Monday, July 25, 2016

On "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris ****

Morris's premise is an interesting one--that animals in zoos suffer from loneliness and deprivation and act out in unwholesome ways that do not occur in nature. So, too, man is housed in a zoo. It's called a city. As such, we have murder, thievery, and so on--actions you would see nowhere in nature.

Our natural environment is one of small tribes, where we hunt and gather. There are maybe fifty of us to twenty square miles. Instead, we have supertribes--cities where we don't know our neighbors and we're piled on top of each other. Yet somehow we thrive and survive. How? Because cities also foster creativity in ways that subsistence living does not. It's a constant fight between our desire for smaller tribes (hence, religion, sports clubs, civil wars) and the power that comes with larger tribes (hence, demigogs, dictatorships).

Morris writes from an evolutionary anthropologists perspective, believing that man has for most of existence been akin to an ape. While I don't subscribe to this view, it sets up an intriguing line of argument. (My view is that man is created and that the banding together into cities did not occur thousands of years after man's evolution but rather within hundreds if not tens of years after man's creation. We are social creatures. We see this desire to band even in the story of the Tower of Babel, which takes place not long after man is almost completely banished from earth. So to me the city is not unnatural. Spending time in the country is likely to reveal as odd a set of behaviors and sometimes depravities as any city might. Rather, it is cultural moires, fostered best in smaller towns--tribes, I suppose, in Morris's view [so maybe he isn't far off the mark]--but also evident in some Asian cultures, in some religions, and in tightknit families, that create conformity and a relatively smaller scale of "immoral" behavior.)

Morris's foray into specific behaviors created by city living dwells chiefly on the subject of status. In tribes, people vie for status, but in super-tribes this vying becomes something much more dangerous, pumped up on steroids, if you will, because of the size of the group. The first form that this competition takes is one based on authority and power. People look for a dominant leader--a king, a dictator. And all people want to be this leader. Morris spends much time comparing symbols of dominance among babboons to those among humans to make his point. And then he gets into the subject of its modern manifestations in the city: cliques, materialism, murder, and suicide. Because not everyone can be top dog, we split into smaller groups--hobbyists, generations, classes, workers, etc.--that we might manage to dominate: to be the big fish in the small pond. But this isn't always satisfactory either, and so we sometimes pretend to be something we aren't, which is the source of consumerism. A lower-class person mimics a high-class person by buying goods he or she can't afford or by buying cheap ripoffs that look like the higher-class goods (diamond necklaces, or fake diamond necklaces, instead of beads). As a result, folk art is pushed aside in favor of manufactured imitations. (Interesting, fifty years later, folk art and DIY culture is pushed the fore in some ways as an example of leisure and class--one has time to make a beaded necklace, instead of working!) Likewise, people commit violent acts against less powerful creatures, be they animals, children, family, or themselves. It is community standards that keep people from killing others, which then causes them to turn that violence against themselves. Suicide rates are higher in cities than in the country, and they are higher during times of peace than during times of war (when violence against others in condoned). Here, then, Morris says, is one result of our city, our human zoo: violence and consumerism to show status within the tribe.

The next means by which status is shown has to do with sex. Again, Morris rehearses a set of rules: why people have sex--to procreate, to enjoy the physical simulation, to pair up, to be relieved of stress or boredom. He makes his comparisons to apes and other animals, who often show off their penises to maters and who use mating as a means to show their dominance or submission to one another. Men display their genitals as well, as we see in society through the use of various phallic symbols, often used as a means of insulting others (demonstrating dominance). Status is further demonstrated by sex through the accumulation of large numbers of partners (harems, serial monogamy) and through violent acts like rape. The need to pair up, bred into us from evolution, is slow to change, however, and interferes with promiscuity. (The arguments here seem forged around men showing dominance, as if it is men who are chiefly or solely the ones seeking status.) How sex as a status symbol is tied into the city is not entirely clear to me, other than that the number of available partners and the ease of demonstrating status is increased.

In the next chapter Morris turns his attention to in-groups and out-groups and how they are established. An in-group is unified; an out-group is that which the in-group unifies against. Absence of an out-group usually means the in-group turns against itself, resulting in civil war. We establish what is out usually by easily delineated physically differences: skin color, shape of eyes, language. The possibility for war is increased via city living because people have land--rather than being nomads--to defend, and the tribes they defend are now supertribes, contributing to the size of the out-group and in-group and to the interaction these two will have (they can't just wander off, because there's insufficient extra land to allow that). (In nature, we defend self, family, and tribe. In the city, we defend possessions and supertribe as well.) Specialization means that some people are devoted to warmaking in and of itself and that leaders don't have to fight and risk their own lives to wage war, resulting, again, in even more wars. Furthermore, the seeking of status, frustrated in such supertribes, finds home is violence against out-groups, even as the desire to cooperate with those in the in-group encourages such violence and warring. Morris completes the chapter by making various dire comments on the population explosion and how that is going to exacerbate the situation (if only we could all go back to small hunter-gatherer tribes on huge ranges).

Next, Morris writes about imprinting--how certain good or bad experiences can have undue effects on us and on animals. Ducklings reared with ony members of their own sex might only try to mate with other members of their own sex later in life; peacocks raised with monkeys might come to think they are monkeys; and so on. Humans, caged off from one another in a city--socially ostracized--might well forge odd behaviors too, such as sexual fetishes (caused by having focusing on some inanimate object during first sexual encounters, be it a shoe or a leather glove or underwear) and even a desire for pets (which are made to mimic babies). My issue here is that the social alienation that Morris writes of would not necessarily be solved in small hunter-gatherer groups. A city is a place of large social gathering; that some don't take advantage, that they stay cooped up with their small, immediate family to escape the evils around them, doesn't mean that being raised alone, within a small family unit, in the middle of nowhere would change experiences--they're still socially isolated. At this point, I felt as if Morris's claims were getting less and less defensable.

Morris returns to form with his chapter on stimuli. Like animals in zoos, people in cities generally lack for stimuli (or are occasionally overstimulated). Whereas humans used to have to eak out an existence hunting and gathering just enough to eat, now most of their needs are supplied in a relatively short period of time. The excess time leftover leads to boredom and a need to find other means of stimulation. Ways to find such stimulation include (1) making problems to solve where there were none, (2) overreacting to mundane tasks, (3) creating new things to do, (4) making much out of less stimulating activities, and (5) magnifying selected items. For those who are overstimulated, they can blot out incoming sensations. An example of the latter might be taking certain kinds of drugs or sleeping excessively. Examples of the other strategies include crime and adultery (1); overeating and gossip (2); playing games, looking at and making artwork, listening to and making music, writing and reading books (3); masturbation (4); and new fashions that emphasize different sexual parts of the body (5). Number 2 actually seems a good result of city life to me. Morris's contention with regard to fashion, which seems something of a detour, though intriguing, is that women's fashion focuses on exaggerating a rotating selection of errogenous zones; men's fashion, by contrast, among modernists, has tended to emphasize how leisurely a person is (thus, we borrow our clothes from various sports--and as those become commonplace, we find another sport to borrow from). While Morris's arguments here seem to make somewhat more sense, he doesn't always keep his examples to the city, which belies his point. Ironically, for instance, one of the examples he gives of making much of less-than-normal stimulation is nothing a city person would have opportunity nor, in most cases, temptation or desire to participate in: bestiality. Such an example rather makes his larger point seem more tendentious, for if country living leads to such actions, then the issue is not lack of stimulus caused by the city. Rather, the issue becomes one of modern life and living, but here too the argument might not be so strong, for a lack of leisure time does not necessarily equate to a lack of depravity. Busy people tend not to do as many bad things out of boredom, but people with fewer resources still have drives to fulfill that might lead them to steal or do other things frowned upon by larger society. The issue than is not city or country, but the degree to which a society maintains social control. A close tribe or family will exert more pressure on an individual's lifestyle than will a society (or lack thereof) that allows for more individual freedom of choice. But that, of course, is the tradeoff, for both individualism and groupthink come with their own advantages and disadvantages.

In Morris's final chapter, he turns to education and issues attendant with it. He notes that people tend to be most innovative out of two needs: (1) panic or scarcity; and (2) security. In the former, troubles become so overwhelming that people are motivated to find new ways to do something. In the latter, people are so provided for that they find new things to do out of a desire to fill time and to explore. It's the middle ground that tends to lack for innovation--where people are eeking out a living but are neither secure enough to explore nor so poor as to have to explore. Most of human existence fit in this middle ground, but modern man fits in the latter. That need to explore, to be curious, is taken up by childlike adults, who do odd things either because they rebel against constraints set on them as kids or because they continue in the curious lifestyle their parents afforded them as kids. Elders in supertribes tend to want to squash innovation, but instead they should encourage it. In a sense then, Morris ends his discussion on the human zoo with a call for, not a return to hunting and gathering, but for more urbanization, more change, more moves away from our evolutionary beginnings.

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