Magazine Issue: September 2011

The descent of woman

By Editorial Team

Did our ancestors climb down from the trees in order to walk upright? No, says Elaine Morgan. Humans evolved in water.

Jonathan Maas | September 2011 Issue

What do scientists do when they realize they’re on the wrong track? For Elaine Morgan, that’s a rhetorical question: “They carry on as if nothing had happened.” Morgan said this a couple of years ago with great irony at the renowned TED conference series for thought leaders and activists. At 88 years old, she sat on a chair in front of an auditorium filled with visitors. Now 90, she’s still the enfant terrible of the scientific world.

More than 40 years ago, she became fascinated by marine biologist Alister Hardy’s “aquatic ape” theory, which posits that our ancestors did not climb down from the trees to walk upright across the African savanna, but began wading through water at some point. The evidence: We have more in common with aquatic mammals than with chimpanzees. We don’t have fur; we have thick layers of fat under our skin; we can control our breathing; and we swim as though the reflex were innate, which it practically is. A human baby feels completely at home in water; a chimpanzee baby will drown. Man also has a streamlined shape, perfect for moving through water.

Marine biologist Hardy introduced his theory in 1930, but he waited until 1960 to publish it. He probably had an accurate premonition of the response his ideas would receive in the scientific world.

Absolute rubbish—that was the gist of the response. But the idea fascinated Morgan. Not afraid to get her feet wet, she dove into Hardy’s theory, unhindered by a lack of academic training on the subject. Since 1972, she has written six books on the aquatic ape and popularized the hypothesis that man evolved in water. It has brought her international fame and scientific derision.

Morgan was born in the Welsh countryside at the start of the previous century’s Roaring Twenties, to a family of mine workers. In the years that followed, those of the Great Depression, her family was ravaged by poverty, unemployment and alcoholism—reason enough for Morgan’s mother to encourage her daughter to grasp the opportunity for higher education.

Morgan wrote prolifically as a child and studied English at Oxford University. In the 1940s, she became involved with socialism, but she passed up a political career in favor of starting a family. In 1945, she married a French teacher, and they had two children. The couple later adopted a third child. After the children were grown and Morgan once more had time for herself, she picked up her pen again.

She wrote short articles for newspapers and magazines and was discovered by the BBC, which hired her as a scriptwriter for drama series and documentaries. She worked for the BBC for 30 years, and not without merit: Her series won several prizes, including two BAFTAs (the British equivalent of the American Oscars).

The explanation for human evolution had always been an abomination to her—particularly from a feminist point of view. The claim that ape-people came down from the trees, started walking on two legs and lost their fur purely so they could hunt seemed ridiculous to her. Why on earth should women start walking on two legs and lose their fur if all they did was sit on their butts and nurse babies? In 1972, she wrote her first book on the aquatic ape, The Descent of Woman, out of irritation at the limited role the female played in human evolution. She became the principal flag-bearer for the idea that human beings developed in water.

Sitting passively isn’t her strong suit, either. Despite her advanced age, she still works. She writes a weekly column for the Western Mail, a daily newspaper in Wales, and has ideas for a new book on why scientists have always ignored the aquatic ape theory. “But I don’t know that I’ve got enough time or that there’s enough material to write a whole book about that,” she says. She was very ill last winter and lost her oldest son.

Here and there, prominent scientists such as paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias are expressing cautious support for her ideas. She is very curious to see what develops in connection with the aquatic ape theory. There are three possible scenarios, she believes. Someone will show up with a new theory, different in every way from both the savanna and the aquatic ape theories; Morgan thinks this is unlikely. The scientific world may continue along the path familiar to Morgan: completely ignoring the aquatic ape hypothesis and investigating it no further. That, she feels, would be stupid. Then there’s the third option: The theories of Darwin and Hardy merge. Aware that she can’t wait around forever, she hopes this happens soon.

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