The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself

A classic science fiction trope asks us to imagine a human on exhibit in an interplanetary zoo. Thus deracinated, the captured human offers us a startling perspective on our species: we are just another cage-worthy animal, albeit with some unique traits and capabilities, but subject like any creature to scientifically objective categorization and analysis. It’s precisely this devilishly sly and illuminating alien viewpoint that Hannah Holmes adopts in her new book, a “fact sheet” for Homo sapiens. Employing her own body as representative subject and her own experiences as a well-traveled journalist, she marshals wide-ranging, up-to-the-minute scientific research, along with intriguing speculations, to craft a fascinating, eminently readable portrait of humanity’s physiology and behavior, our past, present and future amidst all creation. Throughout, Holmes deploys her love for and knowledge of the rest of the animal kingdom to good effect, comparing and contrasting humanity with our feathered, furred, chitinous and even microscopic cousins. As well, she plucks pertinent details from various non-Western cultures with anthropological exactitude. Her language is rich with nuance and metaphor (“The Maasai are as elongated as Giacometti sculptures.”), lighthearted and playful while simultaneously rigorous with the facts. She is not shy about approaching thorny matters involving gender or racial differences. And she deals in a non-partisan manner with unresolved controversies. By the end of her survey, Holmes has succeeded admirably in “defining my animal self ? clarify my identity in the natural world,” a valuable prize we all share along the way.