Dr. Desmond Morris: Pioneer in the Scientific Understanding of Body Language

Desmond Morris

Dr. Desmond Morris was born in 1928 in Wiltshire, England. An accomplished artist, film maker, world renowned TV presenter and author, he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Zoology from Birmingham University in 1951 and was awarded a D.Phil. degree by Oxford University in 1954.

His first paper on animal behaviour was published in 1952, followed by the publication of a further 47 scientific papers over the next 15 years.

In 1967 Dr. Desmond Morris published his first book on the subject of human behaviour. 'The Naked Ape', a zoologist's study of the human animal. The book is a sensation and goes on sell over 10 million copies worldwide. 

A prolific writer and modern day polymath, Dr. Desmond Morris has produced a groundbreaking and accessible body of work spanning over 50 years.

Exclusive Interview

As a pioneer in the field of human body language, by definition, you wouldn't have had an established body of knowledge to draw upon when you first developed an interest in the topic. With this in mind, how did you initially go about formulating your ideas?

In the 1960s I commented that there were many dictionaries of words but none dealing with actions. As a student of animal behaviour I had previously been studying species where there were no words. Actions, movements, postures, signals, displays - these were the things that I was analyzing in fish, birds and mammals. When I turned to the human species I used the same method - direct observation of what people do, rather than what they say. I set out to make a complete 'ethogram' of human behaviour - that is to say a complete record of every action that a human being is seen to make. I am still working on that.

In addition to being a zoologist, author, TV host and artist, you are also known as an ethologist. What is ethology?

Ethology is the study of anmal behaviour by direct observation. 

In your ground breaking book Manwatchingfirst published in 1977, you state that "as with all scientific research there is, of course the danger that new knowledge can lead to new forms of exploitation of the ignorant by the knowledgeable." 36 years on, would you say that this danger was realised. And if so, how?

Those with a deep understanding of human body language will always be in a better position to interpret the feelings, motives and machinations of others. How they use this is up to them. Con men are good at this, so are magicians; also the best poker players and the best police interrogators. 

Could you tell us about your book Baby: A Portrait of the Amazing First Two Years of Life’? And what in your opinion is the most amazing thing a baby does in the first two years of life?


Perhaps the most astonishing fact about human babies is that, during the nine months between conception and birth, their weight increases by a staggering 3000 million times.

One of the most astonishing discoveries of recent years has been the swimming ability of newborn babies. It used to be claimed that a new baby, placed in water, would quickly drown, but this was due to the way in which early tests were carried out. In those tests, when a baby was gently lowered into warm water face up, it soon began to panic and struggle, and the attempt had to be abandoned without delay.

But then, in more recent experiments, the reverse position was tried, with the baby face-down, and a parental hand under its tummy. To everyone’s surprise, the newborn baby now showed no sign of panic, held its breath automatically, and floated happily in the water with its eyes fully open, gazing at the underwater scene. If, very gently, the supporting hand was removed, the baby then started making swimming movements with its limbs and set off down the swimming pool...So the human baby can swim before it can walk. It can even swim before it can crawl.

You’re quoted as saying "My favourite place in the world to visit is one that I haven’t been to before!" What favourite places would you like to visit in the future?

I have recently fulfilled my schoolboy ambition of visiting 100 countries before I die. Top of my list of regions yet to be visited are Tibet and Peru. 

Of all the places you have visited, which culture’s body language and non-verbal communication did you find the most fascinating and why?

Italy. When Italians argue with one another their hands are as eloquent as those of orchestra conductors. And Japan, where the body language is so different, so precise, so disciplined. They find the expansive asymmetry of Western body language very clumsy.

In your volume of memoirs Watching - Encounters with Humans and Other Animals’ you mention that in 1967 your bestselling book The Naked Ape’ caused an outrage. What was the nature of this outrage? And do you think it would court as much controversy if The Naked Ape were being published for the first time today?

It caused an outrage because, at the time, it was generally believed that everything human beings do is the result of learning. I argued that a lot of human behaviour is the result of a set of genetic suggestions. Today this view is widely accepted, but not when THE NAKED APE first appeared. Also some people were insulted at being called animals. I saw it differently. For me, to be called an animal was a compliment.

Do you think that homo sapiens will evolve further as time passes and if so, in what way?

Viewed objectively, humanity is like a mould on a rotting planet. We are increasing our global population at such an alarming rate that the day will come when we will be struck down by worldwide epidemic, or some other massive disaster. Then, only a few individuals will survive and they will have to start all over again. Remote desert-dwellers will have the best chance. 

If, by some miracle, we did get our population growth under control and urbanites managed to survive, natural selection would favour the more friendly, more placid individuals. The more violent ones would eventually kill one another off. If you compare life in earlier civilizations with life today you can see that this evolutionary process is already taking place. It is amazing just how peaceful the majority of people are today, given the unnatural conditions of crowding they must suffer.

In trying to find a connection between your passion for art and human behaviour we noted with interest that in the late 1940's you gave a lecture on "The Biology of Art" in which you describe human artistic activities as the result of neoteny; a concept which you also refer to in The Naked Ape and some of your other books. For anybody who hasn't heard of the concept could you briefly explain what neoteny is about?

(The Tilled Field by Joan Miró 1923/24 - Photo Credit: Mary Holman)

Neoteny is the extension into adult life of childhood features. You could call it the Peter Pan syndrome. In humans what has happened is that childhood play has persisted into adulthood. Other animals play when they are young but then stop playing when they mature. Humans do not stop, but they call adult play something else - they call it art, science etc., Childhood curiosity doesn't fade. We never stop asking questions and trying out new ideas. This is our greatest strength as a species.

What has been your proudest achievement in the field of human behaviour and why?  

I do not allow myself the luxury of pride. I am my most severe critic. But I have to admit that seeing THE NAKED APE listed in "the top hundred bestsellers of all time" did give me a pang of pleasure. 

Which one accomplishment would you most like to be remembered for?

Developing the study of body language into a serious scientific pursuit back in the 1960s.


Dr. Desmond Morris has very kindly provided us with some wonderful body language images. Here are two of them, along with an explanation of why he likes them so much.

These two images amuse me as examples of how easy it is to misinterpret gestures. The human one is Japanese, perhaps an early Samurai warrior, but what is he signalling? It looks superficially like the famous British insult signal, which is why is amuses me. But what is he really doing? Is he signalling two of something, or is he closely examining something that has stuck to his fingertips, or is he an archer who has hurt his bow fingers? Or are the two fingers, pressed tightly side by side, meant to represent a mating couple (as they do in some cultures).  Or was there some other arcane meaning to this gesture among early Samurai? If they used it simply as an emphatic baton gesture it is very unusual example of a baton, having the third and fourth fingers held down by the thumb.  

The monkey one is just a joke - an animal caught accidentally giving 'the finger'. Not to be taken seriously.

The two remarkable illustrations above are from one of the most precious books in Dr. Morris' library - John Bulwer's CHIROLOGIA, OR THE NATURAL LANGUAGE OF THE HAND published in 1644. Dr Morris considers these illustrations to be the most significant in the whole history of body language studies!

If you would like to see a much larger version of these illustrations, you can do so by clicking HERE

And finally, here is Dr. Desmond Morris' favourite shot of the Neapolitan Cornuta insult gesture.

Learn More

Playlist of Video Clips Featuring Dr. Desmond Morris


See following link for a a fascinating insight into how Dr Desmond Morris' human body language studies began.

Dr. Desmond Morris Memoirs

Click Here to visit Dr. Desmond Morris' website.

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