Notes and quotes from Desmond Morris' "The Human Zoo"

  • What is surprising is that the bloated super-tribes have survived at all and, what is more, survived so well. This is not something we should accept simple because we are sitting here in the twentieth century, it is something we should marvel at. It is an astonishing testimony to our incredible ingenuity, tenacity and plasticity as a species. How on earth did we manage it?
  • If our hunting ancestors had really been ruthless, greedy tyrants, loaded with ‘original sin’, the human success story would have petered out long ago.
  • It has often been said that ‘the law forbids men to do only what their instincts incline them to do’. It follows from this that is there are laws against theft, murder and rape, then the human animal must, by nature, be a thieving, murderous rapist. Is this really a fair description of man as a social biological species?
  • It is interesting to note how we deal with the criminal: we shut him away in a confined, all criminal community. As a short-term solution it works well enough, but the long-term effect is that it strengthens his pseudo-tribal identity instead of weakening it and furthermore helps him widen his pseudo-tribal social contacts.
  • Morris is a functionalist: The customs and costumes may be strikingly different in detail from culture to culture, but they have the same basic function and the same basic forms.
  • In ridding themselves of the old power structure that they have come to detest, they are forced to sweep away with it most of the old ceremonials.
  • It is an interesting sidelight on the Christian movement that its early success depending on some extent on its making a take-over bid for many of the old pagan ceremonies and incorporating them suitably disguised, into their own festive occasions.
  • Even if startlingly new and at present unimagined  advances in mass-communication techniques are made in the years to come, they will continue to be hampered by the bio-social limitations of our species. We are not equipped, like termites, to become willing members of a vast community. We are and probably always will be, at base, simple tribal animals. p. 36
  • It is intriguing to notice how many sports and hobbies involve an element of ritualized aggression, over and above simple competitiveness.

First published Mar 22, 2012