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.

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