The Art and Science of Play

The Art and Science of Play

The Art and Science of Play

Creative play permeates the lifework of Desmond Morris.

Some people seem born to play. In fact, the urge to play drives just about everything they do. And in some cases, it ends up linking multiple interests and endeavors across the arts and sciences into one large network of creative enterprise. Among these people count Desmond Morris, artist, scientist, and science writer.

Desmond Morris, now in his 80s, is a surrealist painter perhaps best known for his popular books on ethology, including The Naked Ape, Manwatching, and Animalwatching. In his early career, Morris was also an Oxford-trained scientist, who ended up broadcasting his love of animals at the London Zoo. Over the many decades of work, what tied all these activities together, for Morris, was play.

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. More recently, researchers have emphasized additional adaptive consequences. Play develops the “welfare” of the individual as well as the group by building physical capacity, cultivating intimate social bonds, and facilitating reproductive success.

For most species play primarily occurs early in life. But humans go cats (and indeed, all other playful animals) one better. In our species, the evolutionary development of neoteny, which involves the retention of juvenile physical characteristics in mature individuals, has also prolonged the play impulse well into adulthood. This means that exploratory behaviors, driven by a curiosity for the novel and pursuit of the effective, do not disappear with childhood or youth but persist, especially in the play-like endeavors of art and science. “[A]dult play,” Morris has said, “is what gives us all our greatest achievements—art, literature, poetry, theatre, music and scientific research.”

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.

From the start, Morris the artist was drawn to the irrational, iconoclastic style of surrealists like Joan Miró. Paying heed to subconscious impulses, Morris quickly developed a signature style based on colorful, globular shapes—beings, really—cavorting in imaginary landscapes. Like any good surrealist, he relied on dreams and automatic processes to produce the art, yet zoological interests clearly guided his unconscious visions. Morris’ beings, which he called ‘biomorphs’, echoed simple organic forms, and the imagined scenes he depicted reflected behavior patterns analogous to those of real animals. In a “fantasy version of the family lake” he explored general biological principles in his own private, artistic simulation of evolution in action.

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.

He caused even more of an uproar with his first breakthrough book, The Naked Ape, first published in 1967 and still in print today. In true surrealist style, Morris juxtaposed chit-chat to fur grooming, sunglasses to aggressive threat-stares, and men’s ties to their sexual organs. Pushing the buttons of conventional prudery and complacency, he made the case for the biological basis of man’s every behavior.

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.

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2009, 2012


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.

See also and a recent interview at

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