My Manager and Other Animals
By Richard Robinson
Author’s Homepage: http://www.richardrobinson.org.uk
Antagonistic harmony: the ‘selfish ape’ and the ‘chaotic ant’
The author of this book, Richard Robinson, firstly wants to convince us that we, in our modern office environment, are a balance between ape and ant – self interest and generosity. Secondly he proposes that these two elements clash and come together in ‘antagonistic harmony’ – a behavior pattern that emerges from this evolutionary chaos.
Using animals as a metaphor to explain human behavior is not a new idea. If you are looking for ideas along these lines then Robert Palmetier’s Speaking of Animals is worth investigating. As for business books then I’m sure anybody who has spent some in corporations will have been exposed to Fish boosting their morale and productivity, or contemplated workplace change by wondering Who moved my cheese?, compared innovation to cats, or sales performance to dogs, or for the more philosophical, pondered The Te of Piglet or The Tao of Pooh – so when it comes to animals and behavior an author has a fair bit of competition clutter to cut through. What these books have in common, and utilise to varying degrees of success, is metaphor. Metaphor is part of our customary communication tool-kit, it used whenever we communicate a new or unfamiliar idea – including scientific ideas. My Manager and other Animals, is a book that relies heavily on metaphor, less so on science.
Before I get into this and the rest of the book, I want to introduce you briefly to the author, Richard Robinson. Robinson is most famously known (Wikipedia list him as Richard Robinson – puppeteer) for building and voicing puppets for the television series Spitting Image, The Riddlers, Dizzy Heights, and Puddle Lane. More relevant to this book is that in the mid 1980s he was a science busker, ‘visiting schools and festivals with science cabaret acts.’ Robinson is the author of a number of eclectic books – most notably the ‘Science Magic’ and ‘Super Science’ series of science-for-children books. [Robinson is also director of the Brighton Science Festival – ed]
My Manager and other Animals, I would contend, is two interwoven themes, that are only ever tenuously connected. The first is the use of the ‘chaotic ant’ and ‘selfish ape’ metaphor to describe our human behavior – particularly in the setting of the modern office. The second is restating recent science findings, from secondary sources, in evolutionary biology and social neuroscience.
Throughout the book Robinson contrasts the chaotic, hive, behavior of the ant with the selfish, individualistic behavior of the ape. In the first section of the book Robinson argues, “the ‘force’ of harmony brings us together in ant-like swarms. We are built to cooperate.” Robinson constructs this creating a potpourri of animal anecdotes; starlings flocking, capuchin monkeys sense of fairness, decision-making by bees, along with science vignettes; mirror neurons, pheromones, psychology of groups. Some of this is witty, none of it is new, nor is it presented in a compelling fashion.
Similarly for the second section, Robinson contrasts the ‘ant’ and ‘ape’ in us. Stories of the NHS, the MBA graduate, Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle are all retold. The third section, Anatomy of Chaos, is a very brief and superficial assessment of chaotic behavior resulting in an almost right answer – more about psychology than chaos. The final two sections are more of the same, sometimes witty, never particularly compelling:
The inner ant says, ‘Together we can do good things.’ The ape says, ‘We can do things a lot better if we work out a management tree first.’
My Manager and other Animals is, I find, padding in an all-ready crowded ‘management’ book space; light on science, witty but I would recommend spending your time re-reading Candide would be more rewarding, and not packaged sufficiently to be the next fad in business books.
Kevin Orrman-Rossiter is a freelance science writer and reviewer. His writing has features in COSMOS magazine, Books&Publishing, and online on Australian Science lucid thoughts and dragon laughing . Originally studying physics, Kevin had a successful research career, reaching the heady heights of an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellow, then after being lured into the fascinating world of industry research, he ended up some years later, in marketing and strategy. When not writing, reviewing, or reading books to review, Kevin is now found; forming links between Australian industry and researchers at the University of Melbourne, reading (what a lovely quaint term) History & Philosophy of Science at University of Melbourne, and, in defiance of ageing gracefully, trail running .