Hardcover, 368 pages
Published by Random House, January 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6541-7 (1-4000-6541-0)

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Synopsis of The Well-Dressed Ape

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.

Hannah and friend (yes, it's a skunk)

photo by Jim Daniels

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.

Excerpt from The Well-Dressed Ape



I remember my first conscious effort at deception with ghastly clarity, probably because it was such a failure. I had appropriated one of my brother's embossed pencils, whittled his name off it with a knife, and declared it my own. Was I ever dismayed to discover that declaring something to be true doesn't make it so. "It's mine. I didn't carve his name off it," I wailed doggedly, believing this is how lying was conducted, but sensing that something had gone terribly wrong. I was offering up the right words, but nobody was buying them. I had so much to learn.

Young humans are graceless liars. Shortly before my pencil episode, the brother in question had sworn a solemn oath that he had received on Christmas a peppermint stick the size of a fence post. Never mind that we had all spent Christmas together, that no one else recalled a 100-pound candy cane. He would not waver.

Lying takes years of practice to perfect. But it's a worthwhile endeavor. Deception is not a subset of communication. Recall that communication is about manipulating others to your own benefit. So I propose that in the world's first conversation some animal mother called her infant toward a mound bustling with nutritious ants; and in the second, she told the mother next door that the ants were rancid.

When two animals covet the same ant, fruit, or nest hole, it behooves them to use communication (rather than tooth and claw) to deflect each other from it. Thus many animals are adept fibbers. The male barn swallow who discovers his female in the embrace of another male will screech out, "Predator coming!" The cheating hearts will fly apart and take cover. The Formosan squirrel from Taiwan takes a proactive approach with his lies, shouting "Predator!" after his own mating bout. This sends competing males into the trees, delays the female's next mating, and gives the liar's sperm a head start. The burrowing owl of the American West, when it hears a badger approach its den, issues a call that mimics the buzz of a rattlesnake. Sometimes an animal's entire life can become a lie. Male orangutans who aren't able to win their own territory become homeless wanderers. In this case, their bodies stay small and slim - female-looking. These cross-dressers slip past bullying males, and sneak up on unsuspecting females. The result of this physical lie is an impressive reproductive rate.

All those are examples of instinctual or evolved lies. But occasionally an animal (besides the human) seems to make a conscious effort to mislead another. Among baboons, it's the young who seem most devious. One little devil reportedly learned to deflect his mother's wrath by standing erect, eyeing the horizon with terror, and screeching an alarm call. Another youngster specialized in false accusations of child abuse. This prodigy would watch a female baboon dig up a juicy root, then screech, "She hit me!" His mother, fooled into a protective rage, would barrel over and chase the "abuser" away from a hard-earned meal. The chimpanzees are expert liars, too. One report involves a lothario who was leaf-clipping toward a fertile female, and who stuffed the leaf in his mouth when the boss-chimp happened by. I wasn't leaf-clipping! Chimp scholar Frans de Waal reports on a low-ranking male who was displaying his penis to a female when a high-ranking male came on the scene. The would-be-suitor clapped his hands over his crotch, blotting out the message. de Waal also witnessed a male with ambitions for higher office trying to disguise his physical communication. When the chimp spotted the alpha male, instinct spread a "fear grin" across his face. But this self-aware fellow, consciously hoping to conceal his mental state, reached up and squeezed his lips shut over his teeth: I ain't scared of you! Also, chimps of both sexes observe uncharacteristic silence when copulating within earshot of the alpha male.

We humans also do a lot of our deceiving to hide copulations. After all, if a female wants to copulate with a male who is already pair-bonded, why try to fight the first female off when you can just duck behind a shrub with the male? If the other female should appear, you can always squeeze your lips into an expression of innocence. Of course humans lie to protect other important resources, too. In my culture, no employee in his right mind informs the boss-human when he starts looking for a better job. He conceals his personal goals from the boss, who might punish him for disloyalty. Even when I'm hunting and gathering in the aisles of Macy's I endeavor to protect the best resources for myself. I do not shout out, "Hey, ladies! Big rack of Liz Claiborne on sale here! Come on over!"

This is all just the tip of the iceberg of lies. Humans lie all day long. We do it so often it doesn't even require much effort: "I'm fine, thanks." "I don't mind waiting." "What a cute baby." "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." A recent experiment monitored pairs of strangers killing time in a waiting room, and found that, in a human, the lies flow like a babbling brook. In the ten-minute test period, 60 percent of the subjects rattled off an average of three fibs apiece. As you might expect, humans with differing personalities, or differing twenty-third chromosomes, dispense their deceptions differently. Extroverted humans are handier with a lie than are introverts. And while males and females seem equally prolific, the sexes tend to dole out deception for different reasons: Females more often lie in the interest of maintaining social harmony and soothing others; males are more likely to dissemble in a way that brightens their own image.

Researchers have found that spitting out the words is just half the battle in unfurling the successful falsehood. The body is harder to manipulate into a misleading posture. Consider the "Duchenne smile." Named for a scientist who mapped facial muscles, the Duchenne smile is an involuntary expression that involves the mouth, cheeks, and eyes. It turns up when we're genuinely happy. And it's extremely difficult to fake. Most humans can manage the mouth and cheeks, but even professional models have a hard time forcibly tensing the muscles around the eyes without looking like they're about to hit someone. And forget about holding that look. An honest and natural expression can live for about four seconds on the face before it starts to quiver and crumble. Add to that the tension that creeps into a self-conscious voice, and the other twitches and tells that flicker through our faces, hands, and feet, and lying can become a rather strenuous exercise. But from childhood on, we practice doggedly. And we do improve. I can't say that I, personally, being both an introvert and a female, would perform any more convincingly if I stole a pencil today than I did as a child. But I think I've learned to whip out a, "No that didn't hurt," and a "I had a lovely time," at a reassuring tone and pace.

For better or worse, humans are dismal lie detectors. Even our best scientific tools - which measure everything from a teensy change in temperature around the eye, to brain activity patterns, to "micro-expressions" flickering across a fibber's face - even the best miss at least one lie in ten. And human practitioners are far worse at lie-catching, judging from controlled experiments. The public, most police, and even judges only catch a lie about 50 percent of the time, which is the same rate they'd achieve predicting the outcome of a coin toss.

So lying does, in fact, work. Crimes of communication do pay. And although other apes and animals can spin a yarn now and then, no creature on Earth can match the 18 lies-per-hour rate demonstrated by the animal we might call the Unreliable Ape. Humans communicate at a breakneck pace, and pell-mell prevaricating is part of the package.

Reviews of The Well-Dressed Ape

Advance Praise

‘Who are we, animally speaking?’ asks Holmes in this engaging look at Homo sapiens that uses the same cool objectivity scientists employ in viewing other species. In fact, she begins each chapter with the kind of fact sheet used by biologists to classify species, then adds delightful details based on scientific research and observations of her own body and her husband’s. Comparing the human body with other animals, she notes the pros and cons: the scarcity of body fur, the length and straightness of limbs, teeth and claws unsuitable for hunting or defense, merely adequate eyesight, but an amazing brain and social abilities that greatly compensate for physical shortcomings.

Vanessa Bush, Booklist


November 1, 2008

A pellucid spin through the contours of the human brain and the folds of the human body.

Holmes (Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, 2005, etc.) is a skilled practitioner of the rocks-for-jocks school of science writing. Thus it is that she ventures observations such as, “Noise is a disturbance among air molecules,” and “The orangutan eats for five hours a day. Dust mites eat skin around the clock, without cease.” All that basic science has a point, though, providing the basis for Holmes’s deeper subject of explaining why humans are different from the other denizens of creation, for better or worse. As she appends to her battery of prandial statistics, our species has the evolutionary advantage-maybe-of being able to rip open a package, zap it and consume it in a few minutes, thereby freeing ourselves to do great things such as plan trips to the moon and plot the extinction of other species. The careful reader will learn scads of facts to attend to all kinds of questions they may not have known they had. Why is it that anorexics don’t ovulate? It’s because “nature abhors waste,” including the waste of an egg to a malnourished environment. Do creatures other than humans lie? Sure-a spider who bounces in her web when threatened does so to send the message that she’s many times bigger than she really is. Do animals get divorced? Yes, but they don’t have to pay lawyers to do so. As the author notes, “Flamingo couples almost always split up; masked booby marriages last about half of the time; about 10 percent of mute swan unions dissolve.” Holmes happily details what distinguishes us from them, which turns out to be both less and more than one might have thought.

Careful science meets good writing-a pleasure for fans of Lewis Thomas, Natalie Angier and other interpreters of scientific fact.

Library Journal

Science writer Holmes (Suburban Safari, The Secret Life of Dust), who is also a daughter of a biologist, has never come across a biological fact sheet for the species Homo sapiens. In her new book, she creates and applies this fact sheet to herself and all other humans to show how we fit within the animal kingdom. With humor and clarity, she explores the facts, fictions, and hopes about the species Homo sapiens. Each of the 11 chapters is devoted to one topic (the brain, perception, diet, communication, etc.), beginning with a short page or two of general description on the chapter’s topic as applied to humans, while the remainder of the chapter delves into the topic from a scientific, cultural, and anthropological view. Holmes comfortably uses herself as the example for the topic, and the personalization works well. In reading the fact sheet about the species Homo sapiens we can each see how very much like other animals we are and at the same time how very different. Highly recommended for all science collections.

Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC

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