"The Naked Ape" was the book that introduced me and millions of others to Desmond Morris. Back in 1967, it was something of a revelation that human behavior could be observed and analyzed like animal behavior. Oh, enlightened people accepted (intellectually, if not emotionally) the idea that we humans were merely one form of highly developed primate. We knew that gorillas and chimpanzees were our cousins, and some of us were even amused by the idea.
And yet, the study of human behavior was the exclusive province of psychologists and sociologists. Ethologists like Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz studied geese and sticklebacks, not people. Desomond Morris showed us that we were wrong. In an insightful exploration of human patterns of sexual behavior, child rearing, eating and fighting, he proved that the techniques of the ethologists could be applied to us as well as too any other species.
Morris' new book is about his life before the time of "The Naked Ape." He began as an animal-obessed child with a mother more sympathetic than most to the keeping of a collection of fauna in the garden, the garage and even the house. But at the age when most such passions begin to wane, Desmond Morris' grew. However, the focus of his interest changed. Instead of wanting to possess and control the creatures he found, he wanted to understand the way they lived in their own world.
Animal watching was not generally considered a serious academic subject in 1930 and 1940. Scientists interested in animals set up rigidly controlled laboratory experiments that had little relationship to anything that happened in the real world and more often than not ended with the dissection of the research subject. Going out into the woods to observe the behavior of birds or bugs was something one did as a hobby, if at all. Then Desmond Morris discovered Tinbergen, who was bringing it together the observational skills of the hobbyist who enjoyed watching animals and the experimental skills of the laboratory researcher. Morris heard Tinbergen speak and "one hour later, when I emerged from the lecture, my scientific life was totally transformed . . . . Tinbergen had shown me . . . how it was possible to conduct serious, rigorous research without having to turn one's back on the natural world of the living animal."
Morris, up until that time a less than totally dedicated scholar, began to work feverishly so that Tinbergen would accept him as a graduate student. Under Tnbergen's tutelage, Morris observed 10-spined sticklebacks for his thesis and a great variety of fish and birds to satisfy his own curiosity. Having obtained his doctorate, Morris took a research assistantship and began collecting more and more creatures to observe. He acquired so many birds that he was forced to abandon his fish studies entirely. Then he wanted to move on to mammals; but his Oxford laboratory simply was not large enough to keep mammals in anything approximating natural conditions. Perhaps, suggested Tinbergen, he might get a job researching mammal behavior at the London Zoo. t
There were no funds available for a mammal researcher, but, as luck would have it, a new film and television venture was starting at the zoo. Morris found himself the creator and host of a show called "Zootime," a program that introduced television viewers to animal behavior through the use of the London Zoo animals. The show proved enormously popular, and Morris became a television star. When he tired of this job, the became curator of mammals at the London Zoo. When he left the Zoo in 1967, he had decided to concentrate on the study of human behavior.
Morris is an entertaining and lively writer. He can make scientific observations on the breeding behavior of zebra finches into an exciting story without sacrificing accuracy. "Animal Days" is filled with anecdotes about eccentric animals and animal lovers, famous zoologists and artists (art is another of Morris' passions, and he has managed to combine it with his interest in animals). He touches on a number of serious points -- the morality of keeping animals in captivity, the problem of what to do with the surplus zoo animals, the tragedies that seem inevitable when animals form closer relationships with humans than with members of their own species. But it is the stories -- of his wife and sometime co-author, Ramona, and her crows, of the London Zoo's "tiger toucher," of Congo, the chimpanzee television star and painter -- that readers will best remember about "Animal Days."