Chris's Reviews > The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself

The Well-Dressed Ape by Hannah Holmes
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's review
Feb 16, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: adult, nonfiction, not-graphic, voice

As darkness falls, I buck the human impulse to crawl under a furry hide and go to sleep. With a sheaf of journal articles and a tamed flame, I curl into a corner of the couch and compete like crazy. I'm not just writing a book here. I'm trying to write a book that's better than any other book. It takes a lot of time, this competing.

I’m one of those people who is fond of saying I could be a student forever. I already have more degrees than I can use and would happily pursue others purely out of curiosity and an interest in learning. So it’s probably not a surprise to hear that at one point in my life I was seriously considering pursuing some kind of Ph.D. The problem, I felt, was that the necessity to specialize would be too limiting. I didn’t want to focus on writing and reading just one narrow subject the rest of my life, because I’m interested in a little bit of everything. One thing I bumped into that really did intrigue me was a school that offered a “Doctorate of Interrelated Studies,” if I’ve remembered the name correctly. That was all about studying many different fields and making the connections between them.

This book is a little like that, which is what I particularly love about it and why Holmes was quite successful in competing for my attention. It’s a book written for the layperson and I imagine it could get long-winded and obvious for experts in the field(s) she covers, but I found it to be an excellent balance of information, insight, and personality. Holmes is writing a personal examination of the human animal from a biological perspective, a zoological field guide of sorts, to offer a comparison to others in the animal kingdom. So we get human biology and physiology, but learn much about the natural world along the way, as well as anthropology, sociology, psychology, and more. Topics covered by the chapters: physical description, the brain, perception, range, territoriality, diet, reproduction, behavior, communication, predators, and ecosystem impacts. On top of it all, Holmes uses herself as her primary subject for anecdotes to illustrate her points in a way that gets almost memoir-ish at times. I loved the mix of clinical, scientific terminology and folksy, personal voice. Even when I was familiar with the content she was covering, I kept reading to see which turn of phrase might delight me next. A sample bit from the introduction:

I am one of those people with a reputation for being a "natural" with children. Because I produced none of my own, my friends often make the observation with an air of puzzlement, after I've beguiled their offspring out of a sulk or into a game quieter than hurling pot lids.

The honest explanation has seemed too impolite to share: Of course I'm fluent in child. I've spent my whole life around wild animals. . . .

This is why I don’t find children baffling. They are young animals, unrefined in their instincts and impulses. If an animal is shy, I don’t gaze or grab at it, because those gestures are predatory. Instead, I avert my eyes and display something enticing. To avoid frightening the young human who has approached, it’s essential to project positive feelings. When a horse detects the stiffening of a fearful rider, the horse tenses because it has evolved to respect any indication of danger. Inversely, a fearful horse can be soothed by a rider who is at ease. And so it is with the young human: He monitors other humans for hesitations, signs of doubt, signs of danger. I try not to embody any. Thus, by exploiting an animal’s instincts, it’s possible to manipulate its behavior to suit yourself.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Longfellow (new)

Longfellow Good review, as usual. This sounds like a book I will enjoy, perhaps some day soon. Recently, given one word with which to describe myself, I chose "student," so I identify with your own experience.

Also, in my looking around at PhD programs, I actually like the approach I see at UMKC, where I wouldn't be allowed to study only my own discipline even if I wanted to. Each PhD degree must fulfill an "interdisciplinary studies" requirement. The hardest part remains: which one? (not that this is on the current agenda . . .)

Chris Thanks! Knowing just that little bit, I'd say I like the philosophical approach behind UMKC's program.

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