Thursday, January 24, 2008

Animal Management

A few days, in an oblique reference to our overcrowded island, I thanked the author of The Human Zoo. He was born eighty years ago today. As a populariser of science, someone who brought the immense timescale of evolution down to simple schoolboy comprehension, Desmond Morris was a giant of the twentieth century.

He has immense detailed knowledge and scientific qualifications, he even studied under the genius Niko Tinbergen and published nearly fifty scientific papers. However in his popular books he sometimes oversimplified his arguments with the broad brush strokes of a trained artist. Some of those arguments have been refined and adopted into today's acknowledged facts, others are still contentious to this day. But his single basic point was blindingly obvious yet fundamentally enlightening - if we accept that human beings are animals, then much is explained.

After a few years of engineering, I studied economics and management at college. And I still remember sitting in lectures about management theory, some of it based on serious psychology experiments, some of it based on solid economic statistics, and some of it just the buzzword bullspeak that still resounds today. Normally I read the recommended books and did the recommended work. But one time, and it was just the once, in a graded essay about the definition of an organisation, where I was expected to discuss leadership concepts of "common goals and shared consciousness" (I can't believe I even vaguely remember that), I dropped in a line that said that we should also explore how some ideas from the Naked Ape could help to define and explain organisational behaviour.

That line got a big red question mark next to it. My university was fairly unusual in facilitating cross-disciplinary migration, we were encouraged to drop into lectures in totally different departments if we found interest there, but my idea did not come from any lecture. To credit my tutor, he did not completely rule out my suggestion, but he strongly emphasised that if I wanted to make such points in future then I should back them up with proper academic references instead of popular paperbacks.

But I stuck to books from the management library for the rest of the course, and indeed through my career. Meanwhile Dr Morris has continued to educate and entertain on the page and on the screen while I see his ideas validated everywhere. Happy birthday Desmond.

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