The Natural History of the Rich: a field guide, by Richard Conniff

Sucking up to the rich is no substitute for satire

John Dyson, the hero of Michael Frayn's novel Towards the End of the Morning, is a socially ambitious journalist mesmerised by toffs. When a lord phones one day, Dyson is bewildered by the cool insouciance of one of his younger colleagues. "Don't you take any interest at all in the upper classes?" he cries in exasperation. "They're fascinating."

Richard Conniff is another journalist who finds the habits of his social superiors fascinating. But instead of admiring them from afar, he has tried to understand them using Darwin's theories on animal behaviour. The habits he describes certainly make for entertaining reading: Aristotle Onassis had his barstools upholstered with sperm-whale scrotums; King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy made a gift to his mistress of the growth of his big toenail, polished by a jeweller; and Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax chairman, once made an assistant chant "I'm a dildo, Harvey" – a motivational technique that, in comparison with more consensual team-building, has much to recommend it.

The problem is that Conniff's explanations, through analogies from the animal world, look forced or arbitrary. While musing on the reasons why Steve Fossett and Richard Branson spend a great deal of time hot-air ballooning, Conniff draws a parallel with the broad-tailed hummingbird, which indulges in aeronautical acrobatics to impress potential mates. A more prosaic deduction may be that Branson and Fossett simply have too much time and money on their hands.

Similarly, Conniff argues that having a Van Gogh on the wall functions as competitive display of the kind favoured by many dominant mammals. But art is also a canny investment, and the crowding of rich investors into the art market tells us much about the low rates of return available elsewhere. The most thought-provoking passages in the book – the comparison, for instance, between the lavish waste of today's upper classes and the reciprocal altruism found among tribes who need to destroy excess wealth – are findings from anthropology and social history rather than from zoology.

Whenever the animal kingdom intrudes, the effect is unconvincing. Not even the rich are so silly that they behave like baboons.

The result is a book whose ideas are purely ornamental: a kind of Hello! magazine for intellectuals. It is not even clear that the author takes them seriously. His summary conclusions, a how-to guide for the nouveaux riches, are one step up on the evolutionary ladder from those "get rich by feeling rich" self-help books that you see people dolefully perusing on the Tube.

A pity, because, with a little more bite and tenacity, Conniff might have made better use of his assignment. The book might have worked as satire: an extended riff on the excesses of evolutionary naturalism as well as a skit on how wasted money is on the rich.

However, Conniff is too much in thrall to his subjects. He is happiest hopping between Aspen and Monaco and Palm Beach, treating tight-fisted alpha males to lunch and indulging old biddies who want to show off their jewels to him. Towards the end of the book Conniff even hires a top-of-the-range red Ferrari in order to "fit in" better. When it comes to ingratiating himself with the better endowed, this animal-watcher is ahead of the pack.