Book Review: The Naked Man

This book continues Desmond Morris’ series on Homo sapiens–which includes his well-known “The Naked Ape” and also “The Naked Woman”–with, obviously, this book paying particular attention to the male of the species.

The book is made up of 24 chapters, each devoted to a particular characteristic or body part of the human male and with self-explanatory titles such as “The Hair”, “The Chest”, and “The Penis”. The chapters have a repeating structure–which makes this feel a bit like reading an (unusually engaging) Encyclopaedia at times–in which Morris discusses, amongst other things, the evolutionary context of each body part, gives some cultural perspective, and lists examples of common gestures. Overall this structure makes sometimes for dull reading, but this is compensated for by the many neat ideas and illuminating comments.

For example, in the chapter “The Hands”, Morris states that the handshake might have originated as a way of men assessing one another’s physical strength. This is followed by the insightful remark: “Today some insecure individuals still employ this power grip, crushing the fingers of the people they meet in the forlorn hope that this will impress them.”

In the chapter “The Testicles”, Morris discusses the apparently bizarre phenomenon of external testicles. We learn that their evolutionary origin is probably not primarily as a heat-regulating mechanism, as is commonly believed, but rather that they help to prevent the unfortunate abdominal trauma that could befall any fighting male that housed his testicles internally.

The final chapter, titled “The Preferences”, discusses male sexual preferences, with a particular focus on individuals that are not heterosexual. An interesting comment that Morris makes is that non-breeders, such as monks, priests, and homosexuals, are valuable to an overpopulated humanity. He then says: “This probably explains why, in most advanced countries, where issues of human population are already widely understood, the laws against male homosexuality have recently been relaxed or abandoned…Officially, of course, other reasons are given, such as human rights, privacy laws, sexual liberation, and the rest. But the truth is that, when society makes a major shift in its attitude towards some basic pattern of human behaviour there is usually an underlying factor at work, a factor that has to do with the biological rules of life.” So, could it be that modern society’s evermore-egalitarian attitudes are more a reflection of utilitarian motives, rather than selfless humanity? It’s an interesting idea that I think is probably largely right as a first approximation.

Overall, I’d recommend this book if you’re after a light introduction to male behaviour, so that you can better understand half of those naked apes that you walk amongst; I’m intrigued enough that I now want to read “The Naked Woman”, so that maybe I can find out what’s going on with the other half.

The Unabomber

I had only a passing knowledge of the Unabomber episode when I came across this book in a Phnom Penh bookshop a few weeks ago, but the prospect of finding out more about this mathematician-turned-bomber was enough temptation for me to buy it and find out more. I was given extra impetus to write about this topic when I woke up this morning to the developing news story about the bombing of the Boston marathon, which is vaguely yet disturbingly reminiscent of Ted Kaczynski’s semi-random bombings during the last quarter of last century.

Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, was a clever mathematician on his way to earning tenure when, two years into an assistant professorship at UC Berkeley, he suddenly quit and became a recluse living in a remote Montana cabin without electricity or running water. After a few years he started mailing bombs to people and organisations. Over a twenty year period he sent a total of 16 bombs across America, killing three people and injuring 23–he seemed to target universities and airlines, hence the name “Unabomber” given to him by the media. In 1995, toward the end of his bombing campaign, his manifesto was published, at his request with the promise to stop sending bombs, by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The gist of his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, and his justification for killing people, is that he thinks that industrialisation inevitably causes individuals to lose their freedom and that a violent revolution is needed to prevent a future in which human life becomes unnatural and meaningless because of our dependence on technology.

The Unabomber’s 35,000 word manifesto is included in the book and I found it interesting enough to read it in full, if only because it gave an insight into how political ideology can motivate an intelligent person to kill people. In fact, there are parts of the manifesto in which it’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle the rational, reasonable ideas from the absurd ones. There’s a particular section titled (something like) “Motivations of Scientists”, which I found intriguing. Kaczynski argues that the common claims by scientists’ that they do science “out of curiosity”, or “to help people”, are fallacious since specialised scientific questions could not satisfy any natural kind of curiosity and that “science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race”. This is meant to degrade science for it is merely a “surrogate activity” that promotes the pursuit of “artificial” goals, rather “real” goals, like hunting and scavenging. My view is that Kaczynski’s argument is mostly bollocks; that curiosity is a legitimate reason to pursue science; and that, in the modern world, science is one of the most meaningful pursuits that one can undertake. Of course, my point of view is exactly what Kaczynski would expect from a budding “Leftist” (to use Kaczynski’s terminology) scientist and therefore it’s probably true that our points of view are irreconcilable.

The book itself is quite unremarkable, probably since it was hastily put together so that it could be published when the story was most topical. I would guess that someone has since written a more eloquent account of the Unabomber episode, but this one does a good enough job of conveying the essential information.

As for the relation of this to the recent bombing of the Boston marathon mentioned earlier, I think it’s plausible that this event is also the result of a rogue individual motivated by a fringe political ideology–although this is completely unfounded speculation.

Zee’s introduction to Feynman’s QED

I recently came across the 2006 edition of Richard Feynman’s wonderful book “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter,” published by Princeton University Press. This book deserves a blog post all to itself, but here I only want to point out the shiny new feature of this most recent edition–surely a publishing scam designed to make me buy the book twice–which is an excellent introduction by Anthony Zee.

Fortunately, it turns out that I don’t need to re-buy the book since Zee has published the introduction online. I recommend reading Zee’s frank and humorous introduction to any aspiring physicists or physics fans out there.