The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself

The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself

by Hannah Holmes

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• we have more hair follicles than a chimpanzee
• a male boxer in top condition can punch with the force of a thirteen-pound mallet swung at twenty miles an hour
• the best human endurance runners can outlast a horse
• one odor above all is sexually stimulating to the human male: cinnamon buns


• we have more hair follicles than a chimpanzee
• a male boxer in top condition can punch with the force of a thirteen-pound mallet swung at twenty miles an hour
• the best human endurance runners can outlast a horse
• one odor above all is sexually stimulating to the human male: cinnamon buns
• our home-building skills compare nicely with those of the bagworm
With dry wit and penetrating insight, science journalist Hannah Holmes casts the eye of a trained researcher and reporter on . . . herself. And on our whole species. She compares the biology and behavior of humans with that of other creatures, exploring how the human animal fits into the natural world. Holmes also reveals the ways in which Homo sapiens stands apart from other mammals (and all other animals) in ways that are alternately admirable and devastating. Deftly mixing personal stories with the latest scientific research, Hannah Holmes has fashioned an engaging field guide to that oddest and most fascinating of primates: ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Fascinating . . . a feast of provocative science and engaging trivia.” —USA Today

“Smart and upbeat, [The Well-Dressed Ape] will leave you prouder of your links to wild things.”—People

The Well-Dressed Ape is a hoot.”—St. Petersburg Times
“Amusing and illuminating.”—Outside
“Full of interesting facts.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Juicy and humorous.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

Rebecca Skloot
While researching her previous book, Suburban Safari, in which she explored the wildlife of her backyard, Holmes realized that no field description existed for Homo sapiens. She set out to create one, and the result is sometimes illuminating and often funny…The Well-Dressed Ape is aimed at educating a general audience about human biology, and for the most part it succeeds.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Holmes (Suburban Safari) has been "uncomfortable with the notion that I was an animal apart, a sort of extraterrestrial on my own planet." Hence, she examines her "animal self," hoping to "clarify my identity in the natural world." As in her previous works, she uses the mundane to make larger points about life and the human condition. Beginning each chapter in a scientific mode, she then glides into more personal reflections ("I'm most aware of my brain when I encounter its limitations") and then compares humans with other animals: "My wad of wiring is so hot and bothered that it puts all the world's other brains to shame. Or does it?" Holmes thus continually underscores that humans are not nearly as different as many would have us believe. For example, a surprising number of species communicate fairly well, and prairie dogs actually have a sizable vocabulary. Holmes's optimistic conclusion is that we are the only species capable of thinking about the effect of our actions and acting against narrow self-interest, even if we don't always do so. Holmes makes the scientific personal in prose that is juicy and humorous, if occasionally a bit too cute. (Jan. 20)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Science reporter Holmes (Suburban Safari) here reports on a most interesting scientific specimen—herself—and the species to which she belongs, Homo sapiens, drawing on her own observations as well as on the latest scientific theories and research. Unfortunately, despite the author's wit and made-for-audio writing style, some of the information she provides is questionable, out-of-date, or just plain incorrect. Audie Award winner Joyce Bean (Kiss Me While I Sleep) reads in a manner that conveys her enjoyment of the subject matter. Owing to the occasional factual errors, this excellent audio production of an otherwise charming and well-written book is not suitable for library patrons. [Audio clip available through—Ed.]—I. Pour-El, Des Moines Area Community Coll., Boone, IA

—I. Pour-El
School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Head on, Holmes confronts the notion that human beings are just another mammal, essentially creating a field guide for Homo sapiens. Eleven chapters focus on a physical description, the brain, perception, range, territoriality, diet, reproduction, behavior, communication, predators, and ecosystem impacts. Each one begins with a clinical description (from one-half to a full page) of the subject discussed, which is then examined in detail by looking at a sample of Homo sapiens (the author herself) and then at different theories that explain why Homo sapiens are the way they are. Holmes is good at providing all sides of the story-often, all current theories-even those that contradict one another. In addition, she compares Homo sapiens to other animals, revealing our species' strengths and weaknesses, and our environmental impact-the good and the bad. The book combines comparative anatomy, biology, anthropology, and psychology and presents the information in a witty and humorous style that will attract even the most disinterested readers. This volume would be an excellent selection as a biology class review book.-Kelliann Bogan, Colby-Sawyer College, New London, NH

Kirkus Reviews
A pellucid spin through the contours of the human brain and the folds of the human body. Holmes (Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, 2005, etc.) is a skilled practitioner of the rocks-for-jocks school of science writing. Thus it is that she ventures observations such as, "Noise is a disturbance among air molecules," and "The orangutan eats for five hours a day . . . Dust mites eat skin around the clock, without cease." All that basic science has a point, though, providing the basis for Holmes's deeper subject of explaining why humans are different from the other denizens of creation, for better or worse. As she appends to her battery of prandial statistics, our species has the evolutionary advantage-maybe-of being able to rip open a package, zap it and consume it in a few minutes, thereby freeing ourselves to do great things such as plan trips to the moon and plot the extinction of other species. The careful reader will learn scads of facts to attend to all kinds of questions they may not have known they had. Why is it that anorexics don't ovulate? It's because "nature abhors waste," including the waste of an egg to a malnourished environment. Do creatures other than humans lie? Sure-a spider who bounces in her web when threatened does so to send the message that she's many times bigger than she really is. Do animals get divorced? Yes, but they don't have to pay lawyers to do so. As the author notes, "Flamingo couples almost always split up; masked booby marriages last about half of the time; about 10 percent of mute swan unions dissolve." Holmes happily details what distinguishes us from them, which turns out to be both less and more than one might have thought. Careful science meetsgood writing-a pleasure for fans of Lewis Thomas, Natalie Angier and other interpreters of scientific fact. Agent: Michelle Tessler/Tessler Literary Agency

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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7.96(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt




I remember my first conscious effort at deception with ghastly clarity, probably because it was such a failure. I had appropriated one of my brother's embossed pencils, whittled his name off it with a knife, and declared it my own. Was I ever dismayed to discover that declaring something to be true doesn't make it so. "It's mine. I didn't carve his name off it," I wailed doggedly, believing this is how lying was conducted, but sensing that something had gone terribly wrong. I was offering up the right words, but nobody was buying them. I had so much to learn.

Young humans are graceless liars. Shortly before my pencil episode, the brother in question had sworn a solemn oath that he had received on Christmas a peppermint stick the size of a fence post. Never mind that we had all spent Christmas together, that no one else recalled a 100-pound candy cane. He would not waver.

Lying takes years of practice to perfect. But it's a worthwhile endeavor. Deception is not a subset of communication. Recall that communication is about manipulating others to your own benefit. So I propose that in the world's first conversation some animal mother called her infant toward a mound bustling with nutritious ants; and in the second, she told the mother next door that the ants were rancid.

When two animals covet the same ant, fruit, or nest hole, it behooves them to use communication (rather than tooth and claw) to deflect each other from it. Thus many animals are adept fibbers. The male barn swallow who discovers his female in the embrace of another male will screech out, "Predator coming!" The cheating hearts will fly apart and take cover. The Formosan squirrel from Taiwan takes a proactive approach with his lies, shouting "Predator!" after his own mating bout. This sends competing males into the trees, delays the female's next mating, and gives the liar's sperm a head start. The burrowing owl of the American West, when it hears a badger approach its den, issues a call that mimics the buzz of a rattlesnake. Sometimes an animal's entire life can become a lie. Male orangutans who aren't able to win their own territory become homeless wanderers. In this case, their bodies stay small and slim - female-looking. These cross-dressers slip past bullying males, and sneak up on unsuspecting females. The result of this physical lie is an impressive reproductive rate.

All those are examples of instinctual or evolved lies. But occasionally an animal (besides the human) seems to make a conscious effort to mislead another. Among baboons, it's the young who seem most devious. One little devil reportedly learned to deflect his mother's wrath by standing erect, eyeing the horizon with terror, and screeching an alarm call. Another youngster specialized in false accusations of child abuse. This prodigy would watch a female baboon dig up a juicy root, then screech, "She hit me!" His mother, fooled into a protective rage, would barrel over and chase the "abuser" away from a hard-earned meal. The chimpanzees are expert liars, too. One report involves a lothario who was leaf-clipping toward a fertile female, and who stuffed the leaf in his mouth when the boss-chimp happened by. I wasn't leaf-clipping! Chimp scholar Frans de Waal reports on a low-ranking male who was displaying his penis to a female when a high-ranking male came on the scene. The would-be-suitor clapped his hands over his crotch, blotting out the message. de Waal also witnessed a male with ambitions for higher office trying to disguise his physical communication. When the chimp spotted the alpha male, instinct spread a "fear grin" across his face. But this self-aware fellow, consciously hoping to conceal his mental state, reached up and squeezed his lips shut over his teeth: I ain't scared of you! Also, chimps of both sexes observe uncharacteristic silence when copulating within earshot of the alpha male.

We humans also do a lot of our deceiving to hide copulations. After all, if a female wants to copulate with a male who is already pair-bonded, why try to fight the first female off when you can just duck behind a shrub with the male? If the other female should appear, you can always squeeze your lips into an expression of innocence. Of course humans lie to protect other important resources, too. In my culture, no employee in his right mind informs the boss-human when he starts looking for a better job. He conceals his personal goals from the boss, who might punish him for disloyalty. Even when I'm hunting and gathering in the aisles of Macy's I endeavor to protect the best resources for myself. I do not shout out, "Hey, ladies! Big rack of Liz Claiborne on sale here! Come on over!"

This is all just the tip of the iceberg of lies. Humans lie all day long. We do it so often it doesn't even require much effort: "I'm fine, thanks." "I don't mind waiting." "What a cute baby." "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." A recent experiment monitored pairs of strangers killing time in a waiting room, and found that, in a human, the lies flow like a babbling brook. In the ten-minute test period, 60 percent of the subjects rattled off an average of three fibs apiece. As you might expect, humans with differing personalities, or differing twenty-third chromosomes, dispense their deceptions differently. Extroverted humans are handier with a lie than are introverts. And while males and females seem equally prolific, the sexes tend to dole out deception for different reasons: Females more often lie in the interest of maintaining social harmony and soothing others; males are more likely to dissemble in a way that brightens their own image.

Researchers have found that spitting out the words is just half the battle in unfurling the successful falsehood. The body is harder to manipulate into a misleading posture. Consider the "Duchenne smile." Named for a scientist who mapped facial muscles, the Duchenne smile is an involuntary expression that involves the mouth, cheeks, and eyes. It turns up when we're genuinely happy. And it's extremely difficult to fake. Most humans can manage the mouth and cheeks, but even professional models have a hard time forcibly tensing the muscles around the eyes without looking like they're about to hit someone. And forget about holding that look. An honest and natural expression can live for about four seconds on the face before it starts to quiver and crumble. Add to that the tension that creeps into a self-conscious voice, and the other twitches and tells that flicker through our faces, hands, and feet, and lying can become a rather strenuous exercise. But from childhood on, we practice doggedly. And we do improve. I can't say that I, personally, being both an introvert and a female, would perform any more convincingly if I stole a pencil today than I did as a child. But I think I've learned to whip out a, "No that didn't hurt," and a "I had a lovely time," at a reassuring tone and pace.

For better or worse, humans are dismal lie detectors. Even our best scientific tools - which measure everything from a teensy change in temperature around the eye, to brain activity patterns, to "micro-expressions" flickering across a fibber's face - even the best miss at least one lie in ten. And human practitioners are far worse at lie-catching, judging from controlled experiments. The public, most police, and even judges only catch a lie about 50 percent of the time, which is the same rate they'd achieve predicting the outcome of a coin toss.

So lying does, in fact, work. Crimes of communication do pay. And although other apes and animals can spin a yarn now and then, no creature on Earth can match the 18 lies-per-hour rate demonstrated by the animal we might call the Unreliable Ape. Humans communicate at a breakneck pace, and pell-mell prevaricating is part of the package.

Meet the Author

Hannah Holmes is the author of The Well-Dressed Ape, Suburban Safari and The Secret Life of Dust. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Discover, Outside, and many other publications. She was a frequent contributor on science and nature subjects for the Discovery Channel Online. She lives with her husband and dog in Portland, Maine.

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