TED Talks: Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes

An occasional post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). The internet is made for this – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettos and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

Elaine Morgan is the most well-known proponent of the aquatic ape hypothesis, which says that our ape ancestors didn’t come down from the trees and suffer in the hot, dry savannah. Sensible beasts that they were, they headed for the beach to take advantage of the plentiful food supplies available in an aquatic environment. Hence us, hairless, intelligent, bipedal apes who have sex face to face. Most of the time, anyway. There’s a lot more to the hypothesis, obviously, and Morgan lays it out in this entertaining talk.

Thanks to the Guardian for reminding me. It has an article prompted by a major London conference next week, and the support of David Attenborough. If you’re interested in the subject, here’s Elaine Morgan giving a lecture at UCL: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4.

And here is a BBC documentary on the subject. Not great picture quality, but worth watching.

The Aquatic Ape

What would you think if, coming in sight of the beach at a seaside resort, you saw that all the deckchairs were turned toward the land?  This is the punchline of a short story by science fiction writer, Brian Aldiss, in which his character slips into an alternative universe, one that looks superficially similar but is fundamentally alien – human beings are no longer drawn towards the sea.

That was in the 1960s.  Not long after reading the story, I came across an extraordinary hypothesis by Welsh television writer and feminist, Elaine Morgan.  Reacting to what she saw as the sexist nature of the savannah hypothesis in human evolution (chaps off hunting, women sitting around at home watching day time TV), she found a reference in Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape to a period in human evolution when apes might have been forced to live in water.  Here’s his argument.

Morgan’s book, The Descent of Woman (1972), popularized the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.  You can see why, as a feminist, she found it attractive.  There is no division of labour in an aquatic environment – males and females are equal partners in the struggle for survival.

Beyond that, it has some supporting evidence, presented by Morris in the video.  This theory supports, among other things, the evolution of bipedalism (as a means of literally keeping your head above water), frontal sex, lack of body hair, and conscious control of breathing (necessary in an aquatic environment).

Needless to say, her work was not well received in scientific circles.  I will leave you to apportion the reasons between her non-scientific background and being a woman.

Morgan followed this with The Aquatic Ape (1982), in which she made the science more rigorous, and continued to develop her theory in subsequent books.  The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997), subtitled The Most Credible Theory of Human Evolution, takes the prize for sheer chutzpah.

Criticism of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has not diminished in the ensuing years, but it has gained a place among the family of respectable evolutionary theories.  Somewhere in the back row of the family photo, among the maiden aunts.  Morgan is still passionately defending her hypothesis.  Here she is at TED in 2009.

I like AAH as much for its scientific credentials, as for my affinity for water.  It resonates on an intuitive level, and I was appalled by Aldiss’ glimpse of a world where human beings are no longer drawn to the sea.  I’m not even sure I’d give it the bum’s rush if there was a preponderance of evidence against it.

The ancestral memory of wading through the mangrove swamps is just too strong and comforting.