Oral history of British science

Morris, Desmond (1 of 5). National Life Stories:

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  • Subjects

    Science and Religion

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's home, Oxford

  • Interviewees

    Morris, Desmond, 1928- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Desmond Morris [born on 24th January 1928 in Purton, Wiltshire]. Comments on everyday life as a child including freedom to explore farms owned by father's friends, preference for time spent in countryside rather than in hometown, time spent alone at/on lake on land owned by grandmother (including story of raft), enjoyment of solitude as only child, unsystematic/unscientific engagement with nature/animals; development of relations with animals kept as pets including cats, dogs, tame foxes, snakes, voles, guinea pigs. [6:41] Story of refusing to shoot animals for sport; reluctant shooting of starlings feeding on pear tree during World War Two [WW2]. Comments on dislike of fishing; use of bicycle to seek countryside beyond own "industrial town"; interest in behaviour of animals rather than in science or art; lack of engagement with arts and music in young childhood. [10:41] Comments on development, later, of interest in jazz music, including part-time work as jazz drummer during WW2; development of interest in art at boarding school through introduction from school teacher to work of Picasso and discovery of book in school library 'The Painter's Object' . [12:43] Comments on time spent with father, with related comments on effect on relations with father of his injuries sustained in World War One [WW1] and view of himself, with story of visits by car to seaside; enjoyment of collection of seashore animals; father's insistence on 'correct behaviour'. [17:59] Comments on unconditional love of mother; view of pleasantness of childhood; experience of exploring great-grandfather's natural history collections in attic of childhood home, including significance of inheritance of great-grandfather's microscope; view of childhood as involving direct observation rather than intellectual pursuits. [19:37] Detailed comments on "mild religion" of parents; development of own view of religion as "nonsense" aged 14; effect on self of father's death at this age. Story of writing, from this time on, "weird" essays (kept by mother and rediscovered later) involving criticism of religious and political authority. Comments on anti-war, anti-authority sensibility expressed in these essays and in paintings; later awareness of surrealism as anti-war, anti-authority movement in art; life-long lack of interest in politics and religion. [29:07] Discussion of rediscovery of the childhood essays, including some description of their content. Comments on view of importance of "immediacy and freshness" in good writing, in part inspired by relations, in childhood, with the poet Dylan Thomas [DT], with related stories. Comments on description of humans as 'monkeys with diseased brains' in one of the essays, in relation to experience of events of WW2, including bombings. [38:18] Comments on teaching of biological evolution by school zoology teacher, with related story of experiment on nocturnal migration/ancestral navigation of toads; role of botany teacher in introducing self to modern literature; discouragement at school of own interest in surrealism. [43:20] Story of conscription into Army, including second of two years teaching art; decision to read zoology at University of Birmingham [UOB] rather than enter art school; exhibition in London with surrealist Joan MirĂ³ during period of degree (1950); experience of asking Professor Peter Medawar [PM] (head of department at UOB) for leave to give lecture on biology of art at another university. Comments on significance of PM in developing own concern to write about science involving 'simplification without distortion'; development of own career in zoology from end of degree, with strong opposition to experimental work involving animals. Story of attending lecture on animal behaviour ('comparative ethology') of Nikolaas Tinbergen [NT], at invitation of PM. Mentions first class degree. Comments on NT's view of proper ways of understanding animals through natural settings and quantified observations. Mentions joining NT's group at the University of Oxford [UO] as one of its first members. [55:22] Comments on memory of absence of discussion of religion during degree at UOB; experience, at UO, of Alister Hardy's view of and work on lack of opposition between science and religion; NT's strong atheism (with related comments on NT's experience of WW2). [1:00:14] Description of/comments on Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, UO, at time of PhD there, with story of visit to the department of the Emperor of Japan. Story of involvement in amusing installation at zoology conference. [1:09:06] Comments on memory of equal numbers of male and female members of Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, UO at time of own PhD; lack of gender discrimination in ethology in own experience; experience of gender discrimination in modern art. [1:12:57] Comments on experience of discussion in London Zoo seminars and on television programme 'Life in the Animal World', including memory of antagonism/debates between ethologists and animal psychologists; origins of work in television broadcasting on animal behaviour; feeding and vocalisation behaviours in captive monkeys.

  • Description

    Life story interview with ethologist, writer, broadcaster, painter

  • Related transcripts

    Desmond Morris interviewed by Paul Merchant: full transcript of the interview

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