs who wrote them. However, in the case of Gestures, even after these caveats, I think that most people, once past the initial apologies and tepid presumptions and their own doubts, will find it comprehensive, informative, entertaining and thought-provoking. I was reassured to discover, too, that this time Morris has provided a credible and even fascinating bibliography - 18 pages of sources with himself listed only five times.

The authors contend that gestural information has more impact and is more revealing than verbal, and because gestures are another channel of communications altogether, they "do not like being written about." But all gestures, they tell us, do have a history - personal, cultural or biological. Twenty key, or most "useful," gestures ar given - the ones that transcend particular cultures or regions. We learn that certain gestures have traveled fast and far with a country and across borders on the Wuropean continent while others "travel badly," restricting themselves to, say, a single city. Such a phenomenon is here called a "gesture boundary." By and large, Morris and company have chosen to concentrate on the origins and meanings of the more classic, durable, gestures.

Take the "fingertips kiss": "In ancient religions, the worshipper [wishing] to demonstrate his love for the deity by offering a kiss to an idol" but unable to get near enough to plant a real one (because the idol was physically out of reach or otherwise forbidden), was inspired or driven to make a "long distance kiss" - to create a symbolic transmission. Thus, fingertips to the lips, and then fingertips extended toward the object of worship.

As one takes each analysis in turn, it is irresistible not to consider one's own body language in the book's context. For instance, when, where and why do Americans "throw" or "blow" a kiss? Sometimes it masks nervousness or even hostility; sometimes we use it as a "kiss-off," just as it can be sincerely and passionately meant as praise, approvel or a sign of anxiety at parting. Sometimes it is a useful way to avoid further contact, a device, almost to back away. Certainly, it is a departure signal, not a welcoming one. (It is interesting to note that 601 of Morris' respondents used this gesture to confer praise, and 375 used it as a salutation.)

The "nose thumb" was found to be an almost universal sign of mockery. The "forearm jerk" was and is widely meant as a phallic threat or sexual inslut. But the "hand purse" ("the fingers and thumb of one hand are straightened and brought together in a point facing upwards" varies wildly from one area to another, meaning: a query, good, fear, lots, emphasis, criticism and slowly, each according to slight changes. (It occurred to me that Rostropovich often uses this gesture while conducting, and voila, I learn that its generic gestural category is called the "baton signal.")

A few gestures, such as the "eyelid pull," have absolutely contradictory regional meanings. In most places, it refers to alertness, but in Vienna alone it signals boredom - a rare gestural bird, indeed, and one that indicates to me more than ahint of tribal snobbery, for what is a "gesture boundary" but a form or exclusion?

This basically exuberant book will not turn you into a crack charades player. It probably will not help you second-guess the Russians, the Chinese, any Ayatollah, your television repairman, your mother or your president. But it does summon up some extra self-awareness; it does tend to open up a buried cache of understanding, curiosity and tolerance about and for one's fellow man. It puts one temporarily in touch with a much larger and more far-flung tribe than one generally relates to Gestures plays the catalyst. It also has a therapeutic role in its "down to basics" approach.

A warning: while I was certainly able to cure my initial dyspepsia about this book, while I enjoyed and respected it far beyond any expectation, it simply must be taken in small doses. The verbiage is sometimes excessive and even overwhelming in its zeal to be properly descriptive.

Gestures has one powerful nonverbal message: CONTACT! Which, in plain old words, means that no man is an island even if his eyelid pull means something different from your. CAPTION: Illustrations 1 through 6, no caption, FROM "GESTURES"