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Scientists' Nightstand: Desmond Morris

Author and ethologist Desmond Morris studies animal and human behavior from a zoological perspective. His most recent book is The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body (Thomas Dunne, 2005).Desmond MorrisClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

As a child growing up during World War II, I was so appalled by the behavior of human adults that I turned my attention to the study of other species—also because I was obsessed with observing wildlife. This led to a zoological career analyzing animal behavior, culminating in a book about the human animal called The Naked Ape (McGraw-Hill, 1967), in which I wrote about humans in the same way that I had done in my research with fish, birds and mammals. I then went on to make a study of human body language and wrote a number of books on the subject, including Intimate Behaviour (Cape, 1971), Manwatching (Cape, 1977), Bodywatching (Crown, 1985), Bodytalk (Cape, 1994), The Human Animal (Crown, 1994), The Human Sexes (St. Martin's Press, 1998), The Naked Woman and The Naked Man (forthcoming).

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I have been reading Clive Bromhall, The Eternal Child (Ebury, 2003). Like me, the author is a zoologist who has studied the human animal, and his book gives the best explanation of differences in human sexual preferences that I have come across so far. I have also been reading Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), a book that clearly shows how impossible it is to reconcile science with the institutionalized superstitions that we refer to as religion.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

At the table in my Oxford library, between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when my brain is most active. Having a large personal library is one of my greatest luxuries.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

In each of those categories there has been one special book for me:

Fiction: Voltaire's Candide (1759). Because I am by nature an optimist.

Nonfiction: Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Because it buried religion.

Poetry: W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood's The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935). Because, as a teenager, it fired my imagination.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Among scientific books:

John Bulwer, A View of the People of the Whole World (1654). Because it was the first serious attempt at comparative anthropology, with illustrations showing the various tribal modifications of the human body.

Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Because of the way that Darwin attempted to analyze human body language and relate it to the actions of other animals.

Niko Tinbergen, The Study of Instinct (1951). Because it introduced me to the then-new subject of comparative ethology and showed me how field studies of animal behavior could be conducted in a quantifiable, scientific manner.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948). This was the first modern scientific study of the human species by a zoologist, and despite its shortcomings it remains a classic. As a young zoologist myself I was stunned by the daring of the project, and Kinsey's idea of approaching human beings objectively as animals remained with me for many years, until eventually I summoned up the courage to write The Naked Ape.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Three? There are literally hundreds of books in my library that are still looking at me accusingly from the shelves, demanding to be read. Unfortunately, I buy books faster than I can read them all. Then I get immersed in writing another book myself. But one day ...

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

For any young zoologist I would recommend Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon's Ring (1952). This will reveal just how much one can learn simply by sitting and watching animal behavior.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Speaking as a zoologist:

First, something that stimulates a sense of wonder at the natural world. For this, any of David Attenborough's natural histories, from Life on Earth (Little, Brown, 1979) to Life in the Undergrowth (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Then, once this has been achieved, something that demonstrates the keystone of scientific research—the concept of the testable hypothesis. Aubrey Manning's book An Introduction to Animal Behaviour (Addison-Wesley, 1967), which has appeared in many editions over the years, is one of the best ways to approach the subject. It is clearly written and has been kept up to date with the later developments in the field.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Aubrey Manning's book, as above.

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