Desmond Morris

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Desmond Morris (1969)

Desmond John Morris, FZS (born 24 January 1928) is an English zoologist, ethologist and surrealist painter, as well as a popular author in human sociobiology.


  • No matter how old we become, we can still call them 'Holy Mother' or 'Father' and put a child-like trust in them (or their agents, who often adopt similar titles for themselves).
    • Cited in: Daniel Rancour-Laferriere (1985), Signs of the flesh: an essay on the evolution of hominid sexuality, p. 112
  • The idea that it is funny to see wild animals coerced into acting like clumsy humans, or thrilling to see powerful beasts reduced to cringing cowards by a whip-cracking trainer, is primitive and medieval. It stems from the old idea that we are superior to other species and have the right to hold dominion over them.
    • In: William Johnson (1990), Rose-Tinted Menagerie, p. 10
  • 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.
    • Desmond Morris in: "The Dan Schneider Interview 8: Desmond Morris" at, first posted 2/16/08.
  • Artists like cats; soldiers like dogs.
    • Desmond Morris (2009), Catwatching. p. 2
  • The zoo animal in a cage exhibits all these abnormalities that we know so well from our human companions. Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.
    • Desmond Morris (2009), The Human Zoo, p. vii
All page numbers are from the mass market edition published by Dell, 9th printing (November 1969)
All spelling, italics, and hyphenation as in the book
  • There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones.
    • Introduction (p. 9)
  • I am a zoologist and the naked ape is an animal. He is therefore fair game for my pen and I refuse to avoid him any longer simply because some of his behaviour patterns are rather complex and impressive. My excuse is that, in becoming so erudite, Homo sapiens has remained a naked ape nevertheless; in acquiring lofty new motives, he has lost none of the early old ones. This is frequently a cause of some embarrassment to him, but his old impulses have been with him for millions of years, his new ones only a few thousand at the most—and there is no hope of quickly shrugging off the accumulated genetic legacy of his whole evolutionary past. He would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if only he would face up to this fact. Perhaps this is where the zoologist can help.
    • Introduction (p. 9)
  • So there he stands, our vertical, hunting, weapon-toting, territorial, neotenous, brainy, Naked Ape, a primate by ancestry and a carnivore by adoption, ready to conquer the world. But he is a very new and experimental departure, and new models frequently have imperfections. For him the main troubles will stem from the fact that his culturally operated advances will race ahead of any further genetic ones. His genes will lag behind, and he will be constantly reminded that, for all his environment-moulding achievements, he is still at heart a very naked ape.
    • Chapter 1, “Origins” (p. 41)
  • It could be said that the advance of civilization has not so much moulded modern sexual behaviour, as that sexual behaviour has moulded the shape of civilization.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (p. 43)
  • Sexual behaviour in our species goes through three characteristic phases: pair-formation, pre-copulatory activity, and copulation, usually but not always in that order. The pair-formation stage, usually referred to as courtship, is remarkably prolonged by animal standards, frequently lasting for weeks or even months. As with many other species it is characterized by tentative, ambivalent behaviour involving conflicts between fear, aggression and sexual attraction. The nervousness and hesitancy is slowly reduced if the mutual sexual signals are strong enough.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (p. 44)
  • Clearly, the naked ape is the sexiest primate alive. To find the reason for this we have to look back again at his origins. What happened? First, he had to hunt if he was to survive. Second, he had to have a better brain to make up for his poor hunting body. Third, he had to have a longer childhood to grow the bigger brain and to educate it. Fourth, the females had to stay put and mind the babies while the males went hunting. Fifth, the males had to cooperate with one another on the hunt. Sixth, they had to stand up straight and use weapons for the hunt to succeed. I am not implying that these changes happened in that order; on the contrary they undoubtedly all developed gradually at the same time, each modification helping the others along. I am simply enumerating the six basic, major changes that took place as the hunting ape evolved. Inherent in these changes there are, I believe, all the ingredients necessary to make up our present sexual complexity.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (pp. 53-54)
  • She only ovulates at one point during the cycle, so that mating at all other times can have no procreative function. The vast bulk of copulation in our species is obviously concerned, not with producing offspring, but with cementing the pair-bond by providing mutual rewards for the sexual partners. The repeated attainment of sexual consummation for a mated pair is clearly, then, not some kind of sophisticated, decadent outgrowth of modern civilization, but a deep-rooted, biologically based, and evolutionarily sound tendency of our species.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (p. 55)
  • It is interesting that although it still occurs in a number of minor cultures today, all the major societies (which account for the vast majority of the world population of the species) are monogamous. Even in those that permit polygamy, it is not usually practiced by more than a small minority of the males concerned. It is intriguing to speculate as to whether its omission from almost all the larger cultures has, in fact, been a major factor in the attainment of their present successful status.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (p. 69)
  • The evidence of prehistoric remnants combined with comparative data from living carnivores and other living primates has given us a picture of how the naked ape must have used this sexual equipment in the distant past and how he must have organized his sex life. The contemporary evidence appears to give much the same basic picture, once one has cleaned away the dark varnish of public moralizing.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (p. 70)
  • As a zoologist I cannot discuss sexual ‘peculiarities’ in the usual moralistic way. I can only apply anything like a biological morality in terms of population success and failure. If certain sexual patterns interfere with reproductive success, then they can genuinely be referred to as biologically unsound. Such groups as monks, nuns, long-term spinsters and bachelors and permanent homosexuals are all, in a reproductive sense, aberrant. Society has bred them, but they have failed to return the compliment. Equally, however, it should be realized that an active homosexual is no more reproductively aberrant than a monk. It must also be said that no sexual practice, no matter how disgusting and obscene it may appear to the members of a particular culture, can be criticized biologically providing it does not hinder general reproductive success.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (pp. 81-82)
  • Having said all this, I must now point out that there is an important exception to the rule. The biological morality that I have outlined above ceases to apply under conditions of population over-crowding. When this occurs the rules become reversed. We know from studies of other species in experimentally over-crowded conditions that there comes a moment when the increasing population density reaches such such a pitch that it destroys the whole social structure. The animals developed diseases, they kill their young, they fight viciously and they mutilate themselves. No behaviour sequence can run through properly. Everything is fragmented. Eventually there are so many deaths that the population is cut back to a lower density and can start to breed again, but not before there has been a catastrophic upheaval. If, in such a situation, some controlled anti-reproductive device could have been introduced into the population when the first signs of over-crowding were apparent then the chaos could have been averted. Under such conditions (serious over-crowding with no signs of any easing up in the immediate future), anti-reproductive sexual patterns must obviously be considered in a new light.
    Our own species is rapidly heading towards just such a situation.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (p. 82)
  • The trouble is that, as a sexual phenomenon, mechanical and chemical contraception is something basically new and it will take some time before we know exactly what sort of repercussions it will have on the fundamental sexual structure of society after a large number of generations have experienced it and new traditions have gradually developed out of old ones. It may cause indirect, unforeseen distortions or disruptions of the socio-sexual system. Only time will tell. But whatever happens the alternative, if breeding limitation is not applied, is far worse.
    • Chapter 2, “Sex” (p. 83)
  • It has been found that this aggressiveness can be increased by raising the density of a group of children. Under crowded conditions the friendly social interactions between members of a group become reduced, and the destructive and aggressive patterns show a marked rise in frequency and intensity. This is significant when one remembers that in other animals fighting is used not only to sort out dominance disputes, but also to increase the spacing-out of the members of a species.
    • Chapter 3, “Rearing” (p. 103)
  • Much of what we do as adults is based on this imitative absorption during our childhood years. Frequently we imagine that we are behaving in a particular way because such behaviour accords with some abstract, lofty code of moral principles, when in reality all we are doing is obeying a deeply ingrained and long ‘forgotten’ set of purely imitative impressions (along with our carefully concealed instinctive urges) that makes it so hard for societies to change their customs and their ‘beliefs’. Even when faced with exciting, brilliantly rational new ideas, based on the application of pure, objective intelligence, the community will still cling to its old home-based habits and prejudices. This is the cross we have to bear if we are going to sail through our vital juvenile ‘blotting-paper’ phase of rapidly mopping up the accumulated experiences of previous generations. We are forced to take the biased opinions along with the valuable facts.
    • Chapter 3, “Rearing” (p. 104)
  • Of all the non-specialists, the monkeys and apes are perhaps the most opportunist. As a group, they have specialized in non-specialization. And among the monkeys and apes, the naked ape is the most supreme opportunist of them all. This is just another facet of his neotenous evolution. All young monkeys are inquisitive, but the intensity of their curiosity tends to fade as they become adult. With us, the infantile inquisitiveness is strengthened and stretched out into our mature years. We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species.
    • Chapter 4, “Exploration” (p. 107)
  • In our own species, over-protected children will always suffer in adult social contacts. This is especially important in the case of only children, where the absence of siblings sets them at a serious initial disadvantage. If they do not experience the socializing effects of the rough-and-tumble of the juvenile play groups, they are liable to remain shy and withdrawn for the rest of their lives, find sexual pair-bonding difficult or impossible and, if they do manage to become parents, will make bad ones.
    • Chapter 4, “Exploration” (p. 116)
  • The truly dominant individual can be recognized by the almost complete absence of such actions. If the ostensibly dominant member of the group does, in fact, perform a large number of small displacement activities, then this means that his official dominance is being threatened in someway by the other individuals present.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 140)
  • In discussing all these aggressive and submissive behaviour patterns, it has been assumed that the individuals concerned have been ‘telling the truth’ and have not been consciously and deliberately modifying their actions to achieve special ends. We ‘lie’ more with our words than our other communication signals, but even so the phenomenon cannot be overlooked entirely. It is extremely difficult to ‘utter’ untruths with the kind of behaviour patterns we have been discussing, but not impossible. As I have already mentioned, when parents adopt this procedure towards their young children, it usually fails much more drastically than they realize. Between adults, however, who are much preoccupied with the verbalized information content of the social interactions, it can be more successful. Unfortunately for the behaviour-liar, he typically lies only with certain selected elements of his total signalling system. Others, which he is not aware of, give the game away.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 140)
  • The most successful behaviour-liars are those who, instead of consciously concentrating on modifying specific signals, think themselves into the basic mood they wish to convey and then let the small details take care of themselves. This method is frequently used with great success by professional liars, such as actors and actresses. Their entire working lives are spent performing behavioural lies, a process which can sometimes be extremely damaging to their private lives. Politicians and diplomats are also required to perform an undue amount of behavioural lying, but unlike the actors they are not socially ‘licensed to lie’, and the resultant guilt feelings tend to interfere with their performances. Also, unlike the actors, they do not undergo prolonged training courses.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 140)
  • A third solution is to provide and promote harmless, symbolic substitutes for war; but if these really are harmless they will inevitably only go a very small way towards resolving the real problem. It is worth remembering here that this problem, at a biological level, is one of group territorial defense and, in view of the gross overcrowding of our species, also one of group territorial expansion. No amount of boisterous international football is going to solve this.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 144)
  • To sum up then, the best solution for ensuring world peace is the widespread promotion of contraception or abortion. Abortion is a drastic measure and can involve serious emotional disturbance. Furthermore, once a zygote has been formed by the act of fertilization it constitutes a new individual member of society, and its destruction is, in effect, an act of aggression, which is the very pattern of behaviour that we are attempting to control. Contraception is obviously preferable, and any religious or other ‘moralizing’ factions that oppose it must face the fact that they are engaged in dangerous war-mongering.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 146)
  • Having brought up the question of religion, it is perhaps worthwhile taking a closer look at this strange pattern of animal behaviour, before going on to deal with other aspects of the aggressive activities of our species. It is not an easy subject to deal with, but as a zoologist we must do our best to observe what actually happens rather than listen to what is supposed to be happening. If we do this, we are forced to the conclusion that, in a behavioural sense, religious activities consist of the coming together of large groups of people to perform repeated and prolonged submissive displays to appease a dominant individual. The dominant individual concerned takes many forms in different cultures, but always has the common factor of immense power. Sometimes it takes the shape of an animal from another species, or an idealized version of it. Sometimes it is pictured more as a wise and elderly member of our own species. Sometimes it becomes more abstract and is referred to as simply as ‘the State’, or in other such terms. The submissive responses to it may consist of closing the eyes, lowering the head, clasping the hands together in a begging gesture, kneeling, kissing the ground, or even extreme prostration, with the frequent accompaniment of wailing or chanting vocalizations. If the submissive actions are successful, the dominant individual is appeased. Because its powers are so great, the appeasement ceremonies have to be performed at regular and frequent intervals, to prevent its anger from rising again. The dominant individual is usually, but not always, referred to as a god.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 146)
  • Since none of these gods exist in a tangible form, why have they been invented? To find the answer to this we have to go right back to our ancestral origins. Before we evolved into co-operative hunters, we must have lived in social groups of the type seen today in other species of apes and monkeys. There, in typical cases, each group is dominated by a single male. He is the boss, the overlord, and every member of the group has to appease him or suffer the consequences. He is also most active in protecting the group from outside hazards and in settling squabbles between lesser members. The whole life of a member of such a group revolves around the dominant animal. His all-powerful role gives him a god-like status.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 147)
  • At first sight, it is surprising that religion has been so successful, but its extreme potency is simply a measure of the strength of our fundamental biological tendency, inherited directly from our monkey and ape ancestors, to submit ourselves to an all-powerful, dominant member of the group.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 147)
  • A belief in the validity of the acquisition of knowledge and a scientific understanding of the world we live in, the creation and appreciation of aesthetic phenomena in all their many forms, and the broadening and deepening of our range of experiences in day-to-day living, is rapidly becoming the ‘religion’ of our time.
    • Chapter 5, “Fighting” (p. 148)
  • The point is that there are two elements in a food object that make it attractive to us: its nutritive value and its palatability. In nature, these two factors go hand in hand, but in artificially produced foodstuffs they can be separated, and this can be dangerous. Food objects that are nutritionally almost worthless can be made powerfully attractive simply by adding a large amount of artificial sweetener. If they appeal to our old primate weakness by tasting ‘super-sweet’, we will lap them up and so stuff ourselves with them that we have a little room left for anything else: thus the balance of our diet can be upset. This applies especially in the case of growing children.
    • Chapter 6, “Feeding” (p. 159)
  • In essence, this is the vegetarian (or, as one cult calls itself, a fruitarian) creed, but it has had remarkably little success. The urge to eat meat appears to have become too deep-seated. Given the opportunity to devour flesh, we are loth to relinquish the pattern. In this connection, it is significant that vegetarians seldom explain their chosen diet simply by stating that they prefer it to any other. On the contrary, they construct an elaborate justification for it involving all kinds of medical inaccuracies and philosophical inconsistencies.
    • Chapter 6, “Feeding” (p. 161)
  • All the higher forms of animal life are aware of at least some of the other species with which they share their environment. They regard them in one of five ways: as prey, symbionts, competitors, parasites, or predators. In the case of our own species, these five categories may be lumped together as the ‘economic’ approach to animals, to which may be added the scientific, aesthetic and symbolic approaches. This wide range of interests has given us an inter-specific involvement unique in the animal world.
    • Chapter 8, “Animals” (p. 177)
  • In the past our closest primate relatives have been our most threatening rivals and it is no accident that today we are the only species surviving in our entire family. Large carnivores have been our other serious competitors and these too have been eliminated wherever the population density of our species has risen above a certain level. Europe, for example, is now virtually denuded of all forms of carnivores, save for a great seething mass of naked apes.
    • Chapter 8, “Animals” (pp. 182-183)
  • Despite our grandiose ideas and our lofty self-conceits, we are still humble animals, subject to all the basic laws of animal behaviour. Long before our populations reach the levels envisaged above we shall have broken so many of the rules that govern our biological nature that we shall have collapsed as a dominant species. We tend to suffer from a strange complacency that this can never happen, that there is something special about this, that we are somehow above biological control. But we are not. Many exciting species have become extinct in the past and we are no exception. Sooner or later we shall go, and make way for something else. If it is to be later rather than sooner, then we must take a long, hard look at ourselves as biological specimens and gain some understanding of our limitations.
    • Chapter 8, “Animals” (p. 196)
  • Unfortunately, because we are so powerful and so successful when compared with other animals, we find the contemplation of our humble origins somehow offensive, so that I do not expect to be thanked for what I have done. Our climb to the top has been a get-rich-quick story, and, like all nouveaux riches, we are very sensitive about our background. We are also in constant danger of betraying it.
    • Chapter 8, “Animals” (p. 197)
  • Optimism is expressed by some who feel that since we have evolved a high level of intelligence and a strong inventive urge, we shall be able to twist any situation to our advantage; that we are so flexible that we can re-mould our way of life to fit any of the new demands made by our rapidly rising species-status; that when the time comes, we shall manage to cope with the over-crowding, the stress, the loss of our privacy and independence of action; that we shall re-model our behaviour patterns and live like giant ants; that we shall control our aggressive and territorial feelings, our sexual impulses and our parental tendencies; that if we have to become battery-chicken apes we can do it; that our intelligence can dominate all our basic biological urges. I submit that this is rubbish. Our raw animal nature will never permit it. Of course, we are flexible. Of course, we are behavioural opportunists, but there are severe limits to the form our opportunism can take. By stressing our biological features in this book, I have tried to show the nature of these restrictions. By recognizing them clearly and submitting to them, we shall stand a much better chance of survival. This does not imply a naive ‘return to nature’. It simply means that we should tailor our intelligent opportunist advances to our basic behavioural requirements. We must somehow improve in quality rather than in sheer quantity. If we do this, we can continue to progress technologically in a dramatic and exciting way without denying our evolutionary inheritance. If we do not, then our suppressed biological urges will build up and up until the dam bursts and the whole of our elaborate existence is swept away in the flood.
    • Chapter 8, “Animals” (p. 197)
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