BBC’s The Human Animal
What offensive Italian hand-gestures have to do with beauty and the evolution of sexuality.
By Maria Popova
In 1994, BBC and Discovery Channel reached out to British zoologist, ethologist and popular anthropologist Desmond Morris for an ambitious and unusual endeavor: To illuminate human behavior from a zoological perspective — because we are, after all, just another animal species. The result was The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species, a fascinating series later adapted as a book entitled The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal.
More than the mere fascination of finding out about our deep pre-wiring, I find the documentary particularly timely in a cultural moment where we’re constantly caught up in some sort of media-perpetuated otherness, making it ever-easier to see those of other cultures, faiths, political beliefs or sexual orientation as so distinctly different from us that we forget our shared humanity.
Everywhere I go, I’m struck by how similar human beings are to one another in all important respects. Of course, there are many superficial differences and these are often so impressive that we pay too much attention to them and start treating one another as if we belong to different species — with disastrous results. But despite all our variations in costume, ritual and belief, biologically we’re all astonishingly close to one another — a fact that I find very reassuring.” ~ Desmond Morris
The documentary is now available on Google Video in six parts, each examining a different biological component of our beliefs, behaviors and ways of being — a timeless and timely reminder that we share far more than we think.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY
The series begins with The Language of the Body — a fascinating look at how mankind communicated before the evolution of language. From gestures and expressions are so deeply ingrained in our collective memory that they appear to be universal to the curious, confusing and often comically misinterpreted cross-cultural difference of insult gestures, the segment explores the rich vocabulary of body language, both universal and regional.
Most regional body language has a long and complicated history, with the origins often forgotten. One of the special qualities of regional gestures is that they’re amazingly conservative — they remain confined to their own particular area, regardless of the fact that all around them national boundaries keep changing. As a result of this, within a particular country today, you can find what we call a ‘gesture frontier’ — a place where one gesture stops and another one begins.” ~ Desmond Morris
THE HUNTING APE
The second episode, The Hunting Ape, looks at our most fundamental activity — the quest for food — exploring how our origins as hunter-gatherers permeate every aspect of our modern lives, from fast-food culture to dating.
Viewed as a pattern of human feeding behavior, a trip to the supermarket is the remarkable endpoint of a long journey through evolutionary time, a journey that started in the primeval forest and at the checkout counter. To me, it’s a story of an arboreal ape, which became a ground-dwelling predator, which in turn became a credit card customer.” ~ Desmond Morris
THE HUMAN ZOO
Part three, The Human Zoo, examines how we managed to go from mud to skyscraper in what’s no more than a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. From the subtleties of human hierarchy in an English pub to the tribal behavior displayed by gangs in Los Angeles, the segment looks at the complex sociology of our species and how it shaped our civilization. It’s also fascinating to see, in 1994, one of the earliest time-lapse simulations of land change as Morris explores the construction of human cities over time.
Some people call the city a ‘concrete jungle’ — but jungles aren’t like that. Animals in jungles aren’t overcrowded. And overcrowding is the central problem of modern city life. If you want to look for crowded animals, you have to look in the zoo. And then it occurred to me: The city is not a concrete jungle — it’s a human zoo.” ~ Desmond Morris
THE BIOLOGY OF LOVE
Episode four, The Biology of Love, explores the profound impact standing upright had on our sexuality and how this simple anatomic fact affect all our lives today. Morris analyzes how patterns of behaviour and signals of health and fertility evolved to ensure pair-bonding and genetic survival, ultimately underpinning many of our romantic quests and decisions. From the stages of courtship to the aesthetics of physical beauty, the segment looks at the very foundations of our sexual behavior.
The more we understand, the more fascinating the subject becomes. But how did it all begin — how did boy meet girl?” ~ Desmond Morris
THE IMMORTAL GENES
Part five, The Immortal Genes, explores the biological basis for parental love.
Our species has the heaviest parental burden of any animal on earth. Why are we so selfless when dealing with our children?” ~ Desmond Morris
The final part of the series, Beyond Survival, addresses the question we’ve all been asking ourselves since the very first rub with the program’s premise: Are we really merely another animal? And, if so, why do we have things like art, music, literature and philosophy? Morris concludes by exploring the deepest humanness of humans — what we do and who we become once we have our basic needs for food and shelter met. The episode explores concepts like creativity, artistic progression, play and symbolic thinking.
The human animal is not satisfied with mere survival. Our greatest rewards are obtained when we go beyond survival.” ~ Desmond Morris
The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal is one of the most extraordinary books on being human that you’ll ever read, a rare and thought-provoking look at the tender and complex creature behind the socially constructed facade.
Published May 17, 2011