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RIP Elaine Morgan, popularizer of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

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Elaine Morgan, author of the highly influential The Descent of Woman, has died at the age of 92 from a stroke. She will be remembered for challenging male-centric theories of human evolution, and for promoting the idea that early humans, for a short time, began adapting to aquatic life.

Back in the early 1970s, after becoming exasperated with the scientific establishment, the Welsh-born writer took matters into her own hands by publishing her seminal book, The Descent of Woman (1972). In it, she argued against traditional (i.e. male-biased) interpretations of human evolution while challenging the idea that male activities, like hunting, were its primary drivers.


Instead, she proposed that women played an equal — or even superior — role in evolution, and insisted that women should not be relegated to the Darwinian sidelines as ‘mere’ childbearers. She challenged “Tarzanist” interpretations of evolution (namely those of Desmond Morris and the “Savanna Hypothesis”) and, in their place, offered unconventional explanations for human evolution.

She wasn’t a scientist, however, and because her work was so highly speculative, she was never taken very seriously by the mainstream. Regardless, her book was an international bestseller and she became a feminist hero who toured the U.S. three times.


But her best known — or perhaps most infamous — works came with the publications of The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction? (1987) and The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997). Originally proposed by the German scientist Max Westenhofer in 1942, and later revived by marine biologist Alister Hardy, the theory suggests that proto-humans spent a period of time adapting to a semi-aquatic existence. Though no physical evidence exists for such a claim, Morgan looked to physical characteristics as proof.

She argued, for example, that human bipedalism, hairlessness, descended larynx, and encephalization (i.e. enlarged brain) could all be explained by partial adaptations to an aquatic life. She also claimed that a newborn’s ability to float and instinctively hold its breath underwater were additional proofs.

But the idea has never been taken seriously. Many accused her of being unable to uncouple her feminism from scientific discourse.


Morgan, despite the criticism (of which there’s been much), never wavered. A 1998 BBC documentary chronicled her quest to have the hypothesis taken seriously, and she gave a TED talk on the subject back in 2009.

[Sources: BBC, National Center for Science Education]

Image: Wales Online.