Elaine Morgan was amused. She smiled benignly at us, as if we were naughty schoolchildren.
“How can it be, “ I had asked, “That the current issue of one of America’s most widely-read science magazines has managed to print a survey of the current state of play in the origin-of-man game without making a single reference to the aquatic ape hypothesis or to Elaine Morgan?”
This seemed quite remarkable to me. It had, after all, been over 30 years since the hypothesis had gained wide exposure with Elaine’s publication of The Descent of Woman, over 40 years since Sir Alistir Hardy’s startling lecture to the British Sub-Aqua Club, and 60 years since Max Westenhofe broached the idea to the German –speaking world.
The proposition is that the primate ancestors of homo sapiens transited and adapted to an aquatic existence, an evolutionary phase shaped by water, to which we owe certain of our singular anatomical and physiological characteristics.
For us, it’s pretty sweet: freedivers are descended from……freedivers ?
Elaine, plainly relishing the lunch of Dover sole we’d (along with contributor Emma Farrell) treated ourselves to at London’s Paddington Hilton, had answered variants of this question many, many, oh-so- many times before.
“I have”, she patiently intoned, “Been waiting thirty years for someone, one of these scientists, to publish a serious, reasoned rebuttal supported by fact, but so far that has not happened.”
By 1970, Elaine Morgan had built a considerable career writing for the small screen. She modestly attributes her success to happenstance: she had, by this account, been fortunate to have sought entry to the profession at a time when television was new, and serious people of letters disdained the new medium. She researched and wrote documentary series for the BBC. One was on Gregor Mendel, the proto-geneticist monk.
I supposed it was the Mendel series that had piqued her interest in matters biological, but no : “It was anger! At that time, it was this man-the-great-hunter business, rubbish. I did not like it at all, and, as it happens, I also thought it was simply wrrrrrrrrong.” Elaine occasionally rolls her ‘r’ for emphasis, and to splendid effect.
Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape ( which, according to the author, was “…written in November 1966 in four explosive, exhausting weeks….) was, then, a wildly popular example of what Elaine calls the “Tarzanist” view of human evolution: that we are, individually and as a species, products of a jungle heritage and a carnivorous diet supplied by Man the Hunter to Woman the Consumer.
The early 1970’s were not ordinary times. Western civilization was in the throes of concurrent revolutions in human affairs. The social and political turmoil of the ‘60’s had fairly well undone the social structure at its roots, and anything seemed possible, even the notion that a middle-aged female TV writer with no scientific training could mount a robust challenge to one of the bedrock fundamentals of our understanding of ourselves and our genesis.
The aquatic ape hypothesis, while essential to Elaine’ Morgan’s rewrite of the human origins story, was not the centerpiece of The Descent of Woman. It is a feminist book, as much a part of (what was then called) the Women’s Liberation movement as were Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969), Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) or Gloria Steinem’s landmark Ms. Magazine (founded 1971). I asked Elaine how she thought things had turned out in the meantime, what she thought of the current state of relations between men and women. Emma raised an eyebrow…
“All that we did during the 70’s, those were things that had to be done.” Elaine seemed pensive, and a bit hesitant before continuing: ”But I am concerned that certain things have now gone too far, have gone to the opposite extreme. Where the girls’ test scores were lower before, as things changed they increased and then surpassed the boys’ test scores and are now, apparently, higher than the boys’. This is no less problematic. There is no reason to believe the boys are silly twits, just as there was, previously, no reason to suppose [glancing at Emma] we were less clever. Now the boys are demoralized. They think they cannot do well in school, and so they look about for something else to do, like be disruptive.”
Emma asked Elaine whether, all told, she thought things were better now. Elaine brightened. “Oh, yes. But as I say, we should be concerned that things have gone too far the other way. The men are confused.”
Fair enough. I know I certainly am.
The Descent of Woman was, and is, a startling dissertation. The ‘standard theory’ of human origin was, as of 1972, the ‘Savannah Model’, in which the primate ancestors of humans were differentiated from the other apes by the unique selective pressures encountered while moving from the jungle to the open plain. The Savannah Model has withstood, in what is by now a rather diluted version, a relentless onslaught of troubling fossil discoveries and other new evidence. The aquatic ape hypothesis (now generally termed the ‘aquatic ape theory’, or AAT) proposes, alternatively, that the set of unique selective pressures applied to the ancestors of homo sapiens did their evolutionary business during a period of semi-aquatic existence which our ancestors lived through before returning to solid ground. In short, that unique among the primates, our ancestors were water-adapted.
Makes perfect sense to me, but maybe that’’s just the company I keep. Aquatic apes, the whole seething lot of them.
Mainstream science has been industrious, and quite adept, at applying drastic measures (where is the DO NOT RESCUSITATE waiver?) to keep the Savannah Model alive in the face of relentless evidentiary disconfirmation. A different strategy, however, has been employed to manage the AAT. Elaine Morgan summarizes it thus:
“The scientists, by and large, have elected to simply ignore it !”
Asked why, Elaine matter-of-factly cited her own lack of formal scientific training, and hinted that the tone of her books may be partly to blame.
“Not dry enough ?” I asked. She nodded shyly. I pressed her: “Too witty ? Too entertaining ? Too brilliant ? ” She offered no reasoned rebuttal.
She told of a personal letter she had once received from a pedigreed member of the Science Establishment, in which she was castigated and reminded that whereas they, the proper scientists, had spent their lives toiling under the hot sun digging up rocks and bones, she, Elaine Morgan, was but a dotty scribbler sitting in Wales who would come along and knock down all they had built. Elaine bears no ill will toward the Establishment, though. “The trouble with having scientists for adversaries”, she commented wryly, “is that once you get to know them, most of them are pretty nice”.”
Elaine Morgan believes there has been, of late, a nascent revival of interest in the AAT. She is well aware of the interest freedivers have long had in her work, and spoke of her acquaintance with the late Jacques Mayol.
Her enthusiasm grew as she leapt nimbly from Mayol to the mobile larynx, and how, given the numerous disadvantages of mouth-breathing and the evolutionary overhead associated with this anatomical development, there must have been some selective pressure which favored it at some time – under certain very specific environmental conditions in the past.
The gasp reflex is her candidate. The mobile larynx allows us to take in a large volume of air very quickly through the mouth, bypassing the cleaning and conditioning features of the nasal route for the sake of immediate quantity. She thrilled us with her observation that we humans are the only primates who gasp when startled. During our aquatic era, she conjectured, apnea was likely to be an adaptive response to many of the sudden threats posed by that environment: being pulled underwater by a predator, diving to escape a threat, stumbling and falling in chest-deep water, being swamped by surf in the impact zone.
I pointed out to that where deep diving is concerned, fine control of the soft tissues in the throat is essential to managing hydrostatic pressure. It permits the diver to move air from the lungs and mouth to the Eustachian tubes and into the middle ear. I explained how this fine control becomes increasingly critical at depths below about 30 – 40m, the approximate average ‘failure depth’ below which most people are unable to bring air up from their lungs and must rely upon a reserve of air previously stored in the mouth, pumping it into the Eustachian tubes as required without allowing any to backflow down into the lungs. This was news to Elaine, and she seemed to be interested. We speculated on the diving capabilities and habits of the aquatic apes.
Elaine Morgan doesn’t have much interest at this point in debating the AAT at the detail level, although she seems pleased that enthusiastic, point-by-point discussions are flourishing on the internet. She is possessed of a restrained confidence that absent a systematic, rigorous refutation on the evidence, the dog’s day will come – and sooner than you think. She pointed out that Alfred Weggener’s theory of continental drift was first exposed to the world (that is, translated to English) in 1922, and was met then with devastating ridicule from the scientific mainstream. None could refute Weggener’’s evidence for great migrations of the continental land masses, but neither could he nor anyone else propose a credible mechanism for how this might have happened. By 1960, however, plate tectonics had provided the mechanism, and it is now the standard theory.
“Thirty-eight years !” Elaine noted. It’’s been thirty-one since The Descent of Woman, and I don’’t lack the key element Weggener did.”
In Part II of this series we’’ll review a features table comparing the AAT and the standard model of human origin, and have a look at some of the latest research findings bearing upon the controversy. I welcome any questions readers have and will be happy to forward any particularly interesting ones on to Elaine Morgan.