The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself

The idea that humans have a lot in common with animals isn’t a shocking conclusion, but Holmes approaches the subject with endearing honesty.

Hannah Holmes’ The Well-Dressed Ape is the type of book only one person in every household needs to read. Not because it isn’t interesting but because it’s so full of fascinating factoids that the reader will end up spouting them out. “Huh, apparently Joseph Stalin tried to breed a half-human, half-chimp army,” you might say to whomever’s listening. Not a book to read by yourself on the subway.
Holmes sets up her study of Homo sapiens to mirror what you’d see in a field-guide entry about a rabbit or lemming—there’s a description of our own habitat, eating habits, physical form, and so on. Looking at ourselves from an outside perspective, we certainly do seem like strange creatures. But Holmes goes beyond this gambit to take a deeper look at herself and at us. She takes an endearingly honest look at her life—her childlessness, her love of ’shrooms—through the lens of an obsessive number of scientific studies, covering such varied topics as the human development of tools and language and what tickles our pleasure sensors. The results of these studies aren’t indisputable, and Holmes is up-front about this. In fact, when it comes to questions of evolution, she lists a whole bunch of theories for many of our attributes and sometimes adds her own convincing hunch.

The idea that humans have a lot in common with animals isn’t a shocking conclusion. More interesting, and what Holmes ends her book with, are the differences. The capacity for abstract thinking led humans to tools, and though a few other creatures use tools as well, Holmes shows how we have used ours to kill off our predators and produce enough food, allowing our species to grow to unsustainable numbers. But unique as well is the human capacity to analyze our actions and hopefully change our behavior.