May 12, 2015

The City Is Not A Concrete Jungle But "The Human Zoo"

Last Sunday, The Hindu profiled a bunch of people who left the city to live and work closer to nature. This is third such story in recent months that I know of (see, first and second). It reminded me of a book about life in the city that I read a few years ago and one which left a deep impression on me. Thought I'll share what I learned from the book with you.

It's called "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris, the renowned zoologist/ ethologist (ethology is the study of animal behaviour) published in 1969 and re-published in 1994. Morris is better known for "The Naked Ape" but I consider this little known gem of his to be of far greater significance.

In "The Human Zoo" he makes uncanny comparisons between the patterns of human life in cities with those of animals held in captivity. Sample the introduction from page one:
When the pressures of modern living become heavy, the harassed city-dweller often refers to his teeming world as a concrete jungle. This is a colourful way of describing the pattern of life in a dense urban community, but it is also grossly inaccurate, as anyone who has studied a real jungle will confirm.

Under normal conditions, in their natural habitats, wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, attack their offspring, develop stomach ulcers, become fetishists, suffer from obesity, form homosexual pair-bonds, or commit murder. Among human city-dwellers, needless to say, all of these things occur. Does this, then, reveal a basic difference between the human species and other animals? At first glance it seems to do so. But this is deceptive. Other animals do behave in these ways under certain circumstances, namely when they are confined in the unnatural conditions of captivity. The zoo animal in a cage exhibits all these abnormalities that we know so well from our human companions. Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.

The comparison we must make is not between the city-dweller and the wild animal, but between the city-dweller and the captive animal. The modern human animal is no longer living in conditions natural for his species. Trapped, not by a zoo collector, but by his own brainy brilliance, he has set himself up in a huge, restless menagerie where he is in constant danger of cracking under the strain.
I first read the book around five or six years ago. I came across it at a time when I was beginning to question whether a vast conglomeration of millions of people over a small area, namely in a city, that necessitates a) centralised supply of food, water, cooking fuel, transportation fuel, clothing, building material and so on from sources far away, and b) consumed at a rate that is constantly increasing; can ever be sustainable. Desmond Morris comes from a completely different perspective, that of a zoologist, and looks at patterns of human behaviour in cities to lucidly illustrate "the increasing price we have to pay for indulging [our inventive urges] and the ingenious ways in which we contrive to meet that price, no matter how steep it becomes."

It's the most fascinating account. Re-reading bits and pieces of the book now I see how much I have forgotten and perhaps need to read again. What I remember most from the book is the second chapter on status struggles titled "Status and Super Status" which relates closely to my interest in consumption patterns in our society. Morris says that in any organized group of mammals there is always a struggle for social dominance. Each adult individual has a particular social rank, giving him his position, or status, in the group hierarchy.

He then goes on to provide ten commandments of dominance, the first of which states: "You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance." Then he goes on to show how this holds true for Baboons and Humans alike. What's truly insightful is what Morris has to say about the consequence of status struggle in a group:
The general result is a constant condition of status tension. Under natural conditions this tension remains tolerable because of the limited size of the social groupings. If, however, in the artificial environment of captivity, the group size becomes too big, or the space available too small, then the status ‘rat race’ soon gets out of hand, dominance battles rage uncontrollably, and the leaders of the packs, prides, colonies or tribes come under severe strain. When this happens, the weakest members of the group are frequently hounded to their deaths, as the restrained rituals of display and counter-display degenerate into bloody violence.
This, to me, accurately describes the pattern of events unfolding in this country and elsewhere in the world. I do not endorse everything in the book. It has its limits. But what I really like about it is that it transcends the narrow vocabulary of concepts through which we perceive today's reality. It's a reminder of the need to abandon single, narrow frames of looking at the deep malaise in which we find ourselves. There are so many of them and each one is useful. But I have a problem when a proponent of any given frame argue that it alone is the defining frame from which to understand our predicament: Capitalism vs. Socialism, Globalisation vs. Localisation, Stupid Policies vs. Smart Policies, Stupid Political Class vs. Smart Political Class, Growth vs. De-growth, Fossil fuels vs. Renewables, 1% vs. 99%, West Vs. East, Monetary System vs. Gift Economy, and so on.

One thing I've learned after reading the Russian book series by Vladimir Megre (see mention in left navigation bar) is that no matter how confident we may be about our Weltanschauung, we must always leave scope for new ways of perceiving and understanding reality. Sometimes there are explanations we may never have considered before in our wildest imagination which may be equally valid than the one we hold dear.

Also recommended is the BBC TV documentary series "The Human Animal" which takes Desmond Morris around the world to reveal that patterns of human behaviour are common across national, regional, and racial differences. It is differently organised than the book and contains material from his other works as well. Like the book, the series is little known and also rated highly (8.8 on IMDB from less than 100 users).

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