The person who did most to publicise the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis” was undoubtedly Elaine Morgan. She was already famous as an award-winning television playwright when she read Desmond Morris’ book “The Naked Ape” in 1967, sparking a life long interest in human evolution. Morris’ book starts brilliantly, as he describes how, as a zoologist, looking dispassionately at Homo sapiens, one can’t help but notice the relatively denuded condition that is characteristic of us, but so few other mammals and, critically, no other Primate. In trying to explain this bizarre phenomenon, Morris lists some of the published ideas before he positively (“another, more ingenious theory” Morris, 1967:29) mentions Alister Hardy’s “More Aquatic” idea. This had been announced to the Brighton sub-aqua club a few years earlier, in March 1960, and published a few weeks later in New Scientist but as Morris was student of Hardy’s at Oxford University, one suspects he’d heard about it before then. Frustratingly, after this brief positive mention in his book, Morris seems to shy away from exploring the idea in any depth and, instead, focuses on his own pet theory – to do with sexual selection. Most of Morris’ book then basically rehashes a very male-orientated, savannah-view of human evolution – one that clearly irritated Elaine sufficiently to inspire her to write a book on the subject – a world best seller – “The Descent of Woman.
Morgan, E. (1972). The Descent of Woman. Souvenir Press (London)
This was Elaine’s first book on human evolution and it remains her best selling work to date. It has been much criticised for a hard-line feminist style and for lacking certain conventions in scientific writing but I think most of that was really simply the result of a perceived outsidership from the field of anthropology. It’s not surprising that people, some of whom had studied the subject of human evolution for decades, did not take very kindly to being told that they’d got it all wrong by a non-specialist playwright, who they must have seen as someone trying to make a sensationalist noise for personal gain. The title and timing of the book couldn’t have helped. “Descent of Woman” – published exactly 100 years after Darwin’s “Descent of Man”.
But let’s be fair. She did have a point. Even today many palaeoanthropologists still assume that human evolution was largely the result of a sex-based division of labour that was an adaptation of savannah-life. As a tutor at UWA I basically am expected to teach that line to students myself. Most people who do, even women, are happy to repeat models based on men (pregnant or nursing women surely must be excluded) performing brave feats of endurance running over open plains to track down prey (Elaine would turn in her grave at the thought!) Perhaps these days, the role of (mainly female based) gathering is emphasised more than it was but the man-the-mighty hunter mantra persists nonetheless and this is the main thing Elaine was criticising. I always find it disappointing that few female anthropologists have found themselves able to thank Elaine Morgan for her contribution in promoting the role of women and children in evolution. I guess it just goes to show that men are not the only gender capable of vanity and jealousy.
The criticism of unscholarliness was addressed by Elaine herself in her later books but I don’t think it was ever as bad as some have made out. If one reads “African Genesis” by Robert Ardrey or “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris – and Elaine’s book was largely a response to those – they are very similar in the way they city books and papers.
1: Man-made myth – From Genesis to Tarzan, man-made image of his past. By him, for him, about him, not her.
2: The Escape Route – Hardy’s aquatic idea offers her an escape route – a way of explaining her past
3: The Ape remoulded – Bipedal, fat and sexual changes all due to water
4: Orgasm – re-orientation from quadruped to biped left women wanting. Taking it from behind was best, anatomy hasn’t quite caught up
5: Love – Mothers love as well as romantic
6: Speech – Mama – the first word? Apes difficulty is breath control – the usual
7: The U-Turn – on elephants and why, if we were aquatic, did we return to the land?
8: Man the Hunter – Leaving the coasts moving up rivers to the land – hunting
9: Primate Politics – Long before Frans der Waal – Morgan had it right
10: What women want – Babies, what’s wrong with being an animal (shouldn’t it be ‘mammal, Elaine?) anyway?
11: Present and Future – Women controlling affairs – choosing not to have kids and choosing the sperm she wants
PostScript (1985 Edition).
The lack of academic response to “Descent…” made Elaine think that she’d really got something very drastically wrong, and that academics had spotted something in it that was very wrong, so wrong it wasn’t worth a reply – and she was going to leave it at that, and did for several years as she returned to her career writing screen plays for television.
Amazingly, a policeman in the United States, Chuck Milliken, had also read “Descent of Woman” and was so fascinated by the “more aquatic” idea in it, and the bizarre absence of any response from academics, that he wrote to several of them to ask them what they thought of Elaine’s book. Their responses surprised him. Rather than attempt to give any scientific arguments as to why Morgan was wrong to speculate about a “more aquatic” past, they instead chose to discredit her personally, merely pointing out that she was no academic or implying that she was some sore of crank, out to make money. Chuck sent these letters to Elaine and they astonished her too. Clearly, these “authorities” of anthropology had no good reasoning behind their objection. They just didn’t like Elaine.
So, she set out to write her next book on the subject, published in 1982, that was more scholarly, less sensationalist. It was called by the sole topic of the book – “The Aquatic Ape”. After all, the issue of feminism had (in no doubt in part due to her) now become a very popular subject in its own right.
Morgan, E. (1982). The Aquatic Ape. Souvenir Press (London)
This was a much more scientifically written book although, in my opinion, it took the wrong approach when it attempted to compare and contrast the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis” (a term borrowed from Desmond Morris and, unfortunately, subsequently tied to all related ideas from that point) and Stephen J Gould’s ideas on Neoteny. Gould noted that many traits of adult humans (most notably our large cranial size compared to the rest of the body) appear to be exaggerated, or extended, from similar traits in our great ape relatives that are found in infants and adolescents. It’s an interesting to note, but it doesn’t explain why such a trend might have happened in the first place. “More aquatic” ideas, by contrast, give evolutionary scenarios for such changes. In a nutshell, Neonteny is, at best, a proximal explanation for certain human characteristics whereas “more aquatic” ideas are potentially ultimate explanations. Elaine does allude to this in her book from time to time but in my view it makes the whole comparison a bit pointless.
Nevertheless, what this book does do very well for the first time is to list out a comprehensive set of human traits that are different in chimps and gorillas that may plausibly have some sort of “more aquatic” explanation. Hardy posed the question “was man more aquatic in the past?” and asked for comments. Few bothered to do so before Morgan’s “Descent of Woman” – which caused such a popular stir that it really should have elicited an academic response. If this idea was so ridiculous and easy to dismiss, why did no paleoanthropologist attempt to do so? After Milliken’s heads up on the paucity of intellectual response, this was Morgan’s first tour de force – a systematic, logical look at the idea.
Surely it couldn’t be ignored after this.
Contents by Sir Alister Hardy
1: The Emergency of Man – Something happenned, The savannah theory, The neoteny theory, The aquatic theory
2: The Loss of Body Hair – The naked ape, A cooling device, Parasites, Disadvantages of nakedness, Sexual attraction, The naked foetus, Hairless aquatics, Naked mothers
3: Subcutaneous fat – Fat distribution: aquatic and terrestrial, The savannah explanation, Sweating, An ex-aquatic explanation, Neoteny innaplicable,
4: Tears – The weeping primate, Marine birds, Salt glands and tear glands. The weeping mammals, Excretory function
5: Bipedalism – The perpendicular ape, Alleged advantages, Upright in the water, Horizontal in the water, Balance, Savannah and the neoteny theories
6: Copulation – Fave to face, The savannah explanation, The aquatic explanation, The neoteny explanation
7: Swimming and Diving – The primate fear of water, Human swimming, The diving reflex, Drowning, Aquatic animals have short legs, Aquatic animals close their nostrils, webbing
8: Aquatic Babies – The swimming infants, Fatty tissue, Underwater childbirth, Post-natal responses, Non-aquatic explanation
9: Speech – An intractable problem, The savannah theory, Primate modes of communication, The choice of a channel, Comparative anatomy, Viki and Washoe, The aquatic experience,
The sense that atrophied, Hearing and uttering, Controlled vocalisation by aquatics, Speech: the only other claimant
10: Towards a synthesis – Recapitulation, Savannah and aquatic, Neoteny and aquatic, Slowing down, Reproductive strategy, Brain size
11: Where and when it happenned – Ramapithecus and Australopithecus, Protein dating, The sea came in, .. And went out again, The geological background.
12: Danakil Islands – The evolution of human bipedalim by Leon P La Lumiere
Morgan, E. (1990). The Scars of Evolution. Oxford University Press (Oxford)
Elaine’s next book was strongly influenced by Marc Verhaegen. It concentrated on soft tissue traits, the things that very rarely get fossilised. It started from her usual, common sense question: Why are we so different from chimpanzees and gorillas when chimps are closer to use genetically than they are to gorillas? It’s a good question and this book is more comprehensive in listing out those differences.
1 – The emergence of man
2 – Fossil hunters
3 – The cost of walking erect
4 – Explaining bipedalism
5 – The cost of a naked skin
6 – Explaining hairlessness
7 – Keeping cool
8 – Sweat and tears
9 – Fat
10 – Explaining the fat layer
11 – Breathing
12 – Sex in transition
13 – The aquatic ape theory – counter arguments
14 – Brains and Baboons
Get it from Amazon now.
Morgan, Elaine (1994). The Descent of the Child. Penguin Books (London)
Elaine’s next book moved away from the “more aquatic” theme slightly and following on from her book “Descent of Woman” which looked at human evolution from a uniquely female point of view, this one focused on evolution from the point of view of the infant.
It’s an interesting and valid evolutionary perspective as the highest death rates in most species is highest in the young but I must admit I was a little frustrated that Elaine didn’t explore areas where selection in human infants might have made an effect on our phenotype as much as she might. Much of the book was more or less a biology lesson about pregnancy. Still it was enlightening to think about such concepts and it continued to show that she was exploring concepts which the mainstream had largely overlooked.
1 Is sex really necessary?
2 Sowing the seed.
3 One at a time,
4 The revolt of the zygote
5 The slow breeders
6 The embryo
7 The 1st 4 months
8 The naked ape
9 The sex organs
10 Brain growth – the problem
11 Brain growth – the solution
12 Preparing to come out
14 The Wanted
15 The unwanted
16 The new born
17 The Interacting
19 Before language
22 The peer group
23 Light on the past
24 The new child
Morgan’s next book was probably her best. As she described herself, she ratcheted up her scholarliness, took out some of the sensationalism and referenced everything better than before. It was the first book I read about these ideas and it struck me that out of the 14 chapters, 4 were about bipedalism and the wading hypothesis. Morgan’s overwhelming common-sense that the idea that wading was a rather obvious possible factor in the evolution of our bipedalism struck a chord with me and inspired me to study it at masters level and for my Ph. D.
1 – The death of a hypothesis
2 – Where the hominids died
3 – Before the biped
4 – Walking in the mosaic
5 – A surfeit of solutions
6 – The wading ape?
7 – The naked ape
8 – The other naked mammals
9 – The fat primate
10 – Sweat and Tears
11 – The larynx and speech
12 – Why apes can’t talk
13 – Infrequently asked questions
14 – Beyond Belief
Elaine’s last book on the so-called “aquatic ape theory” was self-published in 2008. You can download it free from Elaine’s own web site by clicking the link above. It summarises the subject really well and in it Elaine remains largely unmoved from her original analysis 36 years earlier.
My only real problem with the book is its title. Elaine, I know very well, was a strong advocate of the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin. If anyone was a Darwinist, she was. And yet the book’s title and cover image appears to be making fun of those who espouse such ideas. I guess Elaine felt that as “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris was the book that started her journey off in the first place, this title was a suitable way to complete the circle, but I would have thought the “Naked Anthropologist” would have been better.
Nevertheless, it’s essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.
Part One: The story so far
Don’t ask 1
Raymond Dart 6
Alister Hardy 12
The “feminist tirade” 16
Just ignore it 21
The brighter side 25
Other sources 35
What the fossil record proved 40
The aftermath 46
Part Two: Objections and replies
Objections and replies 53
Part Three: What makes human bodies special
We walk upright 61
We have a displaced larynx 68
We can talk 76
We put on weight 78
We are furless 82
Part Four: The story yet to come
A fairy tale 95
Where we stand today 96
The road ahead 100