Risen Apes, Not Fallen Angels - An Interview With Desmond Morris

20/06/2012 10:22 BST | Updated 19/08/2012 10:12 BST

He is quoted by Richard Dawkins and has an unwavering, decades-long spot in the list of best selling books of all time. His iconic THE NAKED APE was translated into 23 languages and besides making Desmond Morris a household name, has profoundly altered the human animal's self perception.

Now recognised as a scientific landmark the controversial 1967 publication crowned Morris the father of sociobiology and marked the start of an astonishingly prolific writing career.


Here, the groundbreaking zoologist, writer and surrealist painter, shares his potent quest for discovery whilst justly busking in science's appreciation for his work.

Q Evolutionary psychology is prominent on Richard Dawkins's site where you are heavily quoted. It seems like scientific advances are 'proving you right'.

A When THE NAKED APE was published in 1967 people said I was crazy to imagine that much of human behavior was genetically influenced. Back then, it was thought that everything was learned, but since then I have been proved right on many points, which is very satisfying. As a zoologist I never had any doubt.  When I introduced the subject of body language in MANWATCHING in 1977 people said it was not particularly important but today the term 'body language' crops up all the time.

Q Staying with Richard Dawkins, how do you feel about his atheism spreading 'mission'?

A Religion is institutionalized superstition. Science has demonstrated the folly of basing decisions on superstitious beliefs. We should have got past that phase by now

Q I have been filming elderly people recently and wonder what your personal view is of the long post retirement period so many now experience.

A Nobody should ever retire. I still work to 4am every night at the age of 84. If your job ends, find a new one. Old people are made to feel useless, which is all wrong. If they stop using their brains, their brains stop working. My mother was hosting her own bridge parties in her mid-nineties.

Q In a 2008 interview you said: "for every one great woman artist, there are 100 men..There are more male geniuses than female geniuses, and there are more male idiots than female idiots. If you're a human female, you can't afford to be a risk-taker and you can't afford to be a dimwit. You have to be in between those two extremes."

A I was talking about great art, not folk art (where there have always been more women than men - making ceramics, textiles etc.,) Both sexes have a powerful urge to make art, but great art involves sacrificing one's life to it and being perversely single-minded, which is too extreme for most women. Women enjoy art as part of life, but not the totality of life. So, even when society stopped suppressing women and allowed them to be artists, there were fewer of them prepared to devote their entire lives to it, than men. Men are extremists by nature. Women are too sensible for that. They have to be, because they are too important in their role of continuing the species.  

My second statement is based on studies that show that, at university, men get more firsts and thirds than women. Women get more seconds that men. In other words, overall, there is equality, but with women it is based on a different structure, with most women being very intelligent. But with men there are more geniuses and more morons. Again this is a genetic feature of our species.

Q Women's risk taking is mellowed by motherhood and most mothers cannot invest the same level of focused dedication to work/art as men

A Yes, but there is an overlap between male and female personalities. Of every hundred men, five will be female in personality and of every hundred women five will be male in personality. That gives quite enough females who will behave like men to account for all the driven female performers, artists, writers and scientists etc.,  Some exceptional women have been able to be great performers etc., and still be good mothers, but that is not easy.

Q The internet has profoundly impacted the evolution of ideas but how is it affecting humans' social functioning?

A Each individual has the need for a certain amount of social contact and this will always express itself, regardless of advances in technology. Children without siblings will adapt better to computer work because they get used to solitude in childhood. Siblings will always have a greater need for social contact when they become adult. They will manage to sort this out and arrange it around the time they spend on their computers.

Q Do you find painting to be therapeutic?

A There is something about creating a work of art that reaches a deep centre in the brain and provides a primeval kind of reward. I think finishing a work of art is a bit like having a baby (but less painful) - it makes you feel you have created something outside yourself and this can have a profoundly satisfying impact.

I am halfway through a book on the nature of art at the moment, my most challenging subject ever.

I am trying to explain art as a pattern of human behavior which is not easy, but fascinating. It took me a month just to arrive at a definition of art that satisfied me...