Desmond Morris

For the Australian rugby league footballer, coach and administrator, see Des Morris

Desmond John Morris (born 24 January 1928 in the village of Purton, north Wiltshire, UK) is most famous for his work as a zoologist and ethologist, but is also known as a surrealist artist and author.

Early life and career

He was educated at Dauntsey's School, an independent school in West Lavington, Wiltshire. After military service, he attended the University of Birmingham where he graduated in 1951 with a First Class Honours Degree in Zoology. In 1954, he was awarded a D.Phil. from Oxford University for his doctoral thesis on the Reproductive Behaviour of the Ten-spined Stickleback, supervised by Niko Tinbergen. He then was employed by the Zoological Society of London as Curator of Mammals at the London Zoo, which he left in 1966 in frustration about stagnation at the zoo.

He is sometimes wrongly stated to be a relative of Welsh zoologist, Johnny Morris, but this is not the case.

Writer and broadcaster

He first came to public attention in the 1950s as a presenter of the ITV television programme Zoo Time, but achieved world-wide fame in 1967 with his book "The Naked Ape". The book is an unabashed look at the human species, notable for its focus on humanity's animal-like qualities and our similarity with apes, and for explaining human behaviour as largely evolved to meet the challenges of prehistoric life as a hunter-gatherer. Reprinted many times and in many languages, it continues to be a best-seller.

His later studies, books and television shows have continued this focus on human behaviour, explained from a bluntly zoological point of view. This approach itself, and his specific conclusions, have often attracted controversy.

Morris' theories explaining elements of human behaviour via a zoological lens, in particular via natural evolutionary mechanisms, have been attacked in some quarters of the popular media and by religious fundamentalists and extremists as incomplete, incorrect, or simplistic, though no alternative is ever given or cited. Some explanations have also been criticised for being allegedly male-centred or supporting a sexist view of sexual behaviour. Some contend that his comments are often untestable, and as a result unscientific. However, it is generally a given by more objective scientific minds that his explanations are balanced, well thought out and more liable to be correct. Religious objectors to Darwinism reject on principle the idea humans are dominated by strictly animal instincts. Nevertheless, supporters defend him for starting, or at least bringing into mainstream discussion, the approach of applying principles of animal behaviourism to explaining human behaviour.


In addition to his scientific pursuits, he is an artist in the Surrealist tradition. Morris has exhibited with Joan Miró and contributed significantly to the British Surrealist movement. He had his first solo show in 1948, and has shown regularly ever since. In 1957, he curated an exhibition of chimpanzee paintings and drawings at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, including paintings by a young chimpanzee called Congo.

Film adviser

Morris oversaw the creation of the gestural and body language for the Paleolithic human characters in the 1981 film Quest for Fire.

See also

Selected books

  • The Biology of Art (1963) - a look at the paintings of primates and their relation to human art
  • The Mammals: A Guide to the Living Species (1965) — a comprehensive and compelling listing of all mammal genera, all non-rodent non-bat species, and additional information on select species.
  • The Naked Ape (1967) — an unabashed look at the human species. The book is notable for its focus on humanity's animal-like qualities and our similarity with apes. Reprinted many times and in many languages, it continues to be a best-seller.
  • The Human Zoo (1969) — a continuation of the previous book, analysing human behaviour in big modern societies and their resemblance to animal behaviour in captivity.
  • Intimate Behaviour (1971) — this book examines and analyses any physical contact acted out by human animals. From clapping, to having a hair cut, to hand jive, to patting on the back, to hugging, to babe suckling, to copulation...
  • Manwatching (1977), reprinted as Peoplewatching (2002)
  • Gestures: Their Origin and Distribution (1979)
  • Animal Days (1979) — Autobiographical
  • The Soccer Tribe (1981)
  • Pocket Guide to Manwatching (1982)
  • Inrock (1983)
  • Bodywatching – A Field Guide to the Human Species (1985) — Hundreds of photos analyzing the human body from hair down to the feet.
  • Catwatching (1986) — a study of one of the most popular of household pets across the centuries.
  • Dogwatching (1986) — an in-depth study of "man's best friend".
  • Horsewatching (1989) — subtitled "Why does a horse whinny and everything else you ever wanted to know"
  • Animalwatching (1990)
  • Babywatching (1991)
  • The Human Animal (1994)
  • Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia (1997)
  • The Naked Eye (2001)
  • Dogs: The Ultimate Dictionary of over 1000 Dog Breeds (2001)
  • Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language (2002)
  • The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body (2004)
  • Linguaggio muto (Dumb language) (2004)
  • Watching (2006)
  • The Naked Man: A Study of the Male Body (2008)

External links

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