Q&A with Desmond Morris

Desmond MorrisAre boys inherently more rowdy than girls? How can you explain to a child the difference between real and imaginary? And why are so many people frightened of spiders? These sociological questions and more were answered by Desmond Morris, author, zoologist and "people watcher". 

Desmond's latest book, Child: How Children think, learn and grow in the early years, explores the world of children from the ages of two to five, as they emerge from toddlerdom and start on the long road to independence. Age-by-stage profiles describe growth patterns, social and emotional behaviour, physical and cognitive skills.

Parenting Childhood developmentHuman behaviour | Evolution | Phobias and anxietiesGender differences | General



Q. jonicomelately: Can you explain competitive mothers to me? What makes perfectly ordinary women go mental and develop such traits once they have children?

A. Desmond: There is nothing unnatural about a mother being proud of her child. This is a normal way of expressing love - the problem arises when mothers become over-competitive, which usually reflects a use of the child by the mother as an extension of herself. In such cases, it is the mother's own status that is at the heart of the matter, not that of the child.

Q. Willulu: My eight-month-old daughter literally screams for attention. Having a conversation with someone else is nearly impossible as she starts screaming (not crying) until I give her attention. I assume it might have something to do with feeling safe and secure. How can I nurture her in such a way that she learns the screaming is not necessary? Or how can I make her feel safe and secure, even when I am talking with someone else?

A. Desmond: This sounds more like what happens with the 'terrible twos' when the child reaches a stage where it feels it is the centre of the universe. Eight months is very early for this kind of behaviour. At that age crying always means that the infant needs help. Your problem is discovering what particular kind of help is needed, and that I can't answer from a distance.

Desmond Morris

Q. wannabeglam: How do you deal with children aged between seven and nine? There's a lot of information out there about babies and toddlers, but less for this age group.

A. Desmond: Yes, I apologise - my two books Baby and Child only deal with the period from birth to five years. Once they go to school the studies become more 'educational' and less biological, which I agree is a pity.

Q. longgrasswhispers: How can I foster confidence and self-belief in a child, no matter what his or her abilities and circumstances are? How can I give them the tools to stand up for themselves as adults? What's the best way to minimise the possibility of them have any crippling self-esteem issues?

A. Desmond: A child that is loved and knows that it is loved begins to develop an unconscious feeling that it must be lovable. It is this sensation of feeling worthy of love that gives them self-confidence. Letting them win a game and then praising them will help, just so long as the child doesn't detect that you are letting them win. They are very sensitive to your true feelings, so care must be taken. Also, if you go too far and lavish praise on the child all the time, they may become over-confident. This make may make them unpopular with other children.

David Attenborough once told me how, when he was a very small boy he would take a snail or an insect to show to his father and tell him what it was, where he found it, and so on. His father would listen with great interest and then thank David for the information, as if it was all new to him. David said that this appreciation gave him confidence and the encouragement to become a serious naturalist. Just think, if his father had said, "Ugh, take that nasty thing away!", we might never have had Life on Earth or any of those other great television programmes that David would one day make.


Childhood development

Q. Miggsie: Do you think that very large schools are unnatural environments for young people to grow up in? Are large schools good or bad for emotional development? We see a lot of comments on Mumsnet about smaller class sizes - is it natural to herd great groups of people about simply because they are the same age?

A. Desmond: We evolved in small tribes of about 100 individuals and we were like that for a million years or more. That is the natural size for a human community. In The Human Zoo, in what I call the modern city, we have broken all the rules of 'group size' for our species. But we are so resilient that somehow we manage to survive. There is nothing natural, however, about a large class size at school. The smaller it is, the more natural it is.

Q. hugglymuggly: What do you think about more recent trends in the care of human newborns in terms of using slings, co-sleeping, cluster feeding etc, in those early months?

A. Desmond:  I think I mention in another answer that I believe separation in a nursery is unnatural. A cot next to a parental bed provides a baby with the knowledge (from the sound of parental breathing) that it has not been abandoned. Human babies are so helpless that they have a strong reaction against being left alone. Being put in a chest-sling places their ear near to the parental heart and the sound of the heartbeat acts as an almost magical calming device.

Q. GhettinGhoulish: My son often comes home from school saying that group of friends rank each other in order. One of them will be the leader, then the rest are numbered second, third etc. He sometimes feels very low down in the pecking order and says he's going to be left out. Would you say some children are born with an innate ability to become the 'leader'?

A. Desmond: There are two kinds of school-day leaders - the one who is admired for being skilful and the one who is feared for being domineering. It is the second kind that is the problem when he gathers a gang around him. He is usually aware of being inadequate in some way, or of being unloved at home, and reacts by throwing his weight about as a form of compensation. It is impossible to advise on how to deal with bullying by such a gang without knowing all the details.

Q. BonzoDooDah: When do children learn to properly differentiate between real and imaginary? My daughter has recently become afraid of the dark (among other things) and also won't go upstairs to the loo on her own as she is scared. How can we empower her? And how can we teach her there are no monsters under the bed, etc?

"A child that is loved and knows that it is loved begins to develop an unconscious feeling that it must be lovable. It is this sensation of feeling worthy of love that gives them self-confidence."

A. Desmond: It's my experience that when an infant is allowed to sleep in a cot alongside its parent's bed and doesn't sleep alone until it reaches a point where it proudly wants to be in its own little bed, it will not then have a fear of the dark. In other words, I think that fear of the dark in an older child is the same as the fear the baby had when it was put in a nursery and would wake to find itself alone, would panic and start crying in the night. At that age it couldn't express itself, but later on it transforms those early fears into monsters under the bed. Some people say the best solution is to crawl under the bed, struggle with the monster and kill it. If done convincingly, the child may accept this and relax!

Q. Al1son: Are we right to put our children in playground situations for at least an hour of each school day and leave them largely unsupervised and vulnerable to playground bullying? Are the survival skills these children are expected to learn in this unnatural situation really going to be of the great benefit in later life? Or we are led to believe or are we just herding children into potentially damaging situations for our own convenience?

A. Desmond: The school playground is beyond the scope of my books, which deal with the pre-school phase. However, I am fully aware that school bullying is a serious problem. Good teachers keep a careful eye on such things and deal with them intelligently. Sadly, some teachers do not seem to care, and believe that the 'rough and tumble' scenario is acceptable. This may be true for the majority of children but among every large group there will always be one or two aggressive bullies and one or two extra-sensitive ones who suffer. The trick is to identify these rare individuals and deal with them, but not punish everyone else in the process. 


Human behaviour

Q. WallowsInFlies: Do you think that we have temperaments that we're born with - and to what extent? And do you think that if we're lucky to have a temperament that matches well with our parents, then we're off to a good start (or at least one with whom there isn't a real clash in temperament)? 

A. Desmond: Any mother who has had, say, four children, will tell you that although they were all treated the same way they developed strikingly different personalities. These differences seem to grow, not because of environmental influences but despite them. One child will be thoughtful and caring; another will be chirpy and cheery; another will be artistic and showy; another will be adventurous, another cautious, and so on. Each human being seem to be born with a basic temperament, but later learning can eventually modify almost anything.

Q. Nuttybear: Can you explain the importance of religion to the human race? And if we don't believe in God, but believe in community and civic duty, what's the best way to intelligently explain this to others?

"The human female has a greater parental burden than any other species on earth. She alone has a serial litter, with one child still dependent when the next one arrives."

A. Desmond: Religion developed once we had language and could discuss a subject such as death. Once we realised that we would one day have to die we had to find some way to protect ourselves and we came up with the idea of an afterlife. Someone had to run this afterlife and little by little we developed concepts of gods and angels and demons, and so on. The truth is that we do not know whether an afterlife exists or does not. There is no evidence either way. But it has always comforted people to think that one exists and so religion has always existed.

If we believe in 'community and civic duty' without any religious backing, this is not surprising because we have evolved as one of the most cooperative species on earth. Human kindness and helpfulness is in our genes for a very good reason. We only survived in our early days because we lived in tribes where we cooperated with one another. We were also competitive and occasionally aggressive, but that side has been exaggerated by Hollywood, and so on. 

Q. lucysnowe: Desmond, do you really think that men become gay because of something stunting their hormones at puberty - as this Daily Mail story suggests?

A. Desmond: No, I have never used the expression 'stunting their hormones'. In my book The Naked Man, I mentioned a theory by a friend of mine, Clive Bromhall (see his book The Eternal Child), in which he points out that, speaking very approximately, between the ages of one and five, children have no interest in the gender of their companions. Then, at about five, little boys start to separate into all-male groups and little girls into all-girls groups.

This happens even in mixed schools and lasts for about ten years, during which time the emphasis is on learning the details of the cultural system in which they are living. Then, when the sex hormones kick in at puberty, there is a change, with boys and girls seeking out one another with a new, now sexual, interest. This leads to pair-bonding and eventually to the formation of new family units and the successful reproduction of the species.

A minority of individuals do not go through this last change, but retain the preference for their own gender - a preference that they have shown, approximately, from the age of five to 15. As they are now sexually active, however, they attach their new sexual feelings to their own gender, rather than make the adolescent leap into adult heterosexuality. Bromhall says that, in a sense, this makes them more childlike even when they are adult. This is not an insult, because it means that they can take into adult life the best aspects of childhood, namely greater curiosity, playfulness and creativity.



Q. edam: Desmond, what do you make of the idea that giving birth to neonates means human women have to co-operate even more than other primate mothers? As in, standing upright changed our skeleton and especially the pelvis, meaning birth became more difficult, so human infants are born helpless compared to other primates - pregnancy until the point at which they are more developed would result in a baby who can't get out.

A. Desmond: There is a lot about growth-rates in Baby - too much to go into in a short answer, but one point I will make: the human female had a greater parental burden than any other species on earth. She alone has a serial litter, with one child still dependent when the next one arrives.

Q. BoffinMum: My husband has a theory that we are programmed to take particular notice of moving pictures in our peripheral vision in case it's an animal coming to eat us, which is an explanation why TV is so distracting in pubs, and also why toddlers gravitate towards telly so much (also probably because they like the novelty). 

A. Desmond: Yes, sudden movements from the sides of our visual range will often cause a degree of alarm. Next time you look closely at the eye of a horse you will find that they have horizontal pupils that increase their chances of spotting an approaching predator.

Q. BoffinMum: Is smacking a normal mammalian behaviour?

A. Desmond: No. Other mammalian mothers usually deal with an unruly offspring with a gentle but firm bite. But they are remarkably tolerant.


Phobias and anxieties

Q. Leninghoul: Why do some children develop fears and phobias, and how should you deal with them? My son had fears about noise and all sorts, which peaked at the age of three. We dealt with it with a mixture of empathy, reassurance, avoidance, and just gritting our teeth and getting on with it at times. I'd be interested to hear why some go through this and others not. And most importantly, what does it mean for their future development if anything?

A. Desmond: Small children learn a great deal by example, and if a mother screams when she sees a mouse or a spider, she can easily set off an animal phobia in the child. This transfer of fear can also work in a more general way. If children observe nervous, anxious, highly strung behaviour on the part of a parent they imitate this by finding their own personal source of anxiety and reacting to that with exaggerated fear.

"There are several such behaviour qualities that show some gender differences, but they can all be modified by learning."

Having said this, most children seem to have a natural fear of certain kinds of animals such as spiders and snakes. This fear peaks at just the age when a tribal child would be venturing out to explore its environment and might then have met a poisonous example of such animals. These fears survive even in countries like Britain where there are no poisonous spiders and where there is a greater chance of being struck by lightning that being bitten by a viper.

Q. ChampagneSuperNova: My three-year-old has seen a fair amount of television and films and read many books, but recently he has been having dreams and nightmares. Although we have tried to explain that they aren't real, that they're imaginary, he keeps asking what the difference is. Any advice?

A. Desmond: Play a game in which he and you go "BANG, you're dead!". Then explain that you and he are only pretending to die and that, on television, they are all playing a game too.

Q. GetOrfMoiLand: Could you explain why some people are so irrationally terrified of spiders?What is it about spiders which is so primevally frightening. I know a spider cannot hurt me, I am normally a rational level-headed person. But spiders make me gibber.

A. Desmond: It is a primeval response that survives today even in countries where there are no poisonous spiders. For a small child in prehistoric times there was a real danger of making contact with a poisonous species of spider in the undergrowth. I studied the onset of spider fear and it coincides with increased child mobility. In other words, there is no spider fear until the human child has reached that age where it is likely to wander off into the undergrowth and meet a spider. The great mystery is why, in our society, the fear of spiders is strong in some individuals and weak in others.


Gender differences

Q. BonzoDooDah: Can you tell me if you think there is an innate difference between the behaviour of boy and girls? Or are differences mostly nurture? People keep telling me boys are easier to parent - more cuddly, more rowdy energetic - and girls are more emotional and less physical, but I refuse to believe them. Also, despite treating my children the same, my son is more inclined to be rowdy and and climb things than my daughters - is this my doing?

A. Desmond: No, there are inborn gender differences, but as I said above they can be modified by learning. The fact remains, however, that if you carry out observations of small boys and girls in a nursery school, you will see very distinct differences in play patterns if they are left to their own devices. One small specific: boys hit toys more frequently than girls do.

Q. Leninguy: What is your take on the Descent of Woman?

A. Desmond: The Descent of Woman was a book by a non-scientist called Elaine Morgan. She had noticed something I had written about the possible aquatic origin of the human species and thought that I had not given it enough attention. She developed this idea in her book but unfortunately muddled it up with some unduly aggressive feminist arguments. She later regretted this and wrote another book on The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, omitting the feminist comments and made a strong case for considering that human beings went through a partially aquatic phases in their early evolution. The fact that newborn babies can swim without any training is something that has since been proved, although sadly the babies lose this primeval ability as they grow older and then have to learn to swim when they are schoolchildren.

Q. Edam: Do you agree that evolutionary theorists might have missed a trick by not thinking about evolution and the female of the species? What about Elaine Morgan and The Descent of Woman? 

A. Desmond: I have never neglected the female (see my books The Human Sexes and The Naked Female). Elaine objected to what she called 'the mighty hunter' theory of human evolution, but she missed the key point. This is that the males became the hunters in primeval times because they were less important than the females. The males were disposable in a way that the females were not. Reproductive rate in a small tribe was crucial and breeding females were far too important to risk on the hunt.

Q. Edam: What's your take on evolutionary biology and claims that male and female characteristics and roles are pre-ordained and innate rather than a social construct? I'm thinking specifically of that daft study that said girls like pink because in hunter-gatherer days they would have searched for red berries. (The researchers didn't bother to check whether 'pink is for girls' held true over time, which it doesn't.) 

A. Desmond: The best way to think of it is that there are evolutionary suggestions rather than hard rules. Small boys, for example, are more inclined to take risks. The ancient hunter-gatherer division of labour benefitted from this, because men had to be prepared to take risks on the hunt. But this inborn bias towards male risk-taking can easily be overturned by personal experiences and cultural influences, and there are plenty of female 'tomboys' and male 'softies' to prove it. There are several such behaviour qualities that show some gender differences, but they can all be modified by learning.

"Blue for a boy and pink for a girl" is not a biological saying, it is a religious one, dating from the time when boys were thought to be heavenly (the blue of the heavenly skies) and girls were thought to be earthy (the pink of earthly flesh). 



Q. HelenMumsnet: Tell us of a time when the beliefs or assumptions that you grew up with were really dramatically challenged or changed. Did this make you question other beliefs that you had previously taken for granted?

A. Desmond: I was a victim of Watsonian theories of child-rearing. When I was born, all young mothers were being told by Dr Watson (the authority of the day) that babies should be left to cry and should never be cuddled. So, my mother left me out in my pram crying when there was a cold wind and I caught double pneumonia and nearly died. After that she threw away his book and showed me love in a normal, maternal way. So the child care advice of my day nearly killed me.

This made me intensely aware of the needs babies have for being held and the rewards they get from being close to their mothers. I had grown up with the idea that a baby should have a cot in a nursery. But when I studied the behaviour of mothers in tribal situations I found that they would never dream of being separated from their little ones at night. I looked into what happened if the cot was placed next to the parental bed, instead of a separate room and found that the baby slept more peacefully, cried less and the parents were less tired in the mornings. So I now think that the traditional idea of a separate nursery for the baby is a poor one.

Another change in my thinking came when I studied tribal births, where the mothers squatted to give birth. I had always thought that lying on your back was the correct human posture for giving birth, but it is not. That is a recently introduced hospital gimmick that makes the mother look like a patient. There are several other errors - the cord is often cut too soon and the newborn is removed from her mother's embrace too quickly. I make all these points in my books Babywatching, and, more recently, Baby

Q. asxd2: Do you have any explanations for autistic behaviours such as lack of eye contact, flapping and spinning? Are these behaviours displayed in the animal world and what are the consequences?

A. Desmond: When an animal is distressed it may perform was is called 'cut-off' behaviour. It eliminates the source of its fear by cutting it off, perhaps by covering its head or shutting its eyes. If stresses continue, the animal may perform repeated 'tics', like swaying or rocking movements. The rhythm of these repeated actions seems to provide a degree of comfort. The problem with the autistic child is deciding what has caused it to be so stressed in the first place.

Q. Octaviapink: I'd be interested what you think about the divide between evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists that seems to be growing. For instance, what do you think about the neuroscience claim that new theories about neuroplasticity are turning evolutionary psychologists into dinosaurs?

A. Desmond: When rival scientific disciplines start behaving as stupidly as politicians in the House of Commons, I despair. Of course, there are inherited gender differences between boys and girls. And of course the human brain is designed to allow behaviour plasticity of an amazing degree. Both these statements are true and, taken together, make a nonsense of the sort of dispute you are mentioning.

Q. edam: Why are there so many disabilities these days? 

"Reading a book to a child is wonderful, but it only gives them words, while the film will give them music and pictures as well as words and therefore provides a richer experience. "

A. Desmond: In earlier days children with disabilities would probably not have survived as well as they do today, so there would appear to have been fewer of them then.

Q. BoffinMum: Why do toddlers stand so near the telly when they are watching it?

A. Desmond: It suits their range of vision better. Their infant eyes are tuned to be at their most efficient when looking at their mother's face, which is usually quite a short distance away. Also, seeing the picture close-to makes it feel more real.

Q. nymac: What is better for children, television or books?

A. Desmond: In a recent interview with the Guardian, I caused some controversy by saying I think TV is as good for toddlers as books.  Sadly, the Guardian made a mistake. What I said was that if you watch a classic children's film like The Wizard of Oz or Cinderella with a small child, this can be very rewarding for them. 

Reading a book to a child is wonderful, but it only gives them words, while the film will give them music and pictures as well as words and, therefore, provides a richer experience. But the essential feature is the sharing of the story with the child. Dumping a child in front of a TV by itself does not compare with reading a book to them. And a lot of children's TV today is rubbish. I am glad I have been able to put the record straight. My thoughts on this are clearly stated on p105 of the Child book and it is a shame that the Guardian got it wrong. 

Last updated: 9 months ago