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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  General Biology

The Selfish Ape Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction

Popular Science Out of Print
By: Nicholas P Money(Author)
148 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Surveying human biology, The Selfish Ape packs a provocative and powerful punch in the face of human exceptionalism.
The Selfish Ape
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  • The Selfish Ape ISBN: 9781789141559 Hardback Jul 2019 Out of Print #246326
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Weaving together stories of science and sociology, The Selfish Ape offers a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity. Rather than imagining modern humans as a species with godlike powers, or Homo deus, Nicholas P. Money recasts us as Homo narcissus, paragons of self-absorption. This exhilarating story takes in an immense sweep of modern biology, leading readers from earth's unexceptional location in the cosmos, to the story of our microbial origins, and the workings of the human body. It explores human genetics, reproduction, brain function and ageing, creating an enlightened view of humans as a brilliantly inventive, yet self-destructive animal. This is a book about human biology, the intertwined characteristics of human greatness and failure, and the way that we have plundered the biosphere. Written in a highly accessible style, it is a perfect read for those interested in science, human history, sociology and the environment.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Punchy and provocative
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 30 Sep 2019 Written for Hardback

    Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly, it seemed logical to next read The Selfish Ape by biologist Nicholas P. Money. With the dustjacket calling the human being Homo narcissus, and the book “a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity“, these two clearly explore the same ideas, though one look at the cover suggests a darker tone. Money mostly takes the reader on a tour of human biology to show how we are little different from our fellow creatures, spicing up his writing with bleak observations. This one, my friend, sees through the glass darkly...

    Money pulls no punches in this book, his preface labelling humanity as “cosmic vandals”. And not ten pages into the book he is already discussing antinatalism, seeing parenthood as a questionable virtue and noting how “the birth of ever more human beings with the capacity for suffering adds to the collective horror in the universe” (see also Better Never to Have Been).

    Having set the tone for the book, Money proceeds to take the reader on a brief tour through deep time, charting how our planet became habitable and how life evolved, before settling on human biology. These chapters see him explain our physiology, neurobiology, genetics, reproduction, embryology, ageing, and dying. He does so with admirable brevity and sometimes exquisitely compact definitions and metaphors.

    Thus entropy is “the physical process that makes a mess of everything“, while Money explains the gene-centric view of evolution by saying that “we are temporary vessels for genes, situated in family trees that assume the shape of a river delta with DNA streams draining down from ancestors to descendants“. The discovery of DNA and its structure is a particular highlight for him and in just a few pages he mentions some of the key players in that 100-year history that Williams so elaborately described in Unravelling the Double Helix.

    Money livens up his writing with quotes from literature and poetry, such as Shakespeare’s work and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and seemingly revels in casting humans back amongst the animals. Our bodies a mineral frame hung with stringy bands of protein and blobs of fat. Our genomes containing fewer genes than many plants. Our mental capacities shared with a menagerie of birds and mammals that have been shown capable of tool use, self-awareness, and emotions (see e.g. De Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, my review of his book Mama's Last Hug, and Safina’s Beyond Words). Or what to make of the sharp observation that “humans have more moving parts than worms, but the individual cells that make them are equally complicated“. Yet “we swan around as if we owned the place“.

    Money’s mild tone in the central part of the book is almost at odds with the misanthropic fury he has reserved for the last few chapters. Regular readers will have noticed how I see overpopulation as the root cause of many of our planetary woes. In my opinion, Money is right on the, well, money when he notes that “besides the environmental impact of the head count, the luxuries of modern life multiply the planetary damage“. Merely ascertaining this is not enough for him though. With climate change spiralling out of control, “the greatest contribution that an individual can make to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to be dead. Failing this, the next best thing is to abstain from manufacturing babies“. While having lots of children in this day and age is nothing less than “an act of environmental terrorism“.

    Did you just splutter your coffee all over your keyboard?

    Think of this what you will – I think Money puts his finger on a very sore spot (one that drives me up the wall) when writing that “the relationship between population growth and environmental degradation is neglected in public discourse“, whether by politicians, economists, or environmental activists. How appropriate an observation amidst the current brouhaha around Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. As much as I admire her for speaking up, the near helpless and hysterical tone of “do something!” the whole debate is taking on is not helpful. And no, writes Money, “charitable contributions” such as solar panels and electric cars will not cut it, they are mere “funeral decorations for Earth“. So, the sooner we can move on from that, the better.

    Despite Money’s provocative statements, or more likely because of them, I greatly enjoyed The Selfish Ape, speaking as it did to the misanthrope and antinatalist in me. The Selfish Ape is unrelentingly bleak in its outlook. Money might have thrown in his lot with the likes of Roy Scranton (see his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene), but I do not feel quite that destitute yet. With mainstream outlets such as The New York Times publishing pieces titled “No Children Because of Climate Change? Some People Are Considering It” the tide might be turning.

    The decision to package this powerful punch in just 110 pages is, I think, both admirable and wise, minimising audience fatigue. I wonder if there are points in this book where Money risks losing the sympathy of a part of his audience, though I also think his message is too important to worry much about that – offending a few sensitive snowflakes is a small price to pay. It strikes me that it is still largely taboo to talk of the links between overpopulation, natalism, and environmental degradation. Thrusting this taboo into the limelight is, for me, the real power of this book.
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Nicholas P. Money is Professor of Biology and Western Program Director at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of many books on science including Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History (Reaktion, 2017) and The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization (2018).

Popular Science Out of Print
By: Nicholas P Money(Author)
148 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Surveying human biology, The Selfish Ape packs a provocative and powerful punch in the face of human exceptionalism.
Media reviews

"[...] Overall, the book brings together many perspectives on human existence to create a beautiful but damning picture of humankind. However, the solutions Money offers might not be well received by everyone."
– Rebecca Muir, The Biologist 66(5) October/November 2019

"I learned much from Nicholas Money's book. I love his vivid, prose-poetic imagery. Reading him is pure literary pleasure. He knows what to say and, more importantly, he knows how to say it."
– Professor Richard Dawkins FRS, author of The Selfish Gene and Outgrowing God

"Nicholas Money's The Selfish Ape delivers much more than its title promises. It is a wide-ranging reflection on humans and humanity: how we, both as individuals and as a species, came to be, how we function, and how we (will) cease to be. Professor Money presents scientific, literary and philosophical insights into these questions. He does so with clarity, honesty and good humour."
– David Benatar, Professor of Philosophy, University of Cape Town

"This entrancing and sobering collection of thoughts is a worthy successor to The Amoeba in the Room, which opened our eyes to so much."
– Robin Hanbury-Tenison, explorer

"So what can we do? Usually I'd save discussion of an author's conclusion for the end of a review, but Money's solution is so striking it's worth discussing up front. Though Money seems fairly sceptical about the value of religion, his conclusion isn't that far removed from a Christian credo: because our time as a species is limited, the important thing is for us to be nicer to each other. If we are nicer, Money suggests, the universe may survive longer than we expect."
Catholic Herald

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