“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”
Jacob Bronoski, author of “The Ascent of Man” put it just like that.
Some ideas and books can shape your understanding of reality and have a profound effect on popular culture at the same time.I’m not talking about “Fifty Shades Of Grey” here or “Lord Of The Rings” , either.
There are three easily digested books which brought fresh thinking to the human condition in much the same way that David Attenborough’s superb series of television films have brought to our understanding of the earth.These books are “The Naked Ape : a Zoologist’s Study Of The Human Animal” by Desmond Morris, “The Ascent Of Man” by Doctor Jacob Bronowski and finally “A Little History Of The World” by Ernst Gombrich.The first one was published in !967 , the second in 1973 and the third in 1935.All three managed to seep into popular consciousness unlike anything else I’ve read recently. They should be read and re-read for no other reason than that they force the reader to think and re-think just what exactly it is to be a human -being living on a planet circling the sun.
Desmond Morris , in his “The Naked Ape” reminds us, that in view of man’s mind-bending creativity and powers of invention , his very self-regard might posit himself as some celestial creature descended from a family of angelic , illuminated beings, when this study actually reminds us that mankind is such a relative of his fellow apes as to be the chief ape at the top of the metaphorical tree and is ,indeed, the greatest primate of them all.Using his knowledge of zoology and primate ethnology, Morris carefully examined the processes of child-rearing, our habit of curiosity and solution-solving, sex, fighting, feeding, and group politics, to establish the nature of our intertwining bonds to the rest of the animal kingdom and our relationships with it. He draws out in a logical way , just how much of a specific blood and bone animal we really are, without sentmentality or wishful thinking ever creeping in.
By putting the human species under the same microscope as he would any other creature, he forced us to see the truth within ourselves. He was sometimes accused of insulting and degrading human dignity by seeing mankind as “beastly” or “animalistic” ,but he responded by saying that in fact he really liked animals and felt very proud to call himself one , never having looked down on any other creature. He simply saw it as somehow placing humanity in its proper position in the scheme of the animal kingdom on Earth.
Morris describes our courting rituals; why we make love or choose mates ; how we socialise and groom ourselves, even the idea within our genes of attempting to live forever by extending our genes through or children that richard Dawkins seized on in his book “The Selfish Gene”. In this scenario the human animal is not seen as one of Milton’s fallen angels, misplaced on an angry earth , struggling to free himself and rise heavenwards. He follows Darwin’s direction and sees the man as the great risen ape ; the ape that dared to evolve beyond all the others; a remarkable creature in so many respects , but an animal all the same.This animal seemed in danger of forgetting exactly who he was and where he came from. In that respect alone , it was an innovation in thinking, at an exact time when minds across the world of the 1960’s were open to novel and imaginative ideas.Many people had long ago decided not to think this unthinkable thought. It was an extraordinary moment of serendipity and it is no surprise that the book piqued the human imagination to the extent that it went on to sell some ten million copies across the world.
So it made an imprint on many and I was one of them. In more recent years Desmond Morris extended that idea with his later books such as “The Human Zoo”. He argued that living in cities has had a profound effect on the way the human being acts and interacts.He asks why there is an increasingly more violent world to contend with , which he largely assumes to be a product of our artificially- built surroundings.He figured that the behaviour resembled that repetitive behaviour that many captive animals profess to in zoos and in intensive farming situations .There is also a tendency towards violence, rape , murder and anti-social behaviour because of the isolation of city life and the accompanying social disconnect ,which modern technology such as television and now the internet, has, strangely enough, exacerbated.He argued , some forty years ago ,that we human, tribal animals are not really suited to properly survive in an impersonal urban setting and also stay wholly sane.Well he might just have a point there when you think about it.
Morris showed that across the 5000 million plus human beings living on the earth at present ,we all actually share the very same identical genetic lineage, depite our varying skin colours , cultures, religions and rituals. We rear our young much the same everywhere. We laugh the same and make the same kind of gestures with our hands and faces.He showed how our ancient hunting , violence ,agression and predatory nature has been channeled into a diverse range of sporting activities which allows us still to compete for food and status.Something as abstract as our need for art can be traced back to someone imaginng a face in a round stone or the shape of an animal in the clouds. Courtship rituals could be observed in every species and in our own it reflected the universal emotions of love and bonding throughout the world.The darker side of our animal heritage wasn’t shirked either ,in that it was evident how territorial fights for dominance broke out when relationships , social and sexual patterns broke down and tribal patterns subtley changed in our cities and countries .We are currently seeing much evidence and fear of this across our modern world. In evolutionary span , the human animal has bounded from living in a mud and wattle hut or a cave on the African plains to living in skyscrapers and eating takeaway food in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.It’s no wonder we can’t quite take it all in and properly assimilate it.
The aforementioned Dr Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” was a book my late father regularly dipped into. It was always there on the bookcase, beside his favourite chair ,alongside the copy of “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown, which I’d given him for Christmas in 1973. He was also fascinated by Native American culture too .It would be there until his death when the family home – house’s contents were finally dismantled and the house sold on. “The Ascent Of Man”also became a groundbreaking BBC television series back in 1973. The author traced the development of human society through our understanding of science . No one had thought of doing this before but it shone a light for a new generation of readers and viewers and was considered one of the first works of popular science; that is , science that wasn’t too wordy for a non-scientific fellow, with an open mind, to follow.Bronowski told how history and social context worked hand in hand to progress humanity.It went from the radical invention of a flint tool, taking in geometry, the rise of agriculture , alchemy…to the theory of relativity and the spawn of genetic study. What was at hand was the very understanding of nature , our natural world and ourselves .
We have arrived at thinking of ourselves as the most advanced animal on the planet.That’s mostly to do with our canny development of the use of fire and our language and communication capability which allowed us to change from hunters on the plains of Africa , to rapidly become the consumers of easily accessible fast-food take-aways.
Although Erich Gombrich’s book “A Little History Of The World” was written in Vienna , Austria in 1935, just four years before Hitler decided on world conquest, and thus preceeded the other two books by some thirty or forty years, because it was written in German , i didn’t see it ,personally, for many years. I didn’t read it as a child or as a teenager, simply because there was no English translation available. it became known to non-German speakers in 2005 ,when it was finally re-published by Yale University Press ,four years after its author had died at the age of 92.
Discovering it as a child or teenager, would be the perfect time to read it for the first time because it was written in such a way as to appeal to younger readers in a straight-forward way ,without talking down to them. It is not simple-minded by any means but it is clearly and simply written. I came across a copy in a second -hand bookshop years later and it was so accessible that I would heartily recommend it to anyone , young or old, with an inquisitive mind.Although not a substitute for detailed history books, the book describes and chronicles human development on Earth from the inventions of cavemen, right up to the aftermath of the First World War, after 1918. That’s no small task , but this author manages to also describe the beliefs of many major religions including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism and how these beliefs came to be . Everything is laid out in concise chapters. The Nazis actually banned the book and very likely burned copies of it on their bonfires, but that was par for the course with Hitler and his ilk.
The Nazis reckoned its tone was too pacifist…..too pacifist for such a race of predatory beasts, such as we ,ourselves, no doubt.When you look around at the vile murdering deeds humans are still capable of in our modern times ,locally in our small counties and further afield across the planet, it’s easy to see how we out-competed , assimilated and finally destroyed fellow creatures such as the Neanderthals, and the Denisovans who shared our genetics.We are now in the process of murdering as many animals needlessly across the world to the extent that many we have taken for granted will soon no longer exist.
Now that really would make a book like that a bad influence.