The Naked Woman

By Desmond Morris

Vintage Books USA

Copyright © 2005 Desmond Morris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780099453581

Chapter One

The Evolution

To the zoologist, human beings are tailless apes with very large brains. Their most astonishing feature is just how incredibly successful they have been. While other apes cower in their last retreats, awaiting the arrival of the chainsaw, the 6,000 million humans have infested almost the entire globe, spreading so far and so fast that, like a plague of giant locusts, they have dramatically changed the landscape.

The secret of their success has been their ability to live in larger and larger populations where, even at the highest densities, they are able to adapt to the stresses of life and continue to breed under conditions that any other ape would find intolerable. Combined with this ability is an insatiable curiosity that keeps them ever searching for new challenges.

This magic combination of friendliness and curiosity has been made possible by an evolutionary process called neoteny, which has seen humans retain juvenile characters into adult life. Other animals are playful when they are young, but lose this quality when they mature. Humans remain playful all their lives - they are the Peter Pan species that never grows up. Of course, once they have become adult, they call play by different names; they refer to it as art or research, sport or philosophy, music or poetry, travel or entertainment. Like childhood play, all these activities involve innovation, risk-taking, exploration and creativity. And it is these activities that have made us truly human.

Men and women have not followed this evolutionary trend in quite the same way. Both have gone a long way down the 'childlike-adult' path, but they have advanced at slightly different rates with certain features. Men are slightly more childlike in their behaviour, women in their anatomy. For instance:

At the age of thirty, men are 15 times more accident-prone than women. This is because men have retained the risk-taking element of child's play more strongly than women. Although this quality frequently gets men into trouble, it was a valuable asset back in primeval times when, in order to succeed in the hunt, men were forced to take risks. Primeval women were too valuable to risk on the hunt, but the males of the tribe were expendable, so they became the specialized risk-takers. If a few of them died in the process, it did not reduce the breeding abilities of the small tribes, but if a few women died, then the breeding rate was immediately threatened. It is important to remember that, in primeval times, there were so few of us alive on the planet that breeding rates were all-important.

There are more male inventors than female inventors. Risk-taking was not only physical, it was also mental. Innovation always involves risk - trying out something unknown rather than relying on well-tried, trusted traditions. Women had to be cautious. In their primeval role at the very centre of tribal society, with responsibility for almost everything except hunting, they could not afford to make costly mistakes. During the course of evolution they became better at doing several things at once; they became more fluent verbal communicators; their senses of smell, hearing, touch and colour vision were all superior to those of the males; they became better nurturers - more sensitive parents; and they became more resistant to disease - their health as mothers was vitally important.

All of this added up to a difference in male and female brains, in which men retained more 'little boy' features than women did 'little girl' qualities. Men became more imaginative and sometimes perverse. Women became more sensible and caring. These differences suited their roles in society. They complemented one another and the combination spelled success.

Physically the story was rather different. Because of the new division of labour that was evolving, men had to be physically stronger, and more athletic, for the hunt. The average male body contains 28 kg (57 lb) of muscle, the female only 15 kg (33 lb). The typical male body is 30 per cent stronger, 10 per cent heavier, and 7 per cent taller than the typical female body. The female body, being so important for reproduction, had to be better protected against starvation. As a result, the average woman's curvaceous body contains 25 per cent fat, while the stringy male has only 12.5 per cent.

This greater retention of puppy-fat in the female was a strongly infantile characteristic, and with it went a whole host of other juvenile features that served her well. Adult males had been programmed by evolution to be strongly protective of their children. To thrive, the slow-growing human offspring required the assistance of both parents. Paternal responses to the rounded, fat-covered bodies of human babies were so strong that they could be exploited by the adult females. The more physical baby features the females displayed, the more protective responses they could elicit in their mates.

The result of this was that adult women's voices remained higher pitched than men's. Deep male voices operate at 130-145 cycles a second. High female voices operate at 230-255 cycles a second. In other words, women kept childlike voices. Women also retained more juvenile facial features and, most conspicuously, kept their childlike hair pattern. While adult males grew their heavier brows, chins and noses, and their moustaches, beards and hairy chests, women kept their smooth, finer-boned, baby-faces.

So, to sum up - as the human sexes advanced down their evolutionary pathway, towards greater and greater neoteny, the males behaved in a more and more childlike way, while showing fewer physical changes, while the females developed more and more childlike physical qualities, while showing fewer childlike mental qualities.

It is important to make a point here about the degree of difference between men and women. I have been concentrating on listing the various differences between the sexes, but it is crucial to remember that both human sexes are 100 times more neotenous in every respect than the sexes of other species. The differences between men and women are very real and very interesting, but they remain very slight. I have dwelt on them here only because it is important to establish, at the start, the fact that the human female's body is more advanced - that is, more neotenous - than the male's in many ways. Understanding this will help to clarify many of the features of the female anatomy that we meet as we travel from head to toe. It does not explain everything, because there have, in addition, been many highly specialized evolutionary developments in female anatomy, particularly in sexual and reproductive features, that make a woman's body such a highly evolved and wonderfully refined organism. As we shall see ...

Chapter Two

The Hair

There is scarcely a woman alive today who allows her hair to grow as nature intended. If she did, she would end up with a mane that reached down to her knees, or, if she were dark-skinned, with a huge woolly bush that dominated her skull. Just how our remote, primeval ancestors managed to cope with these extravagant hair patterns, before they had invented knives, scissors, combs and other grooming tools, is never discussed by anthropologists, perhaps because they have no answer. Often, when prehistoric people are described in books, the illustrations show, in their imaginative reconstructions, women who have somehow mysteriously paid a visit to the hairdresser before posing. Their hair is always too short. Unless hairdressing, rather than prostitution, is the world's oldest profession, there is something wrong here, and the error conceals one of the great mysteries of female anatomy - namely, why does the human female grow such ridiculously long tresses? In an ancient, tribal world, such an exaggerated, swishing cape of hair would prove to be a serious encumbrance, reminiscent of a peacock's tail. What was the evolutionary advantage of such an excessive development?

Even odder is the fact that, apart from the top of her head, her armpits and her genitals, the typical human female is virtually hairless. It is true that, under a magnifying glass, it is possible to see tiny, stunted hairs all over her skin, but from a distance these are invisible and her skin is functionally naked. This makes her metre-long head hair even more outlandish.

It is not too difficult to trace the human hair pattern back to its origins. When a chimpanzee foetus is about twenty-six weeks old it displays a hair distribution that is very similar to our adult one. The fact that, in humans, this pattern survives into adulthood is yet another example of neoteny. Unlike the apes, who grow a full coat before they are born, we retain the foetal hair pattern all our lives. Men are less advanced than women in this respect, having hairier bodies, with long moustaches and beards, but both sexes remain functionally naked over most of their body surface. Even the hairiest of males would gain no comfort from his chest-hairs on a freezing night, or avoid sunburn in intense heat.

So it would seem that nature has dealt us an extremely odd hairstyle, when we are compared with any other species. The foetal explanation may tell us where we acquired our bizarre adult hair pattern, but it does not tell us what survival advantage we gained from keeping it. Inevitably, where there is no obvious explanation, speculative ideas abound.

Proponents of the aquatic theory of human origin have suggested that we lost our body fur as an adaptation to swimming, but retained our head hair to protect the tops of our heads from the rays of the sun. They have also suggested that the metre-long female head hair was useful for infants to cling on to when swimming with their mothers. Critics of the aquatic theory consider this to be farfetched. If mothers were diving for food in the water, they would have been unlikely to allow their infants to accompany them. Also, if our ancestors evolved in a hot African climate, it is likely that their hair pattern was not long and flowing, but much bushier - closer to that seen on modern African heads.

The idea of scalp hair as protective does, however, have some merit, with or without an aquatic location. If primeval humans became daytime hunter/gatherers on the African savannahs they would require a shield from the intense heat of the tropical sun. Thick head hair would provide that, while keeping the rest of the skin naked would dramatically increase cooling by sweating. (Sweat cools five times as efficiently on naked skin as it does on a furry coat.) If other African animals retained their body fur, this was presumably because they were most active at dawn and dusk, when the sun was not blazing down on them. Early humans were typically daytime animals, like other apes and monkeys.

This may explain the typical African hairstyle - a thick bushy covering over the scalp, efficiently insulating the brain from overheating - but it does not help to clarify the mystery of the long, flowing hair of humans from the cooler regions to the north. Some anthropologists have suggested that the very long head hair helped to keep the bodies of the northern peoples warm in winter - like a natural cape thrown over the shoulders and hanging down the back. As they crouched up at night, the great mane of hair could have acted almost like a blanket against the bitter cold. It may even have given them the idea for making their very first clothing by wrapping animal skins around their bodies. But if this were the case, why did the cold-country humans not re-grow a whole coat of thick fur to protect them? As before, there are serious flaws in the argument.

The most likely explanation is that the bizarre human hair pattern acts as a species flag - a display that set us apart from all our close relatives (relatives that we have long since eliminated). If we try to picture a little group of our remote ancestors, long before they developed clothing or any kind of cutting implement, it is clear that they would look very different from anything else on the planet. With their naked bodies surmounted by long swishing capes or gigantic woolly bushes, they would immediately be identifiable as members of this newfangled species that walks about on its hind legs. This may seem an odd way to label a species, but a quick look at the other apes and monkeys soon shows how often strange hair patterns have arisen as species identification markers. There is a rich variety of crests, manes, capes, beards, moustaches and brightly coloured hair patches. Primates are predominantly visual animals and it follows that displaying conspicuous visual signals will be the quickest and most efficient way of distinguishing one species from another.

In their primeval condition, our remote human ancestors, with their naked bodies and long head hair, could be spotted far off in the distance, and easily differentiated from their furry-bodied cousins. Coming slightly closer, it would then become possible to distinguish between the sexes. The males, with their hairy faces, could not be confused with the naked-faced females.

There is, however, more to the human hair patterns than just species and gender identification. As human beings began to spread out from their original homeland in Africa and were forced to adapt to different environments, these new peoples started to differ more and more from the tropical ones they left behind. The need to adapt to different climates set them off on evolutionary pathways leading to the development of several distinct racial types. Finding themselves struggling to survive in hot, dry deserts, or in moderately warm temperate zones, or in the freezing northlands, their bodies had to become modified if they were to survive. Once these modifications had been achieved it was important they should not be lost. As with any other evolutionary trend, barriers had to be set up that would reduce interbreeding. The different races had to look as different from one another as possible. One of the quickest ways to achieve this was by varying the human hair pattern. Woolly hair, crinkly hair, wavy hair, straight hair, blond hair - variations of this type could quickly label human groups as being different from one another.

This process obviously started to gain momentum at an early stage, as humans spread their range wider and wider across the globe. There is little doubt that we were on the way to evolving as a new group of closely related species - tropical humans, desert humans, temperate humans, polar humans, and so on. Our different hairstyles were the first hint that this process was taking place. But before it could get very far, the human story took a dramatic new turn. Through our advanced intelligence, we became incredibly mobile. We invented boats and ships, we tamed horses and rode them, we invented the wheel and made coaches, we built trains and cars, railways and motorways, and eventually aeroplanes. The racial differences that had started to develop were still at a very preliminary stage. Only two kinds had made any headway - those concerned purely with heat and humidity (differences in skin pigmentation, the density of sweat glands, and such features) and those concerned with visual labels - the hair patterns.

Modern human populations have little use today for the climatic adaptations of their bodies. They are specializations that have become almost obsolete. We have learnt to tame our environments with our clothing, with fire and central heating, with refrigeration and air conditioning. The surviving differences between the races are no longer important. As for the different hair patterns that arose as isolating mechanisms, helping to keep the different types apart, they are today nothing but an outdated nuisance. As we no longer do keep apart, but mix together all over the world, they only lead to disharmony. In the future, as our populations mix more and more, these isolating mechanisms should eventually disappear altogether, but in the meantime they need to be understood. If we imagine wrongly that they reflect deeper differences between the races, they will continue to cause trouble. They may be conspicuous, but they are nevertheless trivial and superficial and should be viewed as such.


Excerpted from The Naked Woman by Desmond Morris Copyright © 2005 by Desmond Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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