Review of Monkey by Desmond Morris

(Reaktion Books, 208pp, pbk, 104 illustrations, 75 in colour; ISBN 978-1-78023-096-2, £9-99; August 2013)

Monkey is zoologist, artist, writer and broadcaster Desmond Morris’s second title in Reaktion Books’ Animal series. From his introductory anecdote, recalling the time when “a monkey had bitten off my nipples” (fortunately the sort that direct water onto a car’s windscreen) to the final appendix listing some common uses of the word monkey in English slang, this is Morris at his most articulate and entertaining.

In thirteen short chapters, Morris describes how monkeys are revered in some cultures, despised in others and exploited in many. As well as being kept as pets and as street and circus performers, monkeys are or have been used in space exploration and food collection, as working companions for the disabled and, most controversially of all, in laboratory experiments. Here the author briefly presents both sides of the argument before concluding that “scientists would do well to limit their use of monkeys to studies that have special merit for human health”.

The chapter on “Monkeys and Artists”, in which the author describes some notable paintings of monkeys and the stories behind them, is my favourite. It is here that the use of colour illustrations really enhances the text, making this an attractive and informative guide to the world of monkeys and the way we perceive them. As the author says: “We owe a great debt to our monkey ancestors. They set us on the right path, the path that would take us from the treetops to the moon and, one day, beyond.” In Monkey, Desmond Morris goes some way towards repaying that debt.

Paul Appleby

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