The Descent of Woman

Elaine Morgan and the Aquatic Ape
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We exude, through our eyes and sweat glands, greater quantities of salt water than any other mammal. We are the only species of mammal to mate face to face, other than aquatic mammals. We are the only primate capable of overriding our unconscious breathing rhythms, alongside the elaborate use of lips and tongue, to produce speech ability which separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We are also the only primate with a descended larynx, thought to increase the variety of sounds we can produce. Hardy argued that these features indicate a level of adaption to an aquatic environment.

Thus, humans become bipedal to wade in water, and lost their hair to streamline their bodies for swimming. The fat layer kept them warm and buoyant, their secretions prevented build-up of excess salt from sea water and their larynx was protected against submersion. Language evolved because glare from the water meant signalling was no longer an efficient means of communication. Hardy's theory had been ignored by the scientific establishment. It had sunk like a stone. But as soon as I read it I thought, 'Well obviously this is the answer to everything, why has nobody told me about it?

At this time, Morgan was a successful television scriptwriter, winner of several Baftas, a Writers' Guild award and a Prix Italia for her film about Joey Deacon, the disabled fundraiser. She had stopped her science studies after O level.

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Nonetheless, she wrote to Hardy asking if she could quote his theory. He agreed, and she sent the eventual product to her agent.

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I heard a programme on the radio about Elaine Morgan (it included an interview and I think she's still alive which means she's over ninety) which led me to this. The Descent of Woman is a pioneering work, the first to argue for the equal role of women in human evolution. On its first publication in it sparked an.

What made The Descent of Woman doubly revolutionary was the way that Morgan wrote. She referred to our ancestors as "she" and considered the development of pendulous breasts and rounded buttocks without the context of sexual attraction. She also wrote in detail about the female orgasm, examining whether face-to-face mating serviced both clitoral and vaginal stimulation.


It was the earliest days of the feminist movement, and women across the world were captivated. When I wrote the last pages of the book I thought, 'Yes, this is good'," - she balls her fist - "but I didn't expect it to make quite the big splash it did. They were told biology is destiny, and those arguments had been used to hold them down, and suddenly they could talk about it.

Women's lib was just taking off then, and I got to meet some of them, like Gloria Steinem.

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Elaine Morgan was best known as a writer for television until the publication of The Descent of Woman in , which became an international bestseller. Track My Order. This is all done with rhetoric; Morgan sets up straw men, over generalizes, begs the question, and does all the other logical tricks. Where did they go? Even if we postulate a mutant ape cool enough to think, with the adrenalin surging through his veins, 'There must be a better way than teeth,' he still has to be lucky to notice that right in the middle of the primeval grassland there happens to be a stone of convenient size, precisely between him and his enemy. Description eBook Details Click on the cover image above to read some pages of this book! Published by Stein and Day

But they were very wary of me because I was old enough to be their mother and their mother was their enemy. I'd got married, brought up children, and this was no great way to break the system, they thought. She was never really part of the sisterhood, she giggles, surely aware of how significantly she contributed to it. I liked them, but after that book they were racing ahead, feminism took off, and I thought, 'I don't need to say any more about that now'. The liberation of her gender secured, she applied her campaigning vim to the science itself. Morgan is the first to admit that The Descent of Woman was a thoroughly unscientific romp riddled with errors and convenient conclusions.

In the years after its publication, she set about a process of self-education that resulted in the more soberly executed Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, published in It had become increasingly important to her to write something that would appeal to scientists. I was an upstart, in it for the money, totally ignorant. She believes the upset was greater because she was contradicting those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Her methodology for recreating herself as a credible scientist was certainly individual. And then I'd look in their bibliographies, and that would be of an even higher academic standard. So if there was something I wanted to know about, like the larynx or the skin, I would work my way back to bedrock that way and find out what the original basis for the claim was. Of late, Morgan has garnered some high profile support.

Elaine Morgan

In his book Consciousness Explained, the American philosopher Daniel Dennet wrote: "When in the company of distinguished biologists, evolutionary theorists and other experts, I have often asked them to tell me, please, why Elaine Morgan must be wrong. I haven't yet had a reply worth mentioning. South African palaeontologist Philip Tobias, a lifelong supporter of the savannah theory, in abruptly changed tack to announce that he believed Africa was most probably covered with vast bodies of water at the time humans first evolved. Most now acknowledge that the savannah theory is defunct, preferring the midway "mosaic theory" that the landscape was a patch work of forest, grassland and lake.

Sir David Attenborough used his recent presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to organise the first full day discussion of Morgan's "engaging" theory. There is inevitably a problem of proof, she adds, given that the hypothesis relies on soft tissue adaptations, which don't fossilise.

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This lack of direct evidence concerns many scientists, says Peter Wheeler, professor of evolutionary biology at Liverpool John Moores university. The truth is that it has been considered and found completely wanting.

In addition to the absence of fossils, says Wheeler, the hypothesis relies upon superficial comparisons between living species which don't bear scrutiny. For example, although humans are fatty mammals their fat is distributed in an entirely different way to aquatic mammals. Nor are the majority of aquatic animals naked.

The Descent of Woman

Most have dense fur and only the largest and deepest diving are hairless. There are about four other more convincing theories. Elaine Morgan was an award winning television writer when she discovered Sir Alister Hardy's Aquatic Ape theory of human origin and her series of bestselling books have further explored, and publicised, the theory.

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