Book review – The Selfish Ape: Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction

Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, 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…

The Selfish Ape

The Selfish Ape: Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction“, written by Nicholas P. Money, published by Reaktion Books in July 2019 (hardback, 148 pages)

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: The Harm of Coming into Existence).

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.

“Money […] revels in casting humans back amongst the animals […] “humans have more moving parts than worms, but the individual cells that make them are equally complicated“”

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: The Lost Heroes of DNA.

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: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us about Ourselves, and Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel). 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“.

“having lots of children in this day and age is nothing less than “an act of environmental terrorism“”

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.

“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“”

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 (my reading list on this encompassing books such as Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong to Reproduce?, Permissible Progeny? The Morality of Procreation and Parenting, and One Child: Do We Have a Right to More?). The Selfish Ape is unrelentingly bleak in its outlook – if my favourite blogger Mark Manson had written this book, he might have simply called it “Everything Is Fucked” and dropped the subtitle “A Book About Hope“. Money might have thrown in his lot with the likes of Roy Scranton (see his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization), 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.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

The Selfish Ape hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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