Book Review: New in Nonfiction
A delightful anthropological study-cum-memoir about what unites and divides humans from the animal kingdom
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 6, 2009
The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myselfby Hannah Holmes
Random House, 368 pp., $25
"[T]he human, built for distance, sweats buckets. In sogginess per inch of hide, the human animal is bested only by the horse." I inserted that little nugget into every conversation I had for a week (note to self: discussion of sweat production in polite society definitely not okay); it's just one of many fascinating facts trotted out in the delightful anthropological study-cum-memoir The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself. Holmes endeavors, quite ambitiously, to properly classify the human beast alongside the animal kingdom while simultaneously delineating that which makes humans unique, such as our ability to ponder the morality of our actions (thus enabling the formation of the likes of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). With something of a twinkling of the eye, Holmes adopts a science-wonk voice to discuss messy human behavior, as when she recalls her first love, a relationship she describes as her "first serious attempt at pair-bonding." Although the book's title suggests something more confessional, Holmes mostly uses her own body and experiences as jumping-off points for macro-scale investigation. A chapter on behavior breaks down her daily routine by linking a human characteristic (such as road rage) with its animal analog (murderous, territorial chimpanzees, for instance). Holmes describes herself as a science journalist, which sounds dry – and the book is indeed quite dense – but throughout she makes the material hugely engaging, peppered with wry asides (having never reproduced, she refers to herself as the "dead-end twig" of the family tree) and the occasional startlingly lyrical moment, as when she ponders staring too long at her own eyeball in the mirror: "Am I looking at myself or into myself? Brittle stars don't suffer such anxieties. They measure light and act accordingly." That's what makes a star a star; what makes us human, as Holmes' book proves again and again, is the ability to make ourselves a little crazy contemplating who we are and how we came to be that way.