Books: The Well-Dressed Ape

Are we naughty by nature? Science writer Hannah Holmes thinks so.


It’s no secret that humans like to behave badly. But why? In this examination of man as beast—and therefore, nothing special—science writer Hannah Holmes argues that the reason for our spectacular misdeeds is straightforward. Like all critters, we cheat, steal, kill, and screw because our Darwinian instinct tells us to. Remember that the next time you covet your friend’s better half. And should you resist the urge to lie, give yourself a pat on the back for a remarkably unbiological show of restraint.

Using the framework of a mock science textbook on the species Homo sapiens, Holmes tackles a variety of questions about our basest instincts. Her queries range from the weighty (Why do humans ruin their habitats with bulldozers?) to the juicy (Why doesn’t marriage cure wandering eyes? Answer: “Nature abhors monogamy.” Whew). The material can be wonky, but Holmes’ tone adds levity—she refers to her husband exclusively as “my mate.” She also maintains that men and women are so different that they could be mistaken for two entirely different species, with varying brain sizes, responses to stress, vulnerabilities to addictive substances, and abilities to read emotion through facial expressions.

Gender wars aside, Holmes argues that although our selfish ways are innate, our commendable ability to rein in our animal urges with rational thought is not. Sometimes we’ll turn down a slab of calorie-rich beef for a boring plate of greens, just as we will willingly protect predators and undo some of the environmental damage we’ve wrought. “Foxes, given bulldozers for digging out bunnies, would make a stunning mess,” Holmes notes. That we recognize the fix we’ve gotten ourselves into is, in fact, an evolutionary miracle. According to Holmes, it’s also a cause for hope, despite all our nasty habits.

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