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Review: In 'The Well-Dressed Ape,' science journalist Hannah Holmes analyzes people the way zoologists study animals

Although the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth is coming up Thursday, a lot of Americans still don't "believe" in evolution. Polls say more than half the population insists they ain't kin to no monkey, though this may merely show that the Homo sapiens branch of the great simian family has a talent for self-delusion. • Humans share 99 percent of genetic material with chimpanzees — we're way more than kissing cousins. • Hannah Holmes is okay with this. Indeed, she thinks we should study and quantify ourselves the way we would any other animal. If we don't, "it reinforces the notion that we're not normal animals. It lends the impression that we're too wonderful to summarize; that although the giraffe can be corralled in paragraphs, the human cannot." • To that end, the science journalist sheds her culturally imposed coverings, eschews the language that privileges us (Why do we have "hands" instead of "paws," "hair" instead of "fur"?) and gets down to a serious scientific examination of Homo sapiens: its brain, behavior, predators, territory, diet, reproductive habits and impact on its increasingly imperiled ecosystem.

The title is a cheeky homage to The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris' 1967 bestseller. Morris, a zoologist, famously subjected humans to the rigors of his discipline, dispensing with the ways we romanticize ourselves as the pinnacle of creation: man as the measure of all things.

Holmes benefits not just from Morris but from four decades' worth of advances in evolutionary anthropology — the field Morris ignited — and biology. She also demonstrates a more highly evolved sense of humor. The Well-Dressed Ape is a hoot.

Holmes cheerfully declares, "Hello! I'm not a scientist," nevertheless, she knows her stuff. She can explain how human brain chemistry evolved to maximize our chances for breeding and surviving a famine, and she does it in a way that doesn't make your head explode. Indeed, she offers the best excuse you've ever heard for falling off the diet wagon:

"There's a good reason that I yearn for fettucine Alfredo and chocolate. Every cell in my body is in a near-constant state of hollering for high-calorie food. My body wants to be bigger than it is today. Therefore my cells lobby for more sugar, more fat, more food. A pathetic minority of cells barricaded in a corner of my brain is all that stands between me and a plate of nachos right now."

It's not your fault: It's natural selection.

Making the familiar strange — very strange, in some cases — is one of Holmes' signal gifts. In Suburban Safari, her previous book, Holmes parked herself in her tiny Maine back yard and proceeded to observe the frantic, teeming circus of life all around. Most adults have trouble feeling wonder: It's been crippled by the cares of the workaday world. Not Holmes.

She wants answers to all the weird questions you asked when you were 6, such as why humans sweat. We have more sweat glands than any other animal on Earth, probably because when our hominid ancestors on the ancient plains of Africa stopped running on all fours and stood up, they shed most of their body fur so they could cool off more easily.

But what's with all that fur on top of your head? Well, when the human apes reared upright, their brains were getting larger, but their heads were vulnerable to the ferocious equatorial sun. Your brain — Holmes describes it as a "steaming wad of fat" — will "fry out at 107.6 degrees F." So those luxuriant locks insulate the little gray cells.

As for the fur "which erupts from our most odiferous body parts" in puberty, it may well help distribute your signature body odor for the benefit of possible mates subconsciously checking out your immune system to see if it complements theirs. Plus, female underarm secretions have been shown to reduce depressive feelings in both men and women.

Aren't you glad you know that? If nothing else, you'll never again be stuck for cocktail party conversation. Or, if that's a little too fruity for mixed company, how about human territoriality? All animals mark out their territory: "When everyone agrees on the boundaries, and believes there will be trouble if they cross them, then everyone spends less time fighting."

Holmes is talking about crows, but the same applies to Palestinians and Israelis, medieval Europe or a crowded elevator. Even though humans no longer need a large territory to survive, having outsourced food and tool production, we still behave as if we're duking it out on the Kalahari. That goes double for men.

We like to see ourselves as rising above nature. We're shocked to hear that some eagles lay two eggs and let the stronger chick kill the weaker, or that gorillas keep harems. But, as Holmes deftly demonstrates, we are as much in thrall to nature as a slug. We try to deny our interdependency, consuming more than we need, overbreeding, poisoning the land and the water we — and all the other animals — need to survive. If our adaptability has kept us alive, our arrogance may yet kill us.

Still, as Holmes reminds us, "the human animal alone has the capacity to imagine the future . . . the human also has the capacity to combat its own instincts." Or, to steal a phrase from the new leader of our human pack: "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Diane Roberts is a professor of English and writing at Florida State University.

The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself

By Hannah Holmes

Random House, 351 pages, $25

More Darwin

For reviews of other books related to Charles Darwin, see today's Perspective.

Review: In 'The Well-Dressed Ape,' science journalist Hannah Holmes analyzes people the way zoologists study animals 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 3:30am]
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