What's So Special About The Human Animal?

'Well-Dressed Ape' Author Hannah Holmes i i

Hannah Holmes noticed other members of the animal kingdom get classified to the nth degree, so she set out to do the same for humans. Jim Daniels hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Daniels
'Well-Dressed Ape' Author Hannah Holmes

Hannah Holmes noticed other members of the animal kingdom get classified to the nth degree, so she set out to do the same for humans.

Jim Daniels

Science writer Hannah Holmes has studied everything from the hissing beetles of Madagascar to the spider on her window. She's even studied space dust. Now, she turns her scientific eye to Homo sapiens for her book, The Well-Dressed Ape.

Holmes uncovers a variety of remarkable facts about humans. For example, she notes that the brain consumes 20 percent of a person's daily calories, and that women are more likely than men to wake up during surgery.

Excerpt: 'The Well-Dressed Ape'

Book Cover 'The Well-Dressed Ape'

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.

Of course, there are differences between children and chipmunks. For one thing, human young are experts at learning. And once they learn they're being manipulated, they often rebel. Second, as humans mature, our enormous brains allow for enormous differences in behavior from one of us to the next. When you wish to manipulate the behavior of an adult human, it becomes more efficient to reason with the animal than to exploit its basic instincts.

Despite the way my early experience with animals has deepened my understanding of humans, I grew up believing a bold line separated my species from all others: There are animals, and there are humans. After all, in my everyday world, the complexity of human behavior underscores our uniqueness and distracts us from the universal traits that unite humans with all other creatures.

But then, for a previous book, I spent a year studying the small ecosystem of my backyard. I got to know my local squirrels and crows, worms and ants, and learned how they all interact with their environment. It wasn't until the end of that book that I circled around to the animal that is me. What are the differences, I began to wonder, between children and chipmunks? I mean, what are the real, biological, brain-ological, immutable differences? And more intriguing, what are the real, biological, brain-ological, immutable commonalities? It was then that I realized I'd never seen a biological fact sheet on the species we call Homo sapiens. And that struck me as strange.

Whenever biologists discover a new animal it's their custom to crank the creature through a factual sausage grinder, producing tidy links of information. With academic detachment they tabulate the number of legs and teeth, note food preferences, and characterize habits of reproduction. A porcupine, for instance, emerges with a fact sheet something like this:

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: This is a fifteen- pound mammal with big teeth and little eyes. Specialized hairs on the back puncture the mouth of predators.
HABITAT: The animal prefers to feed in treetops but will also browse on the ground. It rests in rock burrows when available.
RANGE: North America, including the tundras of Canada and Alaska.
BEHAVIOR: The animal is nocturnal and mostly solitary. Contrary to myth he cannot hurl his quills; in fact, he can become stuck to his victim when the quills refuse to separate.
REPRODUCTION: Precarious.

And so on, addressing the animal's perceptive senses, communication, diet, environmental impacts, and predators. Every species chugs through the same machinery, emerging as a standardized profile. The fact sheet is a handy way to summarize an animal's place in the web of life.

I've read hundreds of these, describing everything from the threetoed sloth to the nine- banded armadillo and the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. But I've never encountered a full description of the twolegged ape. We Homo sapiens, so eager to describe the rest of the world, have been chary about committing our own natural history to paper.

This seems unfortunate. For one thing, it reinforces the notion that we're not normal animals. It lends the impression that we're too wonderful to summarize; that although the giraffe can be corralled in paragraphs, the human cannot. That's unfair to other species. On the flip side, it suggests we're misfits, as animals go. It lends the impression that we're not worthy to take our place beside the gemsbok and the gorilla; that we are excluded from the brotherhood of mammals. This is unfair to my species.

It also seems unnecessarily dour. What could be more fun than describing the human, after all? What color would you consider the animal to be? Regarding diet, is there anything on Earth that we humans won't put in our mouths? As for communication, does my smile or my outstretched palm send the same message as a chimpanzee's version of those gestures? Can the human mate with any other species, the way donkeys can mate with horses, or lions with tigers?

A proper description of the species will answer these questions, and some larger ones, too: Who are we, animally speaking? Sure, we're clever — but compared to what? Yes, we're obsessed with mating, but any more or less than other animals? And our males behave quite differently from our females — but is that unusual? Are humans apex predators like lions or bears, or do we have to watch our backs like gazelles and rabbits? Can we survive as high in the mountains as mountain goats? And if we can, how many square miles does each human require? Sure, we communicate a great deal, but so do parrots and prairie dogs. Our behavior is tremendously tool centered, but the list of other creatures who make and wield implements is growing steadily as we watch them more closely.

Happily, the human (and only the human) delights in analyzing itself. Giraffe nor Gila monster will spend time with chin in hand, watching her neighbors and wondering. But humans analyze ourselves for the fun of it. We, and only we, want to know where the child and the chipmunk overlap, and where they diverge.

Excerpted from The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself by Hannah Holmes. Copyright © 2008 by Hannah Holmes. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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A Natural History of Myself

by Hannah Holmes

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