The Well-Dressed Ape
For readers of Frans de Waal and Diane Ackerman, The Well-Dressed Apeis a gleeful naturalist's extensive, profound, and entertaining biological description of a much-vaunted mammal, the human, including a treasure-trove of factoids about every species that shares this planet with us, and fresh answers to age-old human questions- Who are we, animally speaking? How do we compare? Where do we fit in?
The human animal's ballyhooed status as the only clever tool-user who can talk about our feelings is crumbling. Prairie dogs can make up words for new animals. Crows are born with the ability to make tools. Elephants recognise and stroke the bones of a lost family member. As biologists delve into these subjects, they're demonstrating that we're not nearly as unique as we once thought. It's the perfect time, scientifically speaking, to reassess our place in the animal kingdom.
The Well-Dressed Apedoes just that. Science journalist Hannah Holmes wryly adopts the format of a biologist's boilerplate description of an animal, with chapters for Diet, Habitat, Reproduction, and so on, to describe our species in comparison to every other. The narrative wraps around the author's own corpus and behaviour, which stands in for all of humanity.
Yet even as she exposes our animal nature, Holmes discovers that Homo sapiens exhibits some traits and behaviours found in no other animal on earth. We can alter our habitat in ways that shame the beavers and moles. And although other animals communicate far more than we realised, our own linguistic ability is an absolute marvel. Our species is among the most generous, and is clearly the most thoughtful. Not so admirably, we kill ourselves any number of ways, including by eating ourselves to death. All this in addition to a patently bizarre physical appearance, and shocking lack of defences.
With a mix of personal stories, from face-to-face examining her own body in a mirror to face-to-face with a polar bear on the western shore of Hudson Bay, Canada, and deft synthesis of the latest scientific theories and observations, with an engaging voice and winning sense of humour, Hannah Holmes gives us a fresh way to understand ourselves in the world. And trying to understand ourselves is, after all, one of those things that only humans do.
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