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The Human Zoo


The Naked Ape is a bestseller!
Desmond Morris Writer
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This got me into all sorts of trouble because people at the time didn't want to think that there could be any genetic influences on behaviour at all. And as a zoologist, this seemed... seemed so obvious to me. So that when I sat down to write The Naked Ape, and I only had four weeks in which to do it – I took a month's leave – and I had to write an 80,000 word book in four weeks, and that nearly finished me off. I... that was day and night, non-stop. But I managed it and I gave it... handed it over to my publisher – there wasn't even a carbon copy of it, it was just as it came off the typewriter – and I handed it to him and he said, thanks very much, and he put it away. And then he read it over Christmas and got back to me very excited and said, I think this book's going to... going to be really successful. And I said, well, who knows? I mean, I honestly didn't know what would happen. I thought I'd get into trouble for it, but I didn't expect it to do very much.

And proof of that is that I'd just resigned from the zoo to take up a new post as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts [ICA]. I had had 10 years at the zoo and I wanted to make a change and I wanted to move back into my other great love which was the world of art. And I was... I got to know the people at the ICA and I was lucky enough to get the appointment as director of that institute... art institute. And I went there and it was while I was there, running the ICA, that the book was going through the printers and getting ready for publication. And Tom Maschler rang me up and said this book is going to be huge. And I said, oh, I'll believe it when I see it. And I wouldn't have gone... people think, oh yes, that's a bit... surely that's not true, I'm sure you thought it. But no, I wrote it from the heart. This is the way I saw human beings and I wanted to tell the story of what I thought human beings were all about and if people read the book, that's fine, but I wasn't expecting very much.

And then it took off and it took off in a most extraordinary way. And today it is in the list of 100 bestsellers of all time and I still find that hard to believe. It sold – I don't know – we... at 12 million, we lost count. It... I don't know, it's probably more like 20 million by now. But we kept on counting the sales until it got to 12 million and then we gave up; we just lost interest at that point. It was just a runaway bestseller, the sort of thing that you can't possibly predict. And it went into about 30 or 40... it went into languages all... even went into, I think, Icelandic and Korean and, I mean, every language in the world. And it became a runaway bestseller. And suddenly, for the first time in my life – because I'd never had any money – first time in my life I had... I had some money. I couldn't believe it. And so Tom Ash said what are you going to do?

And I said, I'm going to go off... I'm going to do a mini-Gauguin. I'm going to go off to an island in the sun and I'm going to paint! So that's what I... I've been running an art institute, I've been a curator at the zoological society, I've been running research and doing all these things – I... it's time I took a break and I'm going off and I'm going to spend the money and have a time to myself. And so my wife and I went off to the island of Malta, bought a big house and I set up a studio and I started painting seriously.


Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Naked Ape, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Tom Maschler

Duration: 4 minutes

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014