Planet Earth

Reflections of a Naked Ape

Desmond Morris observes the life of Desmond Morris.

By Dean ChristopherNov 21, 2007 6:00 AM


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We who cannot distinguish a womb from a wombat or a hedgehog from a hedge fund turn for guidance to naturalists with TV programs. One of the greatest—as beloved as Steve Irwin, Jane Goodall, and David Attenborough—is Desmond Morris. Between 1956 and 1967, he hosted a weekly show called Zootime, presented on live TV with live animals. Now Morris has written, or actually rewritten, the story of his remarkable career as a naturalist.

Watching: Encounters With Humans and Other Animals (MAX, $35) is a revision of two earlier autobiographies, now out of print. Animal Days (1979) traced Morris’s life from childhood through the pivotal event of his life, the 1967 publication of The Naked Ape, the first widely read study of Homo sapiens from the viewpoint of a zoologist. Made rich and famous, Morris was able thereafter to travel the world, doing whatever he wanted. From page 320 onward, the new book follows The Naked Eye (2000), which described his subsequent life and adventures.

Watching may be a rehash, but Morris had very nifty hash to begin with. As a compulsive student, writer, traveler, and explainer, he is to ethology—the study of animal behavior—what Carl Sagan was to astronomy. The central theme of his life is observation. He has produced a staggeringly huge variety of books and papers, plus decades of TV broadcasts, lectures, and documentaries. He was a curator at the fabulous London Zoo. His work has taken him to more than 90 countries in nearly six decades of passionate . . . watching.

Desmond Morris is also a respected painter and an expert on ancient artifacts. And he knows celebrities. Let’s forgive him his coy name-dropping, like his youthful canoodling with 1950s sex bomb Diana Dors or moments with actress–animal activist Brigitte Bardot. He also mixed with his idol, the painter Joan Miró, Yoko Ono, Dylan Thomas, Marlon Brando, Stanley Kubrick, and Morris’s protégé, Congo, the painting chimpanzee, whose works were sold at high prices to the disgust of the art establishment.

The book offers revealing anecdotes, some bordering on the naughty. But seekers of celebrity smut will be disappointed. Conversely, whoever enjoys witty English usage and a good yarn will like Watching. Here is reportage by a first-rate reporter. That said, this reviewer misses the sense of intimacy one might expect in the autobiography of a man looking back in the fullness of years on a richly lived life. Perhaps this is due to his focus on his life as a function of his work, rather than the other way around. There is some portraiture of his wife and son, his friends and mentors. But the spotlight is mainly on research, travels, and adventures in educating the public about animals—including themselves.

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