Climax City

Random writing on cities

The Human Zoo

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As Desmond Morris says – the 20 square miles that once supported a hunter/gatherer group of 60 people might now accommodate a city of 6 million.

Not so long ago a friend of mine, Paul Bower came across a second hand copy of a book by Desmond Morris called the Human Zoo. Written in 1969 it is a book that reflect’s his generations misgivings about cities. The central premise of the book is that the human animal evolved to live in hunter-gatherer groups of around 60 people. This extended family group would need around 20 square miles to support its needs. Today the same area could accommodate a city of 6 million people crammed together in a way that human are unable to cope with. This, he argues, is not natural and it is hardly surprising that some people in cities act a little strangely. Indeed Morris equates this strange behaviour to the compulsive traits exhibited by many animals when they are confined in zoos; mental health disorders, sexual perversion, violence etc… Hence in Morris’s eyes the modern city is the human zoo.

However the books conclusion is not entirely negative. Morris suggests that the remarkable aspect of city living is that most of us don’t exhibit this compulsive behaviour. We have moved from living with 59 neighbours to 5,999,999 in the blick of an evolutionary eye and have coped extremely well. As he says; “The least experienced zoo director would never contemplate cramming and cramping a group of animals to the extent that man has crammed and cramped himself into his modern cities and towns. By all the rules the human zoo should be a screaming madhouse… cynics may argue that this is indeed the case, but plainly it is not. …aberrant behaviour is startling, not for its existence but for its rarity”.

Indeed Morris goes on to argue that the secret to human success as a species is that we actually thrive on these conditions: “Just as colonies of nesting seabirds are reproductively aroused by massing in dense breeding communities, so the human animal is intellectually aroused by massing in dense urban communities. They are breeding colonies of human ideas.”

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