Graduate Careers: How I Got Here: Humans were never my subject

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The Independent Culture
Desmond Morris, 71, the renowned anthro-pologist, has used his knowledge of human and animal behaviour to write more than 30 books, including the international best-seller The Naked Ape, and has presented numerous television programmes.

Education and background

I had two great interests when I was young: painting and zoology. When I left school I was conscripted into the Army for two years. I was fortunate to get a unique post as a lecturer in fine arts in the "demob" college, for soldiers who were about to enter civilian life. When I left the Army I had a choice between art school and university. At the time the art schools were not very good - it was just after the war. So I went to Birmingham University to get a degree in zoology and on to Oxford to do doctoral research in animal behaviour. I then got an opportunity to join Granada Television, becoming head of a film unit at London Zoo. That's how it all began.

The big idea

One of the problems scientists have when they write books is being unable to speak in a simple way so people can understand what they are writing about. When I joined television I learnt how to do just that - adapt scientific thinking to popular speech, simplifying without distorting. It requires endless patience to find exactly the right word. I was then asked to write The Naked Ape, which was followed by two more books.

I took a break during the Seventies and then started more research, publishing the Man- watcher titles, which started a whole genre of studies of human behaviour. I do a huge amount of travelling. I have visited 76 different countries, 26 last year. You cannot study human beings as a species if you stay in one country. However, I have never ceased to be a zoologist and every now and then I write a book about animals, and more recently books about my painting. I have never really planned. My whole life has been pretty disorganised - full of lucky breaks and lucky timing.

Most desperate moment

At London Zoo we had the only female panda in the West, and Russia had the only male. It was during the Cold War and I thought it would be a good idea if we could get them together. It involved endless trips from London to Russia for everyone concerned. When the two were finally together the male panda was giving off all the right signals for mating and approached the female, who simply battered him across the head. That was the end of that. However, we learnt a great deal about the problems with hand- reared animals. Our female panda had been hand-reared, and was simply not interested in her own species. Nowadays artificial insemination would have solved her problem of not relating to her own kind.

I wish I'd known

A woman came to visit me at London Zoo and showed me hundreds of strange photos of herself and an adult lioness. She asked me whether I thought her story would make a good book. I said no; I didn't think it would. She completely ignored my advice and her story went on to become known through out the world from books and films. Her name was Joy Adamson, of the Born Free Foundation.

Greatest achievement

I had only four weeks to write The Naked Ape, and then I took a new job as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I'd been there for about nine months when The Naked Ape was published. It was just unbelievable; I could not believe what was happening. It took off like a rocket. I think 12 million copies were sold. I was able to stop work and then go off and do more painting and research. It was just wonderful.

Secret of my success

The fact that I can straddle two disciplines has helped my success. It gave me a chance to start something new. If I hadn't been a zoologist, then my studies of human behaviour wouldn't have been so unusual.

I brought the zoological approach to the study of humans. That made me different - nobody had done that before. I am an anthropologist by adoption.

Need to know

Don't procrastinate. I always tell myself that this year is the most important, so I can't put things off until next year.

Interview by

Hannah Foxcroft

Desmond Morris's book `Body Guards - protective amulets and charms' is published by Element Books at pounds 20