Hannah Holmes, The Well-dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself, Scribe Publications, 2009, RRP $35.00. ISBN 9781921372520
With our high-brow ideas (courtesy of those 'huge, hot' brains of ours), formidable motor skills (thanks to those dexterous digits) and professional indifference, we humans have long enjoyed our place at the head of the animal kingdom's table.
Now, in The Well-dressed Ape, US science journalist Hannah Holmes turns a cool, scientific eye back on us, reminding Homo Sapiens of our mammalian origins and, in the process, bringing us down to size or, more to the point, down to the rudiments of our species.
Offering herself up as 'an average enough specimen', Holmes casts a critical eye over the body she's long taken for granted (bar the bits and bobs she's all too aware of). She concludes that before her stands an upright creature disarmingly vulnerable in its 'knobby', pink-skinned nakedness. Odd-looking, one might say ludicrously top heavy. Yet it's this very peculiarity that's also the key to our success.
'The combination of a light body and heavy brain undeniably works,' writes Holmes. 'My species is prospering. And if we look a little funny while we're doing it, we can change that, too.'
When it comes to us humans it's all in the mind, she concludes: 'The brain has evolved to dominate the animal. The organ consumes a large percentage of the body's energy budget. In exchange, the brain makes possible the human's tremendous tool kit, which at this time ranges from stone axes to melon ballers and a space station.'
Size definitely adds 'voltage' to muscles, organs and nerves, but the human brain 'floats above that scale' and is strongly influenced by sex hormones as it develops in the foetus.
We're a smart lot alright, even if our behaviour is, at times, highly questionable. Not only do we mark our territory 'with doors, fences and plastic flamingos', our appetites are governed as much by emotion as by hunger or need, our communication is powerful and flexible as well as manipulative, and while we're sexually proactive it's often without a thought for reproduction.
But here's the rub: Whales, dolphins and elephants all beat us in the cranium stakes, and linguistically our chatter seems no more or less intelligent than, say, a prairie dog's or European starling's. And these are only two we know of. Ouch.
The one thing that truly separates humans from the pack is our need to 'understand ourselves ... with the status quo satisfactory, we'd have nothing to discuss. Homo Sapiens would finally fall silent.'
Could this be why we've made such a mess of our planet? If everything was in order, and the natural world wasn't in such peril, we'd grow bored, right? Holmes is far too diplomatic to suggest this outright, although read what you will in the title of her final chapter: 'A bull in a China shop: ecosystem impacts'.
While humans do bad things, we are not the baddies. Like all of God's creatures 'we marshal the natural resources necessary to propel its offspring into the future'. The problem is that we've become so good at it: 'The entire world, including its seas, atmosphere, and even space beyond, now bears the mark of this unusual creature. Its ecosystem impact, one could say, is total.'
Holmes has managed to pack a mountain of data into 350-odd pages and, as a result, there are times when she leaves the reader behind. An overly liberal sprinkling of the metaphorical, too, had me stumbling. For example: 'Mom, who lost some height to the old-fashioned polio virus, is another long drink of water.' (huh?).
That said, this is still one heck of book. Despite its weighty subject matter, Holmes imbues her observations with enduring optimism, providing a lively dissertation on a perennially exciting and exasperating subject: Us. With a love for language that rivals her love of anthropology, she combines an amazing head for facts with candour and a wonderful, wondrous cadence. A resonant, rollicking read.
Jen Vuk is a staff writer with the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry.