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Late bloomer

Desmond Morris’s reductive work on human sexuality is about a hundred years past its prime

By Leigh E. Rich

The Human Sexes: A Natural History of Man and Woman
By Desmond Morris
St. Martin’s Press

Sure, Rome was built in a day, and every facet of human nature can be explained in a 250-page book.

Megalomania aside, this is exactly what British human behaviorist Desmond Morris attempts—and miserably fails at—in his most recent publication, The Human Sexes: A Natural History of Man and Woman.

There is so much egregiously wrong with the book (which coincides with a current six-part series of the same name on The Learning Channel, for interested television viewers), it’s unclear whether to challenge Morris on serious academic grounds or just toss him aside like superfluous John Gray rubbish. The Human Sexes is pointless and pompous—written in the vein of an elementary textbook—and never really answers what the subtitle conceitedly promises.

For starters, Morris is unsure where to begin or what to talk about, so he opens with a shallow comparison of human physical characteristics: Men are taller and stronger, women are fatter and slower, and so on. At first, his statements seem innocuous, simply detailing the sexually dimorphic picture of our species. Who can argue that the male physique carries more muscle mass, or the female pelvic girdle is a compromise between walking upright and squeezing out live young? Hardly earth-shattering information.

In between these biological enumerations, however, Morris throws in unproven, value-laden fabrications, many of which he contradicts later in the book. For instance, he claims male infants vigorously seek out novel, hammer-like toys, while their subdued counterparts quietly play with objects placed before them. “These differences all occur long before there can have been any adult influences or ‘gender role’ bias. They are clearly inborn and set the tiny boys and girls off on slightly different paths, which they will follow all their lives.”

In the next chapter, however, he writes that humans “are caught inside the strands of the cultural web which the spider of social custom weaves around each of us from the time we are born.”

So, which is it, Desmond: nature or nurture? How can gender traits be “clearly inborn” if culture ensnares us while we’re heading out the birth canal? Unfortunately, Morris repeatedly confuses biology and culture throughout the book, so much so that every human behavior appears somehow genetically rooted and executed. To compensate, he flouts his status as a “scientist” and reiterates that “every attempt is made to remain objective.”

Nonetheless, much of The Human Sexes is unequivocally misogynistic; and in turn, the male is neglected. The fact that it’s taboo to show the erect penis (“the source of human life”) in modern day film irritates Morris. Yet it’s only the pictures of naked women and red-light districts that pervade his book. And the section titled “Sex and Beauty” discusses mainly female beautification ordeals in different cultures (including our very own wet T-shirt contest!).

Here, Morris’ own gender biases ooze from the pages: While a man can supposedly maintain a youthful face by shaving every day, for “an aging female a different problem exists. Her facial skin, so taut and smooth when she is young, becomes looser and more wrinkled with the passage of time … For her, the ultimate answer is to opt for cosmetic surgery … Today she can choose between a face-lift, an eyelid lift, an eye-bag lift, a chemical skin peel or dermabrasion.”

He then proceeds to describe the face lift in excruciating detail, intimating the cherished Western procedure as a “natural” option for women worldwide. It’s merely a cultural belief that women “require” more plastic surgery (as anthropologists have frequently demonstrated).

Half-heartedly, Morris tries to even the balances when discussing the penis (which he incessantly modifies with adjectives like “large” and “huge”) and the penis enlargement operation. Men, “distraught at what they perceive as inferior penis size,” can have fat injected into their “supposedly inadequate” sex organs. If this isn’t quite enough, a man can convince his sexual paramour to undergo “female genitalia enhancement” to narrow the vagina.

“This,” writes Morris, “means that even a small penis will feel huge, both to the male and his surgically improved partner.”

So let’s get this straight: The male is allegedly inadequate, but his counterpart is undoubtedly improved?

And so it meanders through five long chapters, glossing over complex, titanic topics like love, marriage, birth and death. Though aloft behind his scholarly facade, Morris offers nothing scientific: He cites few studies and readily jumps to inane, delusive conclusions. (For example, arranged and multi-wife marriages “cause endless repression, neurosis, lack of personal fulfillment (and) widespread misery,” and “in the primeval forest the act of giving birth is seen as simple and perfectly natural.”)

At most, Morris gives his readers purely anecdotal evidence, robbing examples from cultural anthropology and warping them to fit his genetically determined assumptions. He thoroughly believes “culture extends what nature intends.”

But there’s more to human nature than our evolutionary reproductive success (though he never quite covers this in his book, either), and certainly more to men and women than being young and fecund. Hypocritically, Morris lambastes Islamic followers for believing “all of woman is pudendal,” but The Human Sexes reduces the female to “nothing but one huge sexual organ,” too. Nevermind that increased status and other pleasures in life are often gained beyond the reproductive years.

In the end, The Human Sexes is not scientific enough to be useful and not interesting enough to be inspired reading. The only reason to turn the page is to find out what ballsy assumption Morris might make next.

Rich, L. E. (1998). Late bloomer: Reductive work on sexuality a hundred years past its prime. [Review of the book The Human Sexes: A Natural History of Man and Woman by Desmond Morris.] Tucson Weekly, March 26.

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