The well-dressed ape, aka Homo sapiens, is a strange mammal. It mates remarkably often, and with unprecedented affection. With similar enthusiasm, it will eat to the point of undermining its own health-behavior unthinkable in wild animals. The human marks its territory with doors, fences, and plastic flamingos, yet if it's too isolated it becomes depressed. It thinks of itself as complex, intelligent, and in every way superior to other animals-but is it, really?
With wit, humility, and penetrating insight, science journalist Hannah Holmes casts the inquisitive eye of a trained researcher and reporter on . . . herself. And not just herself, but on our whole species-what Shakespeare called "the paragon of animals." In this surprising, humorous, and edifying book, Holmes explores how the human animal-the eponymous well-dressed ape-fits into the natural world, even as we humans change that world in both constructive and destructive ways.
Comparing and contrasting the biology and behavior of humans with that of other creatures, Holmes demonstrates our position as an animal among other animals, a product of-and subject to-the same evolutionary processes. And not only are we animals-we are, in some important ways (such as our senses of smell and of vision), pitiably inferior ones. That such an animal came to exist at all is unlikely. That we have survived and prospered is extraordinary.
At the same time, Holmes reveals the ways in which Homo sapiens stands apart from other mammals and, indeed, all other animals. Despite the vast common ground we share with our fellow creatures, there are significant areas in which we are unique. No other animal, as far as we know, shares the human capacity for self-reflective thought or our talent for changing ourselves or our environment in response to natural challenges and opportunities. One result of these extraordinary characteristics is the spread of our species across the entire planet; another, unfortunately, is global warming.
Deftly mixing personal stories and observations with the latest scientific theories and research results, Hannah Holmes has fashioned an engaging and informative field guide to that oddest and yet most fascinating of primates: ourselves.
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 2008 Reed Business Information.
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January 19, 2009
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