The Dan Schneider Interview 8: Desmond Morris
DM: I was a child
during World War Two and grew up viewing adult humans as rather disgusting -
people whose main goal in life was to kill one another. Worse still, I spent the
first part of World War Two watching my father suffering from wounds he had
received in the First World War. I was fourteen when he finally died and at that
age I decided, in my passionate, juvenile way, that all authorities, all
governments, all religious leaders and all political leaders were the scum that
floated to the top of society. I had to rebel, but I was a good little boy, well
brought up by loving parents, and my rebellion could not be a destructive one -
after all I was rebelling against mass violence and hatred, so my rebellion had
to be of some other, more positive kind. I had two great interests, art and
animals. My artistic rebellion took the form of turning my back on accepted,
traditional art and associating myself instead with the Surrealists. The
Surrealist Movement had itself started in the 1920s as a rebellion against the horrors of
World War One, so it suited my mood perfectly. As a teenager I began painting
with an obsessive fervour and, when I eventually exhibited my works, was
thrilled to find that the authorities hated them.
My second rebellion saw me spending more and more time in the company of other - strictly non-human- animals. I became an animal-watcher, and longed to have a career as a zoologist. My family wanted me to become a doctor - a safe job- and were alarmed by my opposition to this career. To cut a long story short, I won my battle and did indeed become a zoologist, studying animal behaviour until, at the age of 38, I finally decided to turn my attention to the human animal - a remarkable species I had finally come to like. I wrote a book called The Naked Ape that looked at mankind as just another animal species and realized that, approaching human behaviour as a zoologist rather than as a psychologist or a sociologist, provided some intriguing new insights. I decided to take this approach further and since than have written a string of books about human beings, with occasional reversions to studies of other animals, especially dogs, cats and horses. My painting has continued, and it is a totally selfish pursuit. I paint only for myself, creating a private world of my own on my canvases. If other people like that world, I am delighted, but I make no concessions to other tastes or preferences. My writing, on the other hand, is always done with my readers in mind. I never write for my own amusement. I always try to put across an idea that I feel is important, in the most easily readable form I can manage. This has annoyed some of my academic colleagues, who feel that I am oversimplifying my subject, but I argue that at least my writings are widely read, while theirs stay firmly within the confines of their academic ivory towers. And I always work with one special rule in mind: simplification without distortion. This is, in fact, much harder that the usual self-indulgent academic writing.
I also carried my message - about how fascinating animal behaviour and human behaviour can be - to an even wider audience by making television programmes, and presented a total of about 700 programmes over a period of half a century. I have now stopped that work and I am devoting my final years to the three things I enjoy most; writing books, painting pictures and travelling the world. I have so far managed to visit 95 countries and I have a schoolboy ambition to make that 100 countries before I die.
DS: I hope you
make it, too. To start, one of your careers, aside from television host, author,
and zoologist, is as an ethologist. For those not in the know, is this akin to
an ethicist, a branch of philosophy?
DM: Ethology is the
naturalistic study of animal behaviour. It is based in the idea that, in order
to understand any animal species fully, you must first observe everything it
does in its natural state. If this is not possible, then you must build an
environment in the laboratory that imitates that wild environment as closely as
possible. After you have spent at least a year watching a particular kind of
animal, you then start to quantify what you see. You measure the frequency of
various actions and how these frequencies are altered by changing circumstances.
The idea is to analyse the behaviour of the animals while interfering as little
as possible with their normal behaviour.
Ethology began as a reaction against animal psychology, where studies were mostly done on white rates in cages or mazes. To an ethologist, a rat is not a true rat unless it has been allowed to build a burrow system. Psychologists’ rats were never given a chance to live a natural life and so, to the ethologists, all the results of the experiments carried out by animal psychologists were virtually meaningless.
DS: That’s an
interesting take, one I never thought of, re: a ‘real’ animal being
‘wild’ vs. one that is captive, and the effect on their ‘psyche;’ if you
will. Since that’s quite a philosophical posit, what predispositions do you
have re: philosophy? Are there any philosophers whose ideas have appealed to
you, and why?
DM: Earlier philosophers had an enormous impact on human thinking. Their ideas helped to match the prevailing doctrines of society with what we can loosely call the true nature of human beings. Human beings evolved a tribal animals, competitive but also powerfully cooperative. Without a deep-seated urge to cooperate - to help one another - the early hunter-gatherer tribes would never have survived. But when we moved on to become urban animals we found ourselves in increasingly unnatural environments with no time for evolution to help us to adapt. As a result, we began to introduce all kinds of new social rules that ill-suited our species. Concepts, such as slavery and trial by torture, or the religious idea that human beings are above nature rather than part of it, or the communist dictum that nobody should own a personal home, were alien to our primeval human nature, but they were difficult to defeat and it took major philosophical advances to correct these damaging mistakes.
DS: What do you
see as the role of a ‘public intellectual’ in this century? And do the
constant controversies that surround someone like a Noam Chomsky make you, and
others less apt to speak out? Or, do you think it’s best to stay focused in
your area of expertise?
DM: I discovered long ago that, if you write a book about cats or dogs, everybody loves you, but if you dare to write a book about human beings, all hell breaks loose. It is impossible to write an uncensored, honest book about human behaviour without offending at least part of your audience. If you feel you have a basic truth to tell, then you must tell it and be prepared to suffer the inevitable criticisms.
DS: Do you feel
that celebrities or public intellectuals, especially in the arts- which is
loaded with stereotypes to begin with, have a responsibility to the working Joe
to not be so loony? I mean, one need only look at the crazy causes Hollywood
celebrities swoon over, or that artists and intellectuals like a T.S. Eliot or
Ezra Pound (pro-Fascists) or Chomsky (pro-Communist) shill for, and it’s
DM: First, the art
world. Art is a form of adult play. We are an playful species - this is one of
our great strengths. To oppose playfulness in the arts is dangerous - both the
Nazis and the Communists tried it and failed. I think the artist has a duty to
offend the ‘working Joe’ as you call him. It is the duty of the artist to
try out new things. Many of them will be ugly or just plain silly, but out of
them one day springs something wonderful and beautiful. You never know where it
going to come from and you have to avoid censorship at all costs. If you attack
the wildest follies of the art world, you simply create a boringly conformist
Of course, some of the posturing of the art world today is foolish in the extreme, and I hate it as much as anyone else. I deplore the lack of craftsmanship, and the loss of reverence for the ‘art object,’ but I will always defend the young artist’s right make as big a mistake as he wants because, as with all innovation, you never know where the next great art form will emerge.
You mention celebrities and daft Hollywood causes- these never worry me because I think that anyone who is stupid enough to follow one of these cults or crazes deserves everything they get. If the rest of us manage to avoid these fads and fashions, we are making a positive decision to reject them. If they are all banned, then we cannot make a positive decision. Or, as someone once put it, you cannot be really good unless to have the opportunity to be really bad, but avoid that option. A forced goodness is no goodness at all. It is making the right choice that counts.
So the more daft Hollywood causes there are, the more I enjoy the fact that I am laughing at them and avoiding them.
DS: Finally, how much of a role does celebrity play in science- i.e.- how much of Stephen Hawking is his ALS?
DM: I have known charismatic scientists and extremely dull ones and both have done important work. Sadly, the work of the dull ones is often overlooked. In any creative walk of life you need to be able to sell your ideas, and science is no exception, although there is often someone who will come along and help to promote the dullard’s work if it is important enough.
DS: Let me begin
with some biographical inquiries and delve into some of your personal life.
I’ve read you were born January 24th, 1928, in the village of
Purton, North Wiltshire. To those outside the U.K, what part of England is that-
near London, Wales, Scotland? Also, was your family well off financially, or
were you from the lower or middle class? And, since in your youth, class was
such a big thing in Britain, how did that affect you, and how, if at all, has it
changed from then?
DM: I was born in a village in the centre of the south of England, in the same county as the great megalithic monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury. London was about 70 miles to the east and Oxford 30 miles to the north. I grew up in a large house with a big garden, an orchard and stables. But my family was not well-off financially when I was a small child because it was the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s. My father had been trained as an engineer but all he wanted to do was to write children's adventure stories. He was not very successful, but the tapping of his typewriter keys is the earliest sound I can remember and, later on, when he gave me my own typewriter, I was able to type almost before I could write. I was never really conscious of class distinctions. They have never bothered me to this day. I hate snobbery and you can find snobs at any level of society.
mentioned your dad, so what of your parents? Your website
states their names as Harry Morris- who wrote children’s books, and Marjorie
Morris (née Hunt). Did your father have success as an author? What did your
mother do? Often you hear of parents chiding such nonconformist dreams as being
unrealistic. Did they want you to ‘be reasonable,’ and get a job where you
could ‘make money’? Or did they encourage your pursuit of the arts and
DM: My father was too ill to be much involved in my career and was dead by the time I was 14. I was unusually lucky with my mother who always encouraged me to do whatever I was passionate about. In this world there are ‘no’ mothers and ‘yes’ mothers. The ‘no’ mothers keep on saying ‘stop that,’ ‘don't do that,’ while the ‘yes’ mothers say (regardless of their true feelings) ‘how interesting, dear.’ During her entire 98 years of life, I don’t recall my own mother ever criticizing anything I had done, even when, occasionally, I suspect she was not entirely happy about something. I think that, had I become a serial killer, she would probably have said ‘I expect they deserved it, dear.’
DS: Sounds like
what we call, here in America, a ‘nice, Jewish mom.’ Any siblings? Did any
of them go into science? Do they share your views on life, politics, religion,
DM: I was an only child; my wife was an only child; and our son is an only child.
DS: What was
your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?
Were you smarter than average? The classic bored gifted child? Did you go to
DM: I was sent to a boarding school, which I hated at first but eventually came to love. It was there that I discovered both zoology and modern art, so it was an important time for me. I excelled in subjects I loved, but was hopeless at subjects I disliked.
DS: What sort of
books did you read? I read science books, by and large, as well as atlases, the How,
Why And Wonder Books- popular in the 1960s, bios of scientists, dinosaur
books, books on astronomy. Name some of your favorite books- be they science or
not, fiction or nonfiction, as well as those you think among the best ever
DM: As a schoolboy I loved the writings of H. G. Wells, and his grandson was a school-chum of mine so I could hear the latest news about the great man. He fired my imagination. Later I turned to modern poetry and was fascinated by the writings of Auden and Isherwood. Dog Beneath The Skin was my favourite book. Later I got to know Dylan Thomas through a mutual friend and after listening to the magical way he played with the English language, I bought everything he wrote.
DS: Who were
science writers that influenced you? Have you ever read Loren
Eiseley? His supernal prose is as poetic and cogent today as it ever was,
even if some terms are outdated, for he has an ability to tie things back into
the personal makes for such compelling reading.
DM: The first science book that fascinated me was Nehemiah Grew’s (1681) Catalogue And Description Of The Natural And Artificial Rarities Belonging To The Royal Society And Preserved At Gresham College, Whereunto Is Subjoyned The Comparative Anatomy Of Stomachs And Guts. My great-grandfather had been a Victorian naturalist, with a huge library, but this was the only volume of his that I inherited. I found it in the attic along with his wonderful brass microscope and it kick-started my zoological career. I also discovered Charles Darwin and decided, at a very young age, that his theory of evolution was the greatest idea ever published. I had been brought up as a good Christian boy, but Darwin’s writing totally demolished my acceptance of religious teaching which, as a teenager, I now came to see as an appalling confidence trick played on the gullible by the religious establishment. I have never seen any reason to change that view.
DS: In 1946, you joined the Army. Where did you serve? What was the British military like so soon after World War Two? Did you ever see combat while serving, perhaps during the Indian bid for independence?
DM: When I discovered that I would be forced to serve two years in the Army I was horrified, and the first year of my army career (in 1946) was the worst of my entire life. Then I started to learn a few tricks and managed to spend my second year as a lecturer in fine art at an Army College. Of course, the war was over and I never saw any action.
DS: Speaking of the Second World War, were you in London during the Blitz? How did that time of your life affect you later on? Did any of your family die during the Blitz, or serving in the military? Were there any particularly gruesome episodes in those years that pushed you to look for a deeper or higher meaning in things?
DM: I lived in Swindon, a town in Wiltshire, during the war. We were bombed occasionally, but nothing like the London blitz. I have a note in my diary that says: BETWEEN 1940 AND 1942 THE GERMAN LUFTWAFFE DROPPED A TOTAL OF 104 BOMBS ON SWINDON, KILLING 48 AND INJURING 105. FIFTY HOUSES WERE DESTROYED AND A TOTAL OF 1,852 DAMAGED. THERE WAS A TOTAL OF 158 AIR RAID ALERTS. My childhood recollection of this period is going to the town hall after an air-raid to read the gruesome list of unclaimed body-parts that was posted on the outside wall there.
DS: Was this the period you took up painting? Or were you always doodling? By 1950 you had your first exhibition of paintings, with the Spanish Surrealist Joan Miro. Did you meet the man, and what was most memorable about him?
DM: My earliest picture dates from 1944, when I was 16. By 1948 I had already had my first solo exhibition in Swindon. Then in 1950 I had the chance to have a show with one of my idols, Joan Miro, in London. But I did not meet him until 1964 when he came to spend the day with me in London. I later visited him at his studio in Spain. He was a delightful man who looked like a diminutive Spanish banker, but who had a splendidly childlike sense of wonder.
DS: What drew you to Surrealism? I’ve always had intellectual problems with schools of art and -isms because once one accepts the stricture the natural desire is to transcend it. It also seems a lazy way of lumping together vaguely similar things that may only appear similar superficially, but which are fundamentally different. Agree? And was Surrealism a label you chose or had thrust upon you?
DM: I was attracted to Surrealism because it encouraged the artist to allow imagery to spring up from the unconscious mind. The works were therefore totally subjective and this provided a great release from the strict objectivity of my scientific studies. But, like almost all Surrealist artists, once I had found my own personal style, I felt no further need to be part of a tight-knit group. Practically every surrealist artist was either expelled from the movement or eventually rejected it. But they were all influenced by it before they left to go their own ways. It was the same for me.
DS: It also seems to me that terms like Surrealism, Impressionism, Expressionism, etc., are often bastardized to a point where they are practically meaningless. Agree? Also, is not quality more important than style? I find too many artists provincially dismiss work that does not hue to their line, even if it is of quality, while praising manifestly bad work that is in their school. What spurs this?
DM: Some art groups were formed as a defence against the entrenched authorities of the day. The groups gave their members strength in numbers. Other groups were little more than the invention of art historians, trying to describe trends in modern art. Ultimately, each artist becomes an individual with his or her own personal style and, as the years pass, labelling them means very little.
DS: A while back
I was arguing on a blog about the monochrome paintings of Mark
Rothko. I’ve always felt that the Abstract Expressionists were con
artists, and at least Andy Warhol knew they were, and took the next step in
mocking those ‘art lovers’ and critics, like Clement Greenberg, who really
just cared about profit and hagiography, not art, which is fundamentally
communication. If art does not communicate, and at a high level, it is not art.
What are your thoughts?
DM: Time will eventually sort out which artists are great and which are merely slickly promoted flash-in-the-pan con artists. It may take a century, but eventually it will all become clear.
DS: On a
straightforward level, if a child can paint something in less than an hour that
can fool experts, do you think that that has any bearing upon some of the lazier
claims for visual art? Also, have you ever watched the Orson Welles film F
For Fake? If so, what are your thoughts on the noted art forger,
Elmyr De Hory, and those like him, who unmask so many of the so-called art
critics as pretentious phonies?
DM: It is very difficult to be original in art, but very easy to copy an original work. Child art can be amazing in its freshness and some of it is better than certain adult art. Ultimately you have to trust your own judgement, but to be a good judge you have to learn the language of art. Nobody could judge a French poem if they didn’t speak French, but people are sometimes so arrogant when it comes to visual art that they think they can make sound judgements without any special knowledge of the subject.
DS: What are
some of the paintings of yours you rank the most highly, and what of the
paintings of others do you value most? How about the best 4 or 5 painters, in
your estimation, and why?
DM: I am never ever satisfied with my own paintings. I rank none of them highly. I always want to do better next time. But I do prefer the ones with the most meticulous execution, because I value craftsmanship as well as art. Artists that I find most exciting are: 1. BOSCH 2. KLEE 3. MIRO 4. TANGUY 5. ERNST 6. DALI 7. MATTA 8. PICASSO 9. BACON
DS: I also see that you directed two Surrealist films. I have to say I’ve watched and reviewed the works of Jean Cocteau and find them of little cinematic value nor quantity. Silent stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were way ahead of Cocteau, in many areas, and put his theories into reality that made for good film, not the mere narcissism that Cocteau indulges in. Any thoughts?
DM: One of my childhood thrills was seeing Laurel and Hardy live on stage in my home town, and I have a complete set of every film they ever made, but I find much of Chaplin nauseatingly sentimental. Cocteau’s films have not stood the test of time, imaginative as they were, but those of Bunuel certainly have, and they are serious works of art.
DS: To get back to a bit of biography; you married in 1952. Who is your wife, and what is her field? Is she in the sciences? Often one meets someone in their profession that they are copacetic with. If not, is you wife in some other branch of science? Do you have any children? If so, are they similarly rationally inclined?
DM: My wife has an Oxford degree in history. She was attracted by my art, not my science. I have always said that she has a better brain than me, but she prefers to help me with my research rather than write books herself. We did write three books together back in the 1960s, and I wish she had done more. I met her in 1949 and we have been together for so long now that we are almost like a single unit. We have one son, whose act of teenage rebellion was to become fascinated by all form of sport- not one of my strong subjects. As a good father I played any sports I was capable of, with him, and took him to see everything from soccer and horse racing in England to baseball and ice hockey in the States. He even persuaded me to buy racehorses and to become the director of a professional football club. But it has paid off in the end because he is now Director of Horse-Racing for Ireland and loves his job.
To what extent has politics affected your career? I.e.- have you ever been
dependent upon government granting in pursuit of your work? Many scientists
claim the Bush administration, especially, has been hard on the sciences.
Several former U.S. Surgeons General testified last year to that effect. What
are your views on politics and who are your heroes, if any?
DM: Politicians sent my father to suffer in the trenches of the First World War. He came back with one-and-a-half of his two lungs destroyed and it took him 24 years to die - something I had to watch all through my childhood. As far as I am concerned politics comes somewhere between street-cleaning and garbage disposal in social importance.
Do you look to a candidate’s opinions on conservation, global warming, etc.,
when voting? If so, do you think that most scientists share your concerns? And
do you think the general electorate does? If not, why not?
DM: The American poet E. E. Cummings once wrote: ‘a politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man.’ I read this half a century ago in a book of his poems published in 1947 and it has lodged itself firmly in my memory ever since- even though I don’t know precisely what he meant by it. It feels so right, though.
I think it means that the politico is a jackass, yet also not a real ‘mensch,’
to use the Yiddish. How about the other end of the spectrum; has Left Wing
Political Correctness affected your work? Often in fields such as sex research,
cloning, stem cells, etc. politics plays a huge role, and the Left can be as
irrational as the Right.
DM: They all give the impression of being barking mad. A friend of mine once said: ‘the only difference between the Left and the Right is that one kicks you with the left foot and the other kicks you with the right foot.’
DS: Do you
prefer preaching to the choir or engaging dialectic? Is the tradeoff in
acceptance worth the energy wasted in such a tiring pursuit? Have you ever had
any one hear you speak, who then was ‘converted’?
DM: With my painting I don’t preach to anybody. I paint solely for myself and if others enjoy what I paint that is just a bonus. With my academic writings, I address myself to my specialist colleagues. With my writing for a general audience, I write for everyone and always manage to offend someone. But it is always rewarding when somebody tells me that reading my words (usually about human body language) they were inspired to do some serious research.
DS: Let me toss out that old question: if you could sit down and break bread for an evening with folks from the past- scientists or not, which folk would you most like to engage with, and why?
DM: If my wife and I were setting a table for eight at dinner: From long ago I would choose Charles Darwin, Hieronymus Bosch, John Bulwer (the first person to study human body language, back in the 17th Century), the Architect of Stonehenge (to ask him to explain the function of his monument), Hatshepsut (a female pharaoh in ancient Egypt) and Queen Elizabeth I. From the more recent past I would choose Dylan Thomas, Marlon Brando, Francis Bacon, Stanley Kubrick, Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe; all but one of whom I did have the pleasure of dining with at one time or another, but all now sadly dead. It would have been fun to put them all together around one table.
DS: Science is
supposedly rational, but like any endeavor, it can be done poorly, especially
when science comes up with ad hoc solutions to things not fully
understood yet. Dark matter is the current king of this trend, although string
theory and superstrings were hot a decade or so ago. While I am not an expert on
physics, I am an expert with words, and reading between the lines, and in doing
so, it seems to me that much of what is accepted these days is on thin ice. What
are some of the worst examples of science you can mention, in your own field of
interest- who was it, and did they correct themselves? Or did a system of peer
review do the task of correction?
DM: The worst example is the child care system put forward by Dr. John Watson in the 1920s. He taught that babies should be harshly trained and never cuddled or comforted by their parents; that they should be left to cry until they learned that crying would do them no good. He insisted that mothers should never hug or kiss them and never talk to them in endearing tones. The basic idea was that if you showed kindness and tenderness to your young ones you would be in danger of ‘spoiling’ them. In reality, the exact opposite is the case and it is hard to understand how such a perverted view of child-rearing could have arisen or been accepted. Sadly, despite this, his views came to dominate the child-rearing practices of the interwar period, causing untold harm to a whole generation. Speaking personally, it nearly cost me my life. I was a child of this period and my parents, like most others, felt they had to follow Watson’s dictates, even though they went against the grain. As a result, I was left out of doors crying in my pram regardless of the severity of the weather, as a way of toughening me up. I eventually contracted double pneumonia and was close to death. When I recovered my mother decided to throw away the Watsonian rule book and allowed her natural feelings free expression. After that change of heart I thrived and became a personal testimony to the iniquity of Watson’s teachings.
DS: Rare to get
a personally and professionally based response to that query. Let me segue into
this: a good deal of your work has been on the origins and prosperity of the
human race. Do you believe in the Anthropic Principle (Weak or Strong)? Do you
view it a tautology?
DM: The kindest thing I can say about discussions of the Anthropic Principle is that they are supreme examples of the vacuous twaddle that surfaces whenever people ask impossible questions. I am, by training, an observer and I prefer to study things that I can see easily with my own eyes and ask questions to which I can find answers by the simple scientific principle of predicting and testing. I am more interested in analysing the significance of a small hand gesture than in debating how many universes there are.
There are many things people believe in that seemingly have no basis in reality:
UFOs, lake monsters, hairy bipeds, ghosts, visions of the Virgin Mary, etc. Is
this due to some evolutionary trait, or a failing of modern science to properly
educate the public? If so, how can this irrationality be remedied? Or will the
death of religion have to happen before such nonsense can be corrected?
Personally, I believe part of this problem has to do with the conflation people
make between the unexplained and the unexplainable. The former, it seems to me,
is an ever decreasing quantum, whereas the latter is mere evidence of current
limitations to human thought. Thoughts?
DM: Science fiction and monsters are fun. You don’t have to take them seriously. I enjoy fantasies as a way of relaxing, but some scientists are so serious that they can’t accept this. In the same way I can enjoy the best of religious art without having to swallow the imagery as anything other than imaginative storytelling.
DS: Let me
digress a bit to your views on religion, which I touched upon, a bit, earlier.
You are a well known atheist, or are you more of an agnostic?
DM: I am a non-theist. I don’t like the term ‘atheist’ because it states that I am ‘without a god,’ implying that I am lacking in something. I think it is the theists who are lacking something, namely a common sense understanding of the fact that each human individual is merely a temporary container for his or her (potentially immortal) genetic material.
DS: Good point
regarding the semiotics of atheism as a term. I asked because I have found that,
ala the Anthropic Principle I mentioned, atheists tend to come in Weak and
Strong versions. Weak (or small a atheists) are generally agnostics under a
different guise, and tend to be carefree re: religious queries. They tend to
admit that they are finite beings and an infinite thing (a deity) would
necessarily be beyond their ken, even if they’ve seen no evidence. Then there
are the Strong (capital A Atheists), who seem to be every bit as inflexible and
dogmatic as Fundamentalist religiots of any religion, claiming not only do they
not believe in a deity, but that there can be and is no deity- period. After I
reviewed a film by a former Fundamentalist, I got into this argument with two
atheists who were as dogmatic as any theist. I finally got them to admit
that a) there were atheists who claimed there ‘could be’ no gods and b) they
could never disprove such an immaterial claim. While I disagree with Gould’s
NOMA posit (Non-Overlapping Magisteria), I find such atheistic
dogma to be counter-productive to rationalism, for there goes, as you might
claim, the ‘upper moral hand’ of the argument. Comments? And which sobriquet
fits you best?
DM: Like any good scientist I keep an open mind. But the concept of an omnipotent deity is so fatuous that even my open scientific mind finds it hard to take it seriously. It belongs with ghosts and gremlins and hobgoblins and things that go bump in the night. Something to frighten naughty children with- and a wonderful way for cunning holy men to exploit the gullible and the feeble-minded.
DS: To digress,
why is it that religiots always equate atheists with Communism? First, the lack
of a belief in a supernatural deity was a minor part of that philosophy. Second,
that lack was always just lip service, as former Communist states are amongst
the most religious around. And, third, Communism- like Fascism, was really a
secular religion, with the cult of personality for the leader- Lenin, Stalin,
Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, as mortal God, therefore it’s wholly inaccurate for
Communism to be equated with atheism, since it clearly had godheads, and texts-
Mao’s Little Red Book, anyone?
DM: I agree
DS: As an
agnostic and artist, why do so many artists seem to deny their own creativity,
pawning it off on God, or some other force or demiurge? I call this the Divine
Inspiration Fallacy. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s
all me, or you, or any artist. Comments on its existence, origins, verity?
DM: All the artists I know see their creativity as a personal challenge to find a way- verbally, visually, musically- of expressing their deep-seated feelings. Any artist who says God is telling him what to do is simply being philosophically lazy.
DS: What are your feelings toward those who are religious? Do you look down at them, or do you take the ‘whatever works for them’ approach?
DM: Some years ago I encountered a famous televangelist in a millionaire’s playground, where I was due to deliver a lecture. I asked him what he was doing there and, with a sly grin, he replied ‘spending God’s money.’ I wish his poverty-stricken, faithful flock could have seen him. For me he is the ultimate metaphor of the religious leader. Religion prospers especially where there are large, poor communities and I hate to see them exploited. The ultimate exploitation, of course, is seen in the suicide-bombers who are promised a wonderful time in heaven if they will serve God by exploding themselves and taking as many innocent bystanders with them as possible.
DS: I asked the last question because, a few years back I (an agnostic and generally irreligious) had a telephone job where I did much asking of questions about people’s lives and beliefs (political, religious, philosophic) and, despite a bias I had against religion, I had to admit that those folk who were religious (especially those who were ministers and missionaries) seemed FAR happier than mallrats, MBAs, and secular folk stuck in the consumer society we inhabit. They seemed to not only be happier, but much more purpose driven. And, I actually found myself in a better frame of mind having spoken with people who were ‘engaged’ in their lives. So, even if we can agree that their purpose may ultimately be false and delusive, does not their state of being, positive as it is, have some merit? Ideas?
DM: The major selling point with religion is that you are promised a lovely time in the next life. I am now an old man rapidly approaching my death and I admit that I would feel happier about that event if I could believe in an afterlife. It is such a comforting thought. I happen to think that death is simply a dreamless sleep, but if I find myself lying on a cloud surrounded by harp-playing virgins, whoopee!
DS: To digress
for a moment, and head back to science. That scientific theories are disbelieved
at first, then grudgingly accepted, then become dogma, then are tossed out, is
basically the posit Thomas Kuhn makes in The Structure Of Scientific
Revolutions. Do you agree with that?
DM: A mentor of mine once said that ‘today’s general theories are tomorrow’s special cases.’ But of course the major discoveries, such as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, that were resisted at first, then accepted, cannot be tossed out, so that Kuhn’s posit is itself a special case.
DS: Good point.
When I interviewed philosopher Daniel
Dennett we spoke of his Multiple Drafts Model of how the brain invoked
consciousness, as opposed to other models, such as the Cartesian Theater. Have
you ever read his book, Consciousness Explained, and if so, what
of his theory? Do you see it as the best out there, or somehow lacking? In
truth, I think it’s the best model I’ve read of, but also I think there are
things lacking. Also, since you have written extensively on the evolution of the
human body, what are your thoughts on how the human brain, and the mind, have
DM: I have not read his book
DS: In the same
vein, have you any thoughts on Julian Jaynes, or his work in The
Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind? I
found many flaws with his theory, which basically claims that humans were
virtual automata until a few thousand years ago, when they ‘discovered’
DM: I have not read
DS: And while it
is not exactly your area of expertise, what of life on earth? How do you think
it arose- the warm pond, or some chemical reactions in the crust? I’ve even
read newer theories that posit life could form even more readily under supercold
conditions, which bode well for future exploration of the moons of Jupiter and
Saturn. Any thoughts?
DM: Not my area of study.
DS: Let me briefly return to religion, and ask: if science is falsifiable, and religion not, yet seemingly so many people choose religion over rationality, what does that say about the human condition, overall and at this point in our history? Also, I’m not sure if you are familiar with Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained, but the basic posit he makes re: the origin of religion is that it is fear based. The example he uses is that the Neolith who feared every sound in the jungle, would avoid the Saber-toothed tiger waiting behind a bush that stirred, whereas a fearless rationalist would not be swayed. While 99 times out of 100 the rationalist would suffer no ill consequences, that 1 time in a 100 where he became cat food, whereas the fearful proto-religiot did not, eventually had a selective effect in weeding out rationalism in favor of supernatural beliefs. Any thoughts as to how religion may have ‘evolved’ out of the real world desires of the human mind?
DM: When we first developed verbal language we were able to talk in the past, present and future tense. Other species only communicate in the present tense- so a dog, for example, has no idea that one day it will die. Once we were able to contemplate out personal future and realize that one day we would be dead, we had to protect ourselves from this terrible thought and so we conceived of an afterlife. And (to cut a very long story very short) in this way religion was born. We still fear death which is why, I suppose, religion still manages to prosper, even in a scientific age.
DS: Let me turn
to one of the newer versions of Creationism: Intelligent Design. One of the key
underpinnings of Intelligent Design is the claim that there is a limit to
knowledge. By that, they do not mean that an individual- you nor I, have limits,
which is manifest. They mean that there are certain things that are unknowable
by the scientific method, or any other method. Do you agree, even if you
disagree with their conclusion that this limit is, in effect, the boundary that
defines a godhead?
DM: As Louis Armstrong said of rock’n’roll: ‘It’s the same soup warmed over.’ Using the term ‘Intelligent Design’ is just a fashionable way of trying to avoid some of the worn-out clichés of theology. But if you have intelligent designs you have to have an intelligent designer and, whoops, here we go again, it’s that nice old man with a long white beard who gave us leprosy, malaria, gangrene, parasitic worms and cancerous tumours.
Speaking of things transcelestial; I once wrote a poem based on the famed Pale
Blue Dot photo, and also a sonnet on the Hubble
Deep Field photo. The former was taken as Voyager 1 left the solar system,
and shows the whole planet Earth afloat in a thin shaft of sunlight. The latter
is a time lapsed photo that shows all of the galaxies that occupy a tiny speck
of the night sky. Both seem to me to be amongst the most important and powerful
photos ever taken, for their images really slap some reality into those filled
with human hubris. Do you agree? And, how have these photos resonated as
they’ve made their way into the public consciousness? Also, do you see them,
and other grander things that science can offer, as stimulants for young people
to ‘enter the fray’?
DM: Of course it is exciting to see photographs taken in space. But for me there is so much to enjoy and to study on our own small planet that I prefer to leave star-gazing to others.
I think science writing is in a Golden Age since the mid-1970s or so. Not only
are great ideas bubbling forth, but the actual writing, on the page, is good,
lucid, compelling, and makes good use of metaphor to appeal to both
intellectuals and the laity. From E.O. Wilson, to the essays of Stephen Jay
Gould, to Sagan to Jared Diamond to Martin Rees and Timothy Ferris to Robert
Bakker, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and a few dozen others, the world of
science is bristling not only with ideas, but people who can clarify and excite
the public. Science books often make bestseller lists, yet, if that is so, and
more Americans than ever are college educated, then why are Americans so
ignorant on things like abortion, stem cells, evolution, race, sexuality, and on
DM: There are two Americas. One is the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, city world of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, bursting with innovation and lively intelligence, and the other is the redneck Bible-Belt world of the good ole boys, full of bigotry and backward-thinking nonsense. This is, of course, a gross over-simplification, but it helps to explain the many contradictions that come out of America today.
Why do you think that the reviews of most books on science, history (think
Daniel J. Boorstin or David McCullough), or politics always devolve down to
whether or not the author is seen as correct in some assertions, and not whether
their wordsmithing abilities are up to snuff? More PostModernism? Is not the way
an idea is presented or argued as important as its intellectual merits, lest the
great idea won’t disseminate?
DM: Yes. Academic writing styles are usually clumsy and cumbersome. Good popular science writing is very hard to do well. The essence, as I said before, is simplification without distortion. And clarity of expression.
And, is all this also a part the old phenomenon of wanting to have the books on
their shelves, as status symbols, but their never being actually read? Is it
because students are taught to be test-taking drones rather than free thinkers?
After all, straight A students and valedictorians tend to not do so well after
school, because they, indeed, excelled at being applied test takers, not
critical thinkers. Any thoughts? Also, do you think the American (and possibly
British) education system spends far too much time and money on the dumber kids
and not enough on the smarter kids? This Time magazine article, Are
We Failing Our Geniuses?, seems to agree.
DM: Getting a good education relies on one thing: being blessed with an imaginative teacher who is passionate about his subject. I was unusually lucky in this respect, from schooldays onwards. And three of my teachers at university level were later awarded Nobel Prizes for the work they were doing when they were teaching me. You can’t get any luckier than that.
Let me now turn to some of your most famous works- both in book form and
television. Let me start with, of course, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s
Study Of The Human Animal. I opened this interview by comparing its
impact to that of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species.
However, I can guarantee you that many of the younger people who come across
this interview online will know little of you and the book. Can you give a précis
of the book- its aims and claims?
DM: I was trained as a zoologist studying animal behaviour, so when I turned my attention to the human animal I used the same observational methods. I watched what people do rather than listened to what they say. The book was unusual because it was a zoology of human beings, rather than a psychology. I deliberately ignored the ways in which human beings are different from other animals and concentrated just on those aspects that we share with other animals- mating, feeding, aggression, play, sleep, etc., Darwin said humans were descended from animals, but I was saying, no, we are just animals, and no more than animals. But a very remarkable species, all the same.
That’s an excellent point, that we are not ‘descended from animals,’ but
ARE ‘animals.’ Can you tell me how your subsequent fame from it affected
later works? And what things in the book have held up the best against
subsequent decades’ research, and what aspects of the book look hopelessly
DM: When I was asked to revise the book, the only thing that I felt was dated was the population figure for the human species. When I wrote the book 40 years ago the world population stood at about 3000 million. Today it is over 6000 million. Apart from that, I thought that the book had stood the test of time remarkably well. In fact, since it was written, there has been a much greater acceptance of genetic factors influencing human behaviour. At the time I wrote the book that idea was revolutionary, but today it is not.
Your website states that after your success with The Naked Ape you
moved to the island of Malta. Were you doing your version of Arthur C. Clarke,
who retired to Sri Lanka? Do you still reside in Malta?
DM: My reasons were rather different from his. I had been over-working in London and at last I had the chance to escape and do a mini-Gaugin. I wanted to enjoy the Mediterranean sunshine and paint, which I did for about five years, before returning to my old university at Oxford to get back to scientific research again, this time on the subject of human body language.
I did not know that the book was twice adapted into a film: once in 1973, and
again in 2006. Yet in Googling them up they do not seem to have been
documentaries, ala Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent Of Man. What
were the circumstances for these adaptations and were they successful, either
scientifically or financially?
DM: The first film of The Naked Ape was arguably one of the worst movies ever made and fortunately it disappeared without trace. Its only claim to fame was that Victoria Principal appeared naked in it. I knew all was not well when I was sent the script and read the line: ‘Don’t put Neanderthal down- you should be rootin’ he was evolutin’, so don’t put Neanderthal down.’ The second film simply borrowed the title, but in reality was a teen road movie. However, I did make a documentary series on my ideas about the human species called The Human Animal, for the BBC and The Learning Channel.
It’s been some years since I last read the book, but as I recall you seem to
have been insistent that the connections to our simian past are manifest and
should be embraced, and that this was the source of controversy. Yet, in recent
years, those who favor ignorance seem to have gotten only stronger. Why do you
think there is such a visceral objection to evolution, when it is so manifest,
even a century and a half after Darwin?
DM: Some people are arrogant enough to think of themselves as a ‘special creation’ - fallen angels rather than risen apes. But personally I like animals and I am proud to be called one, not insulted.
I know that some of the critics of your ideas, re: human evolution, have deemed
them incomplete, sexist, or untestable. What was the criticism that stung the
most, and which was the most valid? In later editions of the book, have you
incorporated any of these criticisms, and responded?
Criticisms came from three directions. The first attack was on me as a
zoologist, for daring to tackle the subject of the human species. I was invading
the territory of psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists, and they
resented this, especially as the book was a bestseller. The second attack was
from the religious, for obvious reasons. And the third attack was from academics
who disliked the fact that I was writing for a general audience without the
usual references (Smith 1950- and that sort of thing) and without the endless
dependent clauses. But I wanted my message to get across to millions of readers
and I had no choice. Have I responded - no, I just get on with my next book.
My recent book, The Naked Woman- a celebration of the humane female - does, however make it impossible to call me a sexist.
DS: When I interviewed the philosopher Daniel Dennett I was taken aback by the amount of vitriol he still held for the late Stephen Jay Gould, as they were opponents in some evolutionary quarrels. Have you a scientific bête noir, and if so, who, why, and what is the substance of your disagreement?
DM: I can’t stand bitchy academic bickering. There is far too much of it. I focus on new projects and new ideas and I always expect to get criticisms, but I don’t waste my time answering them. A whole book was written attacking The Naked Ape and I have a copy in my library but I have never bothered to read it.
Another writer I hope to interview for DSI is evolutionary biologist Richard
Dawkins, who coined the term ‘meme.’ Yet, what I find ironic is that, if you
read his definition and usage of the word, it is clearly a metaphor. Yet, in
virtually every published non-Dawkins mention of the term that I’ve ever read,
its metaphoric sense is lost, and the meme is treated as a material thing. The
meme’s meme, in other words, has been dumbed down to a memetic dead end. This
is surely not a good augury. Any thoughts?
DM: Richard and I both suffer from people who take what we have written and then mangle it. Then the mangled versions are thrown back at us and we are attacked for them, rather than for what we actually said in the first place. In my case, because I wrote about a ‘killer ape’ when referring to early man’s food-hunting behaviour, some authors have misunderstood and have attacked me for saying that man is inherently aggressive and murderous. In reality, I have said that the most remarkable feature of our species is our inherent helpfulness - our powerful urge to cooperate with one another- an urge that modified our competitiveness and helped to make us successful as a species. A classic example of distortion was one I saw in a review of my latest book The Naked Man. The reviewer said that I had stated that the human male had external testicles because this kept their temperature lower and that this suited sperm production. He then went on to criticize the book by saying ‘but we knew that already.’ In reality, I had made the special point that the ‘well-known’ temperature explanation for external testicles was unacceptable and I then presented an alternative and much more convincing theory. So what we are dealing with here, I fear, is lazy critics who don't even bother to read what people like Richard Dawkins or myself are writing. But even when they irritate me, I never waste my time answering them.
I agree re: your point about lazy critics. In the arts this is most manifest
with the formulaic, almost paint-by-numbers sorts of reviews. But, on the
subject of human thoughts, let me turn to a related topic, human discourse. One
of the reasons I started this interview series is because of the utter dearth of
really in depth interviews, in print or online. With the exception of the Playboy
interview, such venues are nonexistent. Furthermore, many people actively
denigrate in depth and intelligent discourse, such as this, preferring to read
vapid interviews with 10 or 12 questions designed to be mere advertisements for
a work, sans only the page numbers the canned answers are taken from. Why do you
think this is? What has happened to real discussion, from old tv show hosts like
Phil Donahue, David Susskind, David Frost, Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, even Bill
DM: There used to be an in-depth interview on American television in which the interviewer (sadly I forget his name, but this was about 40 years ago) put two chairs in an otherwise empty TV studio, sat you down and proceeded to discuss your ideas without interruption for a full hour. He was ‘friendly assertive’ or ‘warmly argumentative’ and it was a joy to take part in such programmes. They are rare today because TV has dumbed down, but they do still exist. There is a BBC World series called Hard Talk. It only lasts half an hour but it has the same simple format- a tough but friendly debate, one on one.
I believe the interviewer you refer to was the aforementioned David Susskind,
and his program was originally called Open End. I grew up watching
the later incarnations of that show. As for The Naked Ape, your
book also helped popularize the idea that humans descended from the trees and
stood upright, becoming savannah bipeds, yet another well known book of that
era, Elaine Morgan’s The Descent Of Woman, espoused the Aquatic
Ape Hypothesis. Her claims have largely withered, while the Savannah Hypothesis
has remained. Is this a case of good science outlasting poor science, and have
any other theories to explain human hairlessness and bipedalism come along
I never saw the two theories as opposed to one another. If there was a
significant aquatic phase it will have preceded the savannah phase. I have
watched small boys in Africa’s Rift Valley, plunging into a river and coming
up with live fish wriggling and flapping in their jaws. They had no fishing
equipment of any kind and I have no idea how they caught the fish so easily
beneath the water, but they did show me how our earliest ancestors could have
become riverine fish-hunters before they strode out in search of bigger game in
the savannahs. The problem with the aquatic theory is that we still have no
direct fossil evidence to support it. But it does explain some of our special
Interesting that you say that, since quite often I have read of scientists who
speak of the two theories as virtually mutually opposing. Part of your overall
idea of human evolution is that our eons old hard wiring has been a thing
we’ve been attempting to overcome for the whole of our civilized history.
Thus, let me posit this: philosophy is ideas, but art is ideas in motion- and
writing is wholly abstract art, unlike visual or aural arts, so it’s the
greater pursuit, yet art has no correlation with truth- another recent noxious
nostrum. Science and journalism are the provinces of truth, not art. Do you
agree with these ideas?
DM: I think our hard-wiring has led to our great civilizations. We have evolved as a neotenous species- prolonging childhood play into adulthood. This adult play is what gives us all our greatest achievements - art, literature, poetry, theatre, music and scientific research. All these are based on neophilia - on endless curiosity, the pursuit of novelty, innovation and invention. One of the hemispheres of our brain has become specialized in analytical play- that gives us science, and the other hemisphere has become specialized in imaginative play - that has given us the arts. Our problem is that, with the ever more complex technology that stems from this inborn urge to perform adult play, has come a staggering success that has seen our populations grow from small tribes to huge urban super-tribes. We are not really suited to living in these huge conglomerates, and this is the cause of a lot of our modern problems. But our inborn behavioural flexibility has helped us to survive even these abnormally swollen groupings.
I’ve never heard of the claim of childhood play giving rise to adult
creativity, and that stemming from the neoteny that also led to our hairlessness
and larger brain cavities, etc. But it seems to make sense once you think it
over. These are the sorts of insights I think interviews like this can help
bring to the larger public. Let me ask, is this an insight that is yours, and
part of your theoretical framework, and when did you come upon it? Or does the
credit lie elsewhere?
DM: Originally, neoteny was described (as long ago as 1901) as the retention in adults of juvenile physical characteristics. I am not sure who first suggested the idea that this process might influence behaviour as well as anatomy, but back in the late 1940s I gave a lecture on 'The Biology of Art' in which I described human artistic activities as the result of neoteny. I returned to this theme again in The Naked Ape and other books.
To follow up on creativity, I maintain that the creative arts are higher than
the performing or interpretive arts, because you are basically starting with
less to work with. In short, an actor interpreting William Shakespeare or Eugene
O’Neill has it much easier than the two playwrights did in conjuring the
drama. Similarly, I posit that writing and poetry are the two highest general
and specific art forms, for writing is wholly abstract- black squiggles on white
that merely represent and must be decoded, whereas the visual arts are inbred,
and one can instantly be moved by a great photo or painting, while even the
greatest haiku will take five or ten seconds to read and digest. Poetry is the
highest form of writing because, unlike fiction, it needs no narrative spine to
drape its art over- it can be a moment captured, and wholly abstractly, unlike a
photo. I would bet that since language (at least written) is only a six or so
thousand year old phenomenon, while sight has been around for 600 million years
or more, that’s a hell of a head start the visual arts have over writing. Do
you agree with these views? If so, why do you think this is so?
DM: The artist who sits in front of a blank canvas can paint anything on it that he fancies. He is on his own and that is a huge challenge. He is limited only by his imagination. The scientist who sits down to write a book is far less alone. He is limited by the facts that he must respect and adhere to. The artist can distort as much as he likes, while the scientist cannot distort at all. During my life I have painted over 2000 pictures and written over 50 books- occupying both hemispheres of my brain- and although they are very different, I enjoy both procedures.
In the last decade or so there has also come about the idea that, despite the
nostrum of beauty being ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ it is really not. It
is a measurable quantity dependent upon symmetry. Attraction may be
individuated, but beauty seems to be based upon symmetry, regardless of culture,
and sexual desirability of men and women seems to match out to set proportions
of shoulder to hip ratios in men, and bust to waist to hip ratios in women. Any
ideas on these things, and do they bolster your ideas?
DM: If you are talking about sexual beauty, then, yes, these new findings are exactly what I would expect. Every species has special features that are attractive to the opposite sex. Without such features, a species could easily become extinct. But beauty in general in another matter and with paintings, for example, we find that a well-balanced asymmetry is especially appealing, particularly if its composition includes proportions based on the ‘golden mean.’
Where do you stand in the nature vs. nurture debate? To me, it seems that
there are clearly genetic immutables, but also much gray area where nurture
DM: Where human behaviour is concerned, I believe that we are born with a set of genetic suggestions and a few firm genetic instructions (such as ‘keep breathing’ for example). Unlike the genetic instructions, the genetic suggestions can be modified or even disobeyed. For example, we are genetically programmed to reproduce, but monks and nuns can live out long lives while completely ignoring this imperative. One of the genetic suggestions is that we should be playful and inventive, and this results in endless modifications in our other types of behaviour. So, in a sense, even our urge to nurture new trends is genetically driven.
With that in mind. let me turn to your ideas on the provenance of homosexuality.
One of the interesting things about research into it is that many of the top
researchers are gay, even though many of the top critics of such research are
straight, and feel that finding a ‘key’ to homosexuality will somehow lead
to genetic efforts to eradicate it. Yet, it seems that a ‘single point of
origin’ for the behavior- or, a smoking gun, seems increasingly unlikely. Both
the gay gene and the gay brain proved to be rather
silly ideas, and no more likely to cause homosexuality than a weak father
figure. Human beings are far more complex a thing than any other living
creature on this planet- even the dolts, therefore if one could actually
pinpoint a cause or causes of any behavior- especially complex things like
sexuality (be it preferences, fetishes, frequency), it’s likely to be
multivalent. That is, one would find dozens of ‘causes’ for any group of a
thousand homosexuals, with many things overlapping, but each person’s ‘real
reason’ being a secret formula. In short, I think people
always want easy solutions, and the dog is chasing its tail, and origins are not
as important, in such cases, as implications. Finally, in regards to
homosexuality, could it be a) more closely related to fetishism because b) same
sex sexual play and dominance play are rampant among higher animals, especially
always want easy solutions, and the dog is chasing its tail, and origins are not
as important, in such cases, as implications. Finally, in regards to
homosexuality, could it be a) more closely related to fetishism because b) same
sex sexual play and dominance play are rampant among higher animals, especially
DM: I agree that this is not a simple matter. First, it is important make it clear what one is talking about. In the 1990s somebody wrote a book that collected together examples of homosexual acts performed by many species across the animal kingdom. It was meant to show that the homosexual behaviour of human beings was not ‘unnatural’ as it has sometimes been called, but a common biological occurrence. I think he was rather surprised that zoologists were not particularly excited by his study. The reason was that we all knew about the existence of homosexual acts in other species and I myself had even written a whole paper on homosexuality in a species of fish. The truth was that the author had missed the point. The strange feature about human homosexuality is not that homosexual acts are performed, but that some individuals also find it impossible to be aroused by heterosexual partners and must therefore be classified as ‘reproductively challenged.’ If they cannot reproduce, they cannot pass on their genes and their special characteristics are lost. It is this extreme form of homosexuality that requires some sort of special explanation. A great gay icon like Oscar Wilde also had a wife and children, so even he does not fall into this extreme category. A recent book by Clive Bromhall, called The Eternal Child, offers an interesting new idea that might explain this extreme form. He points out that the major trend in human evolution is neoteny - the prolongation of juvenile characteristics into adult life. It is this trend that has given us ‘adult play’ and all our important creative activities. Fostering this trend, there has been an extension of human childhood, giving a much longer period of learning. During this extension, from roughly five to thirteen years of age, males and females tend to split apart. Up to the age of five, boys and girls play happily together, but then they suddenly start to form all-male and all-female groups. They stay apart socially during the long learning phase of childhood and then come together again at puberty, when sex hormones begin to flood their systems and gender signals start to appear on their young bodies. At this point, most teenage boys seek out girls and vice versa. But a few seem to get stuck at the same-sex phase. Some of these, like Oscar Wilde, do manage also to marry and have children as well as enjoying homosexual relationships, but some never do. Clive Bromhall makes the point that, in a sense, these are the most extreme examples of the neotenous human trend, making these individuals the most advanced forms of human being - the most playful, intelligent and creatively inventive. But reproductively they have become a little too advanced, because they are no longer capable of breeding. So, extreme forms of homosexuality are seen by Bromhall as byproducts of human neoteny. There remains the question of why this affects a small percentage, and what is special about that minority. This may vary from individual to individual and may depend on specific incidents in their childhood.
DS: That’s certainly one of the most intriguing explanations for both homosexuality and why homosexuals tend to have a higher rate of participation in creative endeavors than heterosexuals. Also the point on the lack of arousal by the opposite sex is interesting. But to return to an earlier point, what exactly is it about neoteny that is so powerful to have commandeered human evolution, if you are correct?
DM: The genetic changes that took place during
our evolution, that converted our ancient ancestors into ‘neotenous apes,’
were probably driven by several environmental pressures and we can only guess at
these today. By making our adults more ‘infantile’ these changes will have
kept the level of playful curiosity high throughout adult life and this alone
will have had the effect of making us more and more intelligent. Intelligence is
defined as ‘solving new problems on the basis of past experiences.’ It
follows that, the more curiosity there is, the more experiences can accumulate -
giving a better chance of
finding an intelligent solution to a new problem. And there is no question that the success of our species on this planet has been due to the fact that we are far more intelligent than any other living species.
Another point, re: homosexuality: why is it the term ‘homophobia’ is used to
describe people who are not keen on gays. Literally, it means to be fearful of
homosexuals, yet I’ve never met an anti-gay bigot who was afraid of
homosexuals (although I know gays are trying to back-smear those bigots with
being closet cases, and ‘fearing’ their own sexuality). Rather, almost all
people with an anti-gay view have a disgust, queasiness, or ‘yuck’ factor
when thinking of homosexual acts. I think a term like ‘homotaedium’ or
‘homotaediot’ would therefore be more accurate. So why has such an inapt
term as homophobia taken off?
DM: The suffix ‘-phobia’ has long ago lost is single meaning of ‘fear’ and is defined now simply as ‘aversion.’ So the term means no more that ‘dislike.’ In a similar way, someone who fears snakes and has a snake phobia, is also said to dislike snakes, or hate snakes. So I don’t think one should read too much into this term.
On a related score, re: neoteny and play, most mammals seem to have a need to
play- i.e.- do activities that seemingly serve no benefit in terms of seeking
food, sex, etc. What is the cause of play? Could it be that more complex brains
simply need to unwind, and ‘cool down’?
DM: Play serves to explore the physical and mental possibilities of the individual. With most animals this exploration dies down as they reach adulthood, but with human beings- given a sufficiently stimulating environment - it remains active.
DS: Let’s move on from one hot topic, homosexuality, to another, race. Late last year, the Nobel Laureate James Watson stuck his foot in his mouth with comments on black folk that many felt racist and paternalistic. But, bad science has always been used to support racial theories- from craniometry through the infamous 1994 book (and some would call racial screed), by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve. Even folk like a Steven Pinker seem sympathetic to it, on a statistical level, but averse to many of its conclusions. What are your ideas on that book and racial theorizing, in general? Also, are you an Out Of Africa adherent, or believe in different ideas of human development?
Racial differences reflect ancient adaptations
to climate, from eye-folds that protect against the cold, to dark skin that
protects against the sun, as our species spread out across the globe. That is
all. Today, with clothing, central heating, air conditioning and greatly
increased mobility, such differences have little meaning. Sadly, they have been
misused as labels when one group has clashed with another. It seems likely that
the most ancient type of human being- the one that arose in Africa and spread
out from there, was neither ‘white’ nor ‘black’ (in the modern
vernacular) but the coffee-coloured people we usually call ‘The Bushmen’ who
are now nearly extinct and are clinging on in only the most remote desert
regions of parts of Southern Africa. It appears that they once occupied the
whole of the continent, but were later overwhelmed first by ‘black’ and then
by ‘white’ populations moving in from elsewhere.
DS: I’d never heard that the epicanthic folds in Oriental, or Mongoloid, peoples were cold protection. I’d always heard the theory that they acted as sort of built-in visors to shield the eyes from the glare of the Gobi Desert, or snow. Or that they were simply a result of sexual preference being selected in to the population. Let me preface my next query with an anecdote: about 15 years ago a cousin of mine urged me to join Minnesota’s Mensa Society, to which she belonged. The experience was disturbing, for the Mensans were a collection of all the worst stereotypes of nerds, geeks, and weirdos one could imagine. Furthermore, I had to take one of their IQ tests, which was dated 1969. The questions were atrociously constructed, and were manifestly not objective, nor did they measure anything which could be called creative. To join, one had to achieve the 98th percentile. I got to the 92nd percentile, but there were a dozen or so questions that I knowingly gave the ‘wrong’ answer to simply because the premises were false and/or I disagreed with the ‘correct’ answer I knew they wanted.
Two examples: one question asked to choose the object that went with a
cup. The choices were a spoon, fork, saucer, or table. To me, the natural
answer, from my less than middle class childhood, was a table. Cups go on
tables. Of course, I knew they wanted the answer to be saucer; but that’s
simply a cultural bias, and says nothing of a real intellectual nature. The
second example was to link geometric shapes. They gave a square and asked to
link it to other geometric forms: a circle, a hexagon, an octagon, and a square.
Now, I knew they wanted it linked to the latter three shapes, because all of
those shapes were polygons. Yet, to me, since the latter three had an even
number of angles, and the triangle an odd number, it could be linked to the
circle, since a circle has an infinite number of angles, and infinity can be
either an odd or even number, they can be linked most closely.
Thus, I think IQ tests merely measure a pedestrian or
functionary level of intellect. What are your thoughts on its efficacy in
measuring real human intelligence? What do you think of other current methods of
DM: Like you, I once clashed with IQ testers. When I was conscripted into the Army I was given an IQ test and one question showed an estuary with two small boats, one in the river and one in the sea. I was asked which boat floated higher. I wrote ‘PTO’ and on the other side of the paper I gave a discourse on the ambiguity of the question, because the boat on the river was floating higher in the air, but the boat in the sea was floating higher in the water, sea water being more buoyant that fresh water. I was promptly labelled a troublemaker. You can, of course, be trained to do well at IQ tests because they have their own special ‘language.’ It is rather like being good at crossword puzzles or chess. You have to become a specialist at the type of tests set. Back in the 1960s, one American research worker rebelled against the IQ and invented the CQ, or Creativity Quotient test. I was one of the people selected to be tested and was sent a set of questions. One of the questions was: You are President of the United States for a day. What would you do? Not wishing to disrupt the economy I replied that I would spend the day in bed with the President’s wife, who at that time happened to be the very attractive Jackie Kennedy. No sooner had I posted my letter back to New York than President Kennedy was shot and the CQ researcher was left with the puzzling question as to why I would want to spent the day in bed with Ladybird Johnson.
That’s a funny anecdote. To get back to The Bell Curve, a main
criticism was that it was not multivalent, and did not include different sorts
of intelligence, such as Howard Gardner’s
Seven Intelligences: language, math and logic, musical, spatial, bodily and
kinaesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Comments?
DM: I have not read that book.
On a tangent, as an artist, I have noticed that ‘greatness’ is something
that seems to be a random thing. When people have tried to make available the
sperm or eggs of Nobel winners or Mensans, the kids turn out to be rather
average. This gibes with the fact that almost all great people, such as Picasso,
Newton, Einstein, and most famously- Thomas Jefferson, have never had any
forebears nor descendents come close to their achievements. And the few famed
people who’ve had success run in their families- the Adamses, the Darwins, the
Barrymores, have never really had greats in their clans, or- as in the Darwin
case, Erasmus was not in a league with his grandson Charles. I call this fact the
Infinity Spike, meaning that the idea that a Master Race could be
engineered- at least intellectually, is folly. Perhaps physical characteristics,
but the chances of two Mensans or Nobel Laureates producing another Michelangelo
or Kurosawa are only negligibly greater than such a person coming from a plumber
and a teacher. Perhaps a three or four out of fifty million chance versus a one
and a half to two chance. In short, greatness spikes toward infinity out of
nowhere- there is no predictable bell curve nor progression toward excellence.
What are your thoughts on this posit?
DM: The random tumbling of the genes combined with unpredictable, acute moments in childhood make it impossible to predict where the next genius with spring from.
DS: Let me now
quote from an essay I did on literary critic Harold
Bloom: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the
Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests
purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract
basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any
measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this.
It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply-
especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead
observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the
Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts-
or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to
see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good
predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic
(Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose
will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or
Functionary3 .’ What are your thoughts on this?
DM: I think we all have the potential to be creative. That quality is one of the genetic suggestions I mentioned above. Almost every five-year-old child, given painting equipment, will produce lively, imaginative pictures. With most of them this fades as they grow older, but a few of them go on to become good artists and a very few of those become great artists. What interests me is what makes so many of them fade away.
When I interviewed Steven Pinker,
he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially,
academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t
think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’
the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a
Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better
suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will
be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem
solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy:
think of vision tests. The person with 20/20 person may see better and more
clearly than the 20/50 person, in normal light. But the 20/50 person can turn on
X-ray vision. While the vision is not clearer than 20/20 it does see something
the 20/20 will never see. Any thoughts?
DM: I agree.
DS: I bring this
up because of its connection to art and science as connected entities. However,
I disagree with Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that science and religion are Non-Overlapping
Magisteria. While the two have different aims, and sometimes different
fields of concern, there is often a grand overlap of concern, and the two
methods are fundamentally incompatible. However, I see a connection between art
and science, as different approaches that use different ends of the same method-
i.e.- science uses creativity in service to discovery, while art uses discovery
in service to creation. I’ve always found it odd that art and science have
been seen as antithetical rather than complementary. Do you see any connections
between science and religion, science and art, as those that I mention? And, to
touch back on religion, is Gould’s NOMA simply a copout?
DM: Religion is institutionalised superstition and belongs to the Dark Ages. It has no place in a modern, scientific age. Science is a slave to testable and disprovable facts. Art - true art - is a joyful expansion of the human imagination, beyond analysis and beyond reason.
Being ‘beyond reason’ makes me think of John Keats’ Negative
Capability. Let me segue a bit into philosophy. I’m sure you know of
the Butterfly Effect, and know of Stephen Jay Gould’s ideas on
evolutionary contingency in his 1989 book Wonderful Life. Gould
claimed that humans would never have arisen had things in the Burgess Shale
played out a bit differently. However, Gould’s very interpretation of the
Burgess Shale fossils was comically wrong, and roundly debunked in Simon Conway
Morris’s 1998 book The Crucible Of Creation, among others. Even
Gould admitted he screwed up in wrongly attributing body parts as whole
specimens, etc. Any ideas on the Butterfly Effect and contingency,
especially and specifically as it relates to human evolution?
DM: I am sure the Butterfly Effect has operated on a number of occasions during the course of human evolution. One can see the way that it happens in one’s own lifetime. A sudden, snap decision and the whole direction of your life can be changed. The next hundred thousand decisions may only make small, insignificant changes, but the one special one, that crops up from time to time, can have a huge impact. To give a personal example - one of Napoleon’s cannonballs shot off the arm of my Great-Great-Grandfather in a battle during the Peninsular War. As a result he could not return to farming on his family’s land after the war, and instead became a bookseller and books entered my family history. To cut a long story short, that is why today I am a writer of books, all because of the trajectory of a cannonball.
Other than The Naked Ape, most people would likely know you for
many of your –Watching book titles, in which you choose
an animal and detail its behaviors, etc. You’ve written of humans, cats, dogs,
horses, and even human babies, among others. Let me ask this; my wife and I are
cat people. We like dogs, but love cats. Other folk are the opposite. What
traits in a person draws one to feline rather than canine behaviors, or vice
versa? Or, has such a thing even been studied? Or, is such a preference little
more than the animal equivalent of astrology?
DM: I once wrote that soldiers love dogs and poets love cats. I think I will leave it at that.
Sticking with animals, and in a similar vein, two other arguments on ethics come
to mind. One is that I do not necessarily value human life over other forms of
life, or even non-life. As example, a few years ago, a
cat I adored ran away. Last year, another
cat I loved died. I still recall when the first cat was lost, how my best
friend could not comprehend my devastation. ‘It’s just a cat,’ he said.
From his perspective, he likely dismissed my grief as anthropomorphizing. Yet,
it was not. I simply valued a being that gave me nothing but joy and love.
Unlike mankind, cats do not steal, lie, cheat, and wantonly murder. Yet, there
are some people- and not just wacky anti-abortionists, who value the slightest
thing human over all else. What are your views on such?
DM: Because the thinking processes of human beings are so dominated by symbolic equations, we are capable of endowing animal companions with powerful human values in our emotional lives. We make them ‘honorary humans’ and then take delight in the fact that they lack many of the worst qualities of our own species.
Let me ask this, re: dogs. In the last century or so, dog breeding has resulted
in about a thousand known breeds, far more than any other species. Dogs can
range from two pound Chihuahuas to gargantuan Great Danes that are as large as
ponies. Yet, they can still interbreed. Are we humans on the precipice of making
several new species? And many exotic dog breeds suffer from congenital defects
due to inbreeding and a warped distension of their features. One hears all the
time about bioethical concerns of stem cell research and human cloning, but is
not what breeders are doing to dogs as bad as any of the fantasies we conjure up
about the other things?
DM: A few dog breeds have been exaggerated to a point where they are definitely suffering and canine authorities are doing their best to reverse these trends. But most breeds are still OK until they become very rare and their populations fall so low that inbreeding becomes a problem.
Of all the books and essays you have written, which have had the most impact- in
terms of public reaction, and which have had the most resonance to other
rationalists and scientists? Have their been any essays in which you have
posited things that you’ve later had to say, ‘Whoops!’? What were they,
and how big were the gaffes?
DM: I stand by all the major points I have made in everything I have written. I have, of course, made some errors, but arrogantly I like to think that these have only been minor ones. For example, I wrote that all Popes have been clean-shaven, in contrast with the Eastern Church where all religious leaders have been bearded. A critic pointed out that there were a few bearded Popes who rebelled against the clean-shaven ruling and he was right. I should have said ‘almost all Popes.’ I had broken my own rule here, namely that in popular scientific writing there should be ‘simplification without distortion.’ I had made a valid point, but I had oversimplified it.
Finally, re: your books: do you have any plans to some day move on and perhaps
issue some grand life’s work in one volume; a magnum opus the equivalent of
Gould’s The Structure Of Evolutionary Theory?
DM: Recently I enlarged and updated my Manwatching book (now renamed People Watching because some people think that ‘man’ = ‘male’) and this book is the one that fully sets out my way of studying the human animal. I am satisfied with that and have no wish to add to it again, but I am still grappling with one last major book on the most difficult subject of all- the origins of art. Now in my 80s, I hope that I will last long enough to complete that work before I die.
I’d certainly want to see you complete that, as well as read it. Let me now
turn to your career in television. You’ve worked for a number of companies-
Granada TV, ITV, the BBC, Thames television, American regular and cable
networks. Have you ever had to compromise and submit to censorship on any of the
shows? If so, elucidate the issue and how it played out.
DM: As I mentioned earlier, I made a total of about 700 TV programmes over a period of half a century, but I have now stopped, in order to devote all my time to painting, writing books and travelling. About 600 of these were animal programmes and there was no problem with compromise or censorship. With the TV series in which I looked at human behaviour there were occasional disagreements but in the end I was allowed to say what I wanted to say and show what I wanted to show. There was, however, one difficult case of self-censorship. I wanted to launch an attack on the hideous practice of female circumcision in which tiny girls have their external genitals cut off, supposedly to make them ‘less animalistic’ but in reality to rob them of any sexual pleasure- so that they will not stray from the marital bed. There are literally millions of women alive today who have been mutilated in this way and I was determined to make an issue of this. But when I saw film of the operation being carried out, it was so horrific that I knew it would simply mean that everyone would instantly switch channels to avoid it. So I myself censored that clip of film and instead described verbally what is done, just so that people would listen to me and not switch off. It was a hard decision to take, but the only sensible one.
your most well known program, and ran for eleven years in Britain, and I recall
seeing episodes of it as a child, growing up in the 1970s, here on American
public television. How did you get that assignment, and have you ever thought of
doing an updated version of it, even if not hosting it, merely producing?
DM: I went to the London Zoo to make serious films of animal behaviour, but was sidetracking into presenting live TV shows instead. After anchoring a TV show almost every week for eleven years I had had enough. I said ‘never again’ but I was eventually persuaded to return to animal television in the 1980s and made another hundred programmes called The Animal Roadshow and Animal Country.
Zootime was done live, and in researching it I came across an
anecdote about one of the show’s crew members chasing after a vampire bat that
got loose and his getting tangled in the microphone wire he was wearing. The
audience heard his struggle and a fall to the floor and the press reported that
he had been attacked and killed by the bat. Is this apocryphal, or did this
really happen? Any other anecdotes from your television career, such as this,
that stick the most in your mind?
DM: Yes, it happened, and viewers assumed that I had unleashed a
vampire on London. There was some panic, but the bat was, in reality, safely
caught unharmed. On another occasion a deadly cobra escaped during a live
show and the cameramen had to climb on top of their cameras. Luckily the cameras
were big enough in those days to support their weight. Again, the escapee was
caught unharmed. There were many such incidents and I have described them
at length in my autobiography called Watching.
DS: Speaking of Granada Television, have you ever watched Michael
Apted’s The Up
Series documentaries? I think it’s a great example of film at its
finest- compelling narrative and real science, served to the public in a
palatable and non-didactic way. What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal
study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its
epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I
will give you the man.’?
DM: Sorry, I haven't seen his programmes.
DS: A few years
ago, I wrote an essay called The
Day, about the future discovery of an earth-like planet by one of the
newer generation of planet-finder telescopes, and worried over the current state
of human ethics- when we still destroy our own planet and exploit others. Do you
think the human race is a mature enough species to explore the cosmos yet,
especially considering our dubious ecological record, as well as our penchant to
solve disputes with violence first?
DM: As long as we entertain superstitious thinking we are at risk. So I think we have a long way to go. But I am an optimist about the future because we are such a playful, inventive species.
DS: And do you
view religious morality (that imposed from without) as different from secular
ethics (that immanent), which is based on deeper, common human values? After
all, some moralities justify the killing of infidels, but no ethics do.
DM: I have serious reservations about all types of formal morality and ‘professional’ ethics. I see them as little more than academic semantic game-playing and I believe that human beings are perfectly capable of getting along without them. We are, as a species, inherently kind, helpful and cooperative - until we are under serious threat. Then we react like any other animal and defend ourselves. Of course, there are some exceptions to this general rule and it is these exceptions that make the headlines. Being fed a constant diet of shocking newspaper stories and TV news items we get the false impression that we belong to a violent, brutal species, but the reality is very different. Of the 6000 million human beings alive today, the vast majority wake up in the morning and go about their daily activities in a remarkably amicable way. It is only the very rare exceptions to this that make the headlines - and give us a very distorted and debased view of an amazingly peaceful, sociable species.
Dr. Jonas Salk once said something to the effect that our greatest duty is to be
good ancestors for future generations, and this is especially true in the arts,
because art is communication, and if we want future people to understand their
human past, we need to produce as good and great art as we can. I believe
artists should always create looking upwards, towards that future, and smarter
generations, rather than looking downwards at the current morass, for those
artists that have done so in the past are no longer recalled. Do you agree with
DM: Personally I believe that the only duty we have is to relish to the full the short span of life we are allowed between the light of birth and the dark of dying. If we live in the past we will probably find ourselves wallowing in nostalgia, and if we live in the future we will most likely do no more than dream impossible dreams. If, however, we live in the present, we are most likely to create exciting art and make interesting scientific discoveries that may - just possibly - make a huge impact on the future.
DS: Let me end this interview by asking what big things that are still unknown to current science do you want answered before your life ends? Do you think that these unanswered questions can be answered in your lifetime? If not, why not? And, are you doing anything to elicit these answers?
DM: I think the biggest challenge now is the invention and perfection of anti-gravity machines that will allow us to see wheeled motor vehicles go the way of the horse and cart. Our species, by its own success, is becoming increasingly gridlocked, and an entirely new transportation system is urgently required. But sadly I doubt if I will see it in my own lifetime.
what is in store, in the next year or two, for you?
DM: More painting, more writing and more travel.
DS: Thanks very
much for this discourse, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever
DM: A final thought: each year is more important than the next.
*The text of this interview is copyrighted. Questions
are © Dan Schneider; answers are © Desmond Morris.
Return to Cosmoetica