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Posted by on Jul 30, 2013 in News and Events, People | 3 comments

Elaine Morgan: It Wasn’t About Aquatic Apes

descent of womanI longed to find a volume that would begin: ‘When the first ancestor of the human race descended from the trees, she had not yet developed the mighty brain that was to distinguish her so sharply from all the other species … ‘”  Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman

I just learned that Elaine Morgan died on July 12 at age 92. Morgan, as some of you may recall from my earlier post, was the leading purveyor of the scientifically discredited Aquatic Ape Theory of human evolution.  Based on that association alone, it would be easy to dismiss Morgan as a wholly likeable but misguided crackpot — a housewife who was in over her head scientifically.

But that would be an injustice to a smart insightful woman who would serve as a role model and inspiration to a generation of women after the publication of her 1972 book, The Descent of Woman.  Morgan wrote Descent as a direct challenge to the prevailing evolutionary theories of the time, all of which centered on the role of men in single-handedly driving human evolution.

“Smack in the centre of it remains the Tarzanlike figure of the prehominid male who came down from the trees, saw a grassland teeming with game, picked up a weapon, and became the Mighty Hunter.”  Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman

Men. Because we couldn't take care of ourselves. (Johhny Wesimuller & Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan)

Men. Maybe they needed to be bipedal to carry us. (Johhny Wesimuller & Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan)

From the needs of this Mighty Hunter, supposedly all important human traits emerged: Bipedalism, so men could see great distances and carry weapons; loss of body hair, so men could stay cool while chasing prey; living in caves, so men had a place to come home to.

“If we learned to speak, it was because hunters need to plan the next safari and boast about the last one.” — Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman

Where, Morgan wondered, were the women?  Did they not need bipedalism to carry infants? If lack of body hair protected men from overheating, why did women, who presumably stayed in the cool caves, have even less? What good is a cave to man if he comes home to find “his son’s been dropped on his head and his wife is dead of hypothermia”?

In the end, I wish Morgan had turned her attention less to the aquatic apes and spinning her own evolutionary theories and more towards good solid feminist critique of the traditional male bastion of scientific inquiry. At the very least she would have been able to retain her natural wit, something she had to lose in her attempts to earn the respect of the scientific community.

But more importantly, I think her astute insights, clear intellectual voice, and cogent writing style would have earned her a solid place in feminist literature and criticism.  Instead, she made a choice to wade into deep scientific waters where, in the end, she never gained a firm footing.

Essential Reading:

Read the first chapter of The Descent of Woman on Amazon. I’m sure you’ll see why she captured the imagination of women in 1972.

The Guardian: Elaine Morgan and the Aquatic Ape  – The history of the aquatic ape may tell us more about the fraught relationship between feminism and science than it does about the evolution of humanity. A guest post by Erika Lorraine Milam

Thoughts from the Science Twittersphere





  1. AAT isn’t any more what Elaine (or Hardy) thought it was, but if Elaine hadn’t written her books on the “aquatic ape”, the littoral theory had been forgotten, I’m afraid. For recent information on the coastal dispersal model of Pleistocene Homo, google, eg, “econiche Homo”, “Laden misconceptions Verhaegen” or “Rhys Evans Vaneechoutte”. –marc verhaegen

  2. Oh, ye doubters! Now, on Radio 4, no less a person than David Attenborough has straightforwardly credited Elaine Morgan with developing a theory which is now supported by increasing evidence (meat doesn’t contain enough of the right sort of fats to develop the brain, fish does; fish bones discovered at hominid sites are now, using powerful microscopes, shown to have exactly the marks of hominid intervention; vernix on babies, unique in terrestrial mammals, is also found on seal infants; etc). In fact, it is pretty much becoming accepted, not least since the savannah theory is discredited, given that savannah didn’t develop until after humans had evolved to walk upright. Water is where apes go upright…

    • “It is a great shame the BBC recently indulged this implausible theory as it distracts from the emerging story of human evolution that is both more complex and more interesting. Because at the end of the day science is about evidence, not wishful thinking,” — Professor Alice Roberts and Professor Mark Maslin.

      Sorry David Attenborough, we didn’t evolve from ‘aquatic apes’ – here’s why

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