Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

The Art and Science of Play

Creative play permeates the lifework of Desmond Morris.

Posted Jan 21, 2009

Ethologist that he is, Morris has long understood play - his own and that of others - as a set of behavior patterns the human animal shares with many other species.
Particularly in childhood, he and other students of animal behavior have argued, play is vital to the acquisition of complex skills. The kitten pouncing on a ball of yarn, for example, learns behaviors necessary to the hunt well before survival depends on the outcome.

As a boy, Morris spent hours outdoors watching and communing with the frogs, birds and fish in and around a family pond; as a rebellious teen he spent hours observing his inner thoughts and dreams and painting them, on canvas, on the walls of his room. As an adult, he determined to become "an increasingly matured child" who played the games of art and science for fun - and for creative profit.

Much of this artistic play proved critical to Morris' science. As a zoologist, he purposefully empathized with every animal he studied - though this approach was suspect in the 1950s and 60s. Just as he did with his biomorphs, he put himself into the animal's place, "so that its problems became my problems, and I read nothing into its life-style that was alien to its particular species." This subjective, artistically inspired empathy stood Morris in good stead as a zoologist and science writer. So did the iconoclastic energy of his surrealist art. With hand-rubbing, impish glee, Morris linked the purposeful scribbles of a chimpanzee named Congo to the drawings of children and the evolution of art and creativity.

Just as his art had its biological intent, Morris' science had its artistic impulse. The play of art and the play of science meshed his different interests into one complementary whole. Ever the observer, Morris draws certain conclusions from this experience: "[T]here must always be time set aside for playful innovations, for subjective explorations; in short, for the poetic and the mysterious alongside the objective and rational," he has written. The choice is not between work and play, but to suffuse work with play. The choice is not to separate people into artists or scientists, but to "encourage them to be both at once." For "in reality,' Morris believes, "people...are explorers or non-explorers, and the context of their explorations is of secondary importance." We heartily agree.


For more on Morris, see www.desmond-morris.com/

Desmond Morris. (1980). Animal Days. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. (Original work published 1979)

Silvano Levy. (1997). Desmond Morris, 50 Years of Surrealism. London: Barrie & Jenkins Limited/Random House.

and a recent interview on the web at www.cosmoetica.com/DSI8.htm.