Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


All Things Well-Dressed Ape

The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself by Hannah Holmes

My Review

As darkness falls, I buck the human impulse to crawl under a furry hide and go to sleep. With a sheaf of journal articles and a tamed flame, I curl into a corner of the couch and compete like crazy. I'm not just writing a book here. I'm trying to write a book that's better than any other book. It takes a lot of time, this competing.

I’m one of those people who is fond of saying I could be a student forever. I already have more degrees than I can use and would happily pursue others purely out of curiosity and an interest in learning. So it’s probably not a surprise to hear that at one point in my life I was seriously considering pursuing some kind of Ph.D. The problem, I felt, was that the necessity to specialize would be too limiting. I didn’t want to focus on writing and reading just one narrow subject the rest of my life, because I’m interested in a little bit of everything. One thing I bumped into that really did intrigue me was a school that offered a “Doctorate of Interrelated Studies,” if I’ve remembered the name correctly. That was all about studying many different fields and making the connections between them.

This book is a little like that, which is what I particularly love about it and why Holmes was quite successful in competing for my attention. It’s a book written for the layperson and I imagine it could get long-winded and obvious for experts in the field(s) she covers, but I found it to be an excellent balance of information, insight, and personality. Holmes is writing a personal examination of the human animal from a biological perspective, a zoological field guide of sorts, to offer a comparison to others in the animal kingdom. So we get human biology and physiology, but learn much about the natural world along the way, as well as anthropology, sociology, psychology, and more. Topics covered by the chapters: physical description, the brain, perception, range, territoriality, diet, reproduction, behavior, communication, predators, and ecosystem impacts. On top of it all, Holmes uses herself as her primary subject for anecdotes to illustrate her points in a way that gets almost memoir-ish at times. I loved the mix of clinical, scientific terminology and folksy, personal voice. Even when I was familiar with the content she was covering, I kept reading to see which turn of phrase might delight me next. A sample bit from the introduction:

I am one of those people with a reputation for being a "natural" with children. Because I produced none of my own, my friends often make the observation with an air of puzzlement, after I've beguiled their offspring out of a sulk or into a game quieter than hurling pot lids.

The honest explanation has seemed too impolite to share: Of course I'm fluent in child. I've spent my whole life around wild animals. . . .

This is why I don’t find children baffling. They are young animals, unrefined in their instincts and impulses. If an animal is shy, I don’t gaze or grab at it, because those gestures are predatory. Instead, I avert my eyes and display something enticing. To avoid frightening the young human who has approached, it’s essential to project positive feelings. When a horse detects the stiffening of a fearful rider, the horse tenses because it has evolved to respect any indication of danger. Inversely, a fearful horse can be soothed by a rider who is at ease. And so it is with the young human: He monitors other humans for hesitations, signs of doubt, signs of danger. I try not to embody any. Thus, by exploiting an animal’s instincts, it’s possible to manipulate its behavior to suit yourself.


Reading Journal, Epilogue

Having cranked myself through the biologist’s machinery, I see my animal self more clearly. I feel more personally the bond between me and a chimpanzee, and even between me and a fly. Our missions, after all, are identical. Every species is biologically programmed to escape predators and parasites, to gather food, to shelter from the weather, and to reproduce. Although each animal has evolved to meet these challenges in a different way, we are equals in the struggle.

In some ways my animal identity is a great comfort to me. I am still depressed by human warfare, greed, and oppression. But now it’s clear to me that these nasty acts are as much a question of biological impulse as of personal scheming. Polar bears, baboons, and wild boar can be just as nasty and for just the same reasons. Somehow, the biological underpinning of human evil makes it easier for me to stomach. Furthermore, the human’s great capacity for altruism and kindness shines even more brightly in the natural context. Our species is among the most generous and is clearly the most thoughtful.


Previous Posts

I'm Hooked

An Intersection of Biology and Politics

Reading Journal, The Well-Dressed Ape, Chapter 1 Quotes

Reading Journal, The Well-Dressed Ape, Chapters 2-3 Quotes

Reading Journal, The Well-Dressed Ape, Chapters 4-5 Quotes

Boys & Reading?

18 Months Later: My Next Temporary Obsession

Reading Journal, The Well-Dressed Ape, Chapters 6-7 Quotes

From the "That Makes So Much Sense" Files

Reading Journal, The Well-Dressed Ape, Chapters 8-9 Quotes

Reading Journal, The Well-Dressed Ape, Chapters 10-11 Quotes


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