What makes people different from other animals?
It’s not language: That’s shared by all kinds of social creatures, from prairie dogs to dolphins. It’s not agriculture: Some ants also farm. It’s not tools: Our primate cousins use them, and so do dolphins. Not medicine: Again, primates self-medicate.
The aim of Hannah Holmes’ The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself is to remind us how integrated into the natural world we are, and she succeeds on most counts.
When scientists encounter something new, they describe its qualities: preferred food, physical traits, habitat, mating habits. Holmes cleverly applies this type of description to humans.
We begin with a tour of the body — what colors and shapes one can expect a human to come in, what the differences are between men and women. She peppers her exploration with cocktail-party-ready factoids: Pale skin is probably an adaptation to allow for more vitamin D to be produced. Our mouths are toxic, and a human bite can kill.
Though we aren’t the fastest sprinters, there aren’t many marathoner species besides us, Holmes says. Our strange, two-legged body is ideal for distance running, and few animals can keep going for as long as we can.
And then there is our strange trek up the food chain. We started as cat food, hunted on the savannah by tigers and lions. Once we got good with the tools, we started killing our former predators for fur. We’re the apex predators now — and it might be the best anti-predator adaptation the world has yet seen.
There is, too, our propensity to guard our territory. Holmes notes that guests often indicate submission before entering an apartment: By knocking and waiting to be received, they show that they understand whose domain it is.
Our relationship with food is also worth considering. About six million children under the age of 5 die of malnutrition every year, but in developed countries, slenderness is an indicator of desirability. This might have something to do with our obsession with status, an obsession we share with most social animals.
Given all her quirky observations, I wish Holmes had resisted over-writing and trusted her material more. Sometimes, in a quest to be poetic, she writes sentences that don’t even make sense: “If the jaws of our ancestors can only mumble that I’m equipped to eat anything, then I’d at least like to know how much — of whatever — I should consume today.”
I think this is supposed to be a reflection on how the shape of our jaws allows us to eat omnivorously. But it just interrupts a perfectly interesting examination of the human diet.
This is particularly frustrating because Holmes’ sharp observations can easily stand alone. For example, it certainly is weird that we, as a species, tend toward body modification: hair dye, makeup, tattoos, plastic surgery. It makes sense that the invisible hand of evolution is at work, and yet I hadn’t considered it.
So what makes us human? While other social animals seem to show some moral tendencies, few reach the level of people. Rather than being nasty and brutish, we’re remarkably empathetic — not only of each other, but toward other animals. Environmentalism is uniquely human, Holmes suggests. She notes that there are few animals that would allow their former predators — big cats like cougars — back onto their land in order to preserve the habitat.