You can take a scientist to knowledge, but you can’t make him THINK!
I use the male pronoun for a scientist quite deliberately and you might see why in a moment…)
This article is a tribute and celebration of the work of Elaine Morgan, who is sadly no longer with us as of last year, but she remains as an inspiration to all of us who knew her work. And, I hope that this article will do some justice in introducing, or reintroducing, Elaine and her research to anyone who has ever been curious about our human origins and felt that the conventional explanation given for our uniquely human characteristics just don’t seem to add up.
Elaine Morgan was a so-called non-scientist who made the male-dominated world of evolutionary biology sit up, eventually, and take notice, with her tireless campaign, challenging the established orthodoxy regarding human evolution by claiming that the nature of our unique characteristics, which are many and profoundly distinct, setting us apart from all other primates, could not be explained by the then, and sadly still, prevalent Savannah Theory, which she pointed out in a somewhat sensational book back in 1970s entitled The Descent of Woman, through which she achieved the brief status of a minor-celebrity as the feminist movement was just getting going and the general public enjoyed the way she poked a bit of fun at the scientific elite and their silly ideas about Man the Great Hunter.
Elaine wondered: what were all the women and children doing while the men were out hunting? How were they uniquely evolving in this scenario as they waited patiently for the return of their men-folk? Would the women-folk not actually become dinner themselves? Instead, she offered another scenario based upon something she had stumbled upon some years before. This was the Aquatic Ape Theory upon which she further researched and she suggested that our unique characteristics seen in both men and women, and of course their offspring, could really only be explained by having gone through an aquatic or at least a semi-aquatic evolutionary phase.
Now some of you might not care whether we evolved because of man the great hunter out in the vast plains (Savannah) of Africa or within and adjacent to a watery environment. The point of this article and the focus on Elaine and her work is to highlight the current state of our so-called scientific absolutes. Elaine said on many occasions that she would relish anyone who could put up a good counter argument against the Aquatic Ape Theory. Hence, the title of this piece is not called “you can bring a scientist to knowledge, but you can’t make him think” for nothing!
If any of you are familiar with the AAT I hope I will be able to add somewhat to your current knowledge and at the same time perhaps, give another perspective that has not previously been addressed. For any that are not fully aware of the theory, or have been put off doing any further investigation because it hasn’t been accepted by the scientific orthodoxy, or because of its dismissal on flimsy grounds – it just doesn’t suit the current paradigm – or, more often, by the concerted efforts of many to dismiss it out of hand and not actually examine the facts, they should pay attention to the following quote by the well respected philosopher and writer of science, Daniel Dennett (who has been referred to as one of the four horsemen of New Atheism, along with Richard Dawkins) (1) has to say about Elaine Morgan and the Aquatic Ape Theory:
“During the last few years, when I have found myself in the company of distinguished biologists, evolutionary theorists, paleoanthropologists and other experts, I have often asked them just to tell me, please, exactly why Elaine Morgan must be wrong about the aquatic theory. I haven’t yet had a reply worth mentioning, aside from those who admit, with a twinkle in their eyes, that they have also wondered the same thing”.
(Introduction to ‘The Naked Darwinist’) (2)
Elaine was Baffled:
Well the point is that, it doesn’t matter how sound and scientific the theory itself is, it seems that even when an alternative theory is eventually, begrudgingly accepted at the highest levels of academia, which is what Elaine Morgan finally achieved after decades of hard work and deep research, for the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT), but, somehow, it didn’t filter down to the new, up-and-coming minds of the future? Furthermore, it is still ignored and perceived at the worst as pseudo-science, and at best as a quaint hypothesis that can neither be disproved or proved. This issue truly baffled Morgan.
At the grand age of 87, Elaine Morgan wrote her final words on the subject entitled The Naked Darwinist (freely available online). You can download it here and it really is worth a read. I have just sketched the main aspects of the theory above and Elaine summarises it very well in the above PDF, if you would like to go a little deeper. In the meantime, I would like to focus on the issue of non-acceptance of a perfectly sound hypothesis. As you can probably guess from the age of Elaine and what I have noted thus far, she was a rather extraordinary woman, yet she was actually a very down to earth and quite ordinary woman all at the same time. There are many interviews and various clips of her talking on You Tube, but personally I really enjoyed the (BBC) program which I found surprisingly unbiased and it is also linked here.
Elaine had no reason to promote such a theory in an attempt to seek fame and glory, or, more realistically, infamy and ridicule. By her own efforts she had won a prestigious scholarship to the women’s college at Oxford and with her very thick Welsh accent, coming from a very poor and troubled mining family, as the story goes, they believed she was the cleaner upon her arrival, rather than a freshman in their prestigious college. In time, while she was busy engaging in the noble job of rearing small children, she continued to study and read and had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. She won writing competitions, which led to a successful career as a playwright for the BBC. She had won some of the most prestigious literary awards for her contribution to literature. She did eventually win recognition for her scientific contributions as well, but this was on the continent, where I suppose they are just a little more willing to look at new scientific paradigms. Perhaps, her contribution to literature and her stellar work with the BBC is why in the end during the late ’90s (Elaine would have been in her 70s), the BBC gave her a fair and unbiased hearing regarding her ideas surrounding the AAH.
Going up against the doctrine of human evolution
Essentially, Elaine did not need to pursue this rather controversial topic; she did not need the grief. But as she notes in her latest work, she pursued it to find the truth. She thought the theory itself warranted attention and a hearing and perhaps her story will inspire and encourage others to not blindly accept the current paradigm without question, and certainly not to accept without question the so-called “scientific” explanations of something as important as the origins of the human race. Elaine’s story serves to demonstrate that science does not possess all the answers and just because white Anglo-Saxon men in white coats tell us that they have it all sown up – ‘there is nothing to see here, so move along swiftly, we only have a few details to fill in’ – just remember to do what Elaine did: hang around long enough to ask the awkward questions, demand answers and be prepared to do some serious digging of your own. No scientific doctrine should ever be beyond reproach. If they are so confident in their evolutionary theory and how humans came to be human, well it should withstand any amount of scrutiny. Elaine did just that and found the standard model of human evolution wanting, to say the least. I would go so far as to say that there are as many holes in it as Elaine’s enamel kitchen colander that once hung on the Welsh dresser next to the turf fire. In other words: Elaine showed that not only was the Aquatic Ape Theory a scientifically sound one, but that the alternative explanation for how we got to be so uniquely human held no water at all.
The Descent of a Woman: The Aquatic Ape Theory is still buoyant, but nobody is listening
In the end Elaine was vindicated as her arguments could not be scientifically dismantled – she took the Aquatic Ape Theory out of the realms of so-called pseudo-science/fringe ideas and placed it firmly on the table of scientific discussion and debate. The only problem was that evolutionary biologists could not let go of their pet-theory – of how man walked upright on two legs and had: speech; hands that could really manipulate tools; and how all this led to building a big brain because we got clever while becoming cunning hunters. Elaine continued to point out to them that as we are the only primates that naturally can instinctively control our breathing, and this ability is intimately tied up with being able to speak. Water adaptation would also account for our entire body-frame that is profoundly different to other primates; the big brain via an aquatic diet; a special waterproof skin that wrinkles; a naked body that had fat like blubber as seen on marine mammals; specialised breathing system; a fine-tuned heating system (sweating); females with breasts even when not lactating; offspring that were like fish in water with their special insulation/blubber and so on and so forth. But nobody really wanted to think about an alternative to the present orthodoxy and the fact that new born babies naturally know how to swim under water; the most natural thing in the world is to be able to give birth under water and the hairlessness (naked ape) explanation for a watery past fits much better into this scenario.
As Elaine explains in her 2008 publication The Naked Darwinist, they never addressed the real reason why we are hairless and why we sweat profusely and regulate our heat entirely differently to other primates. They don’t actually ask these questions of their theory any more, indeed they never explained them, and now they have moved on to genetics and mutations and everything, they believe, can be answered eventually. Elaine was in the classic Catch 22 situation. If you are a scientist specialised in your field you don’t even know what other scientists are finding – you have a job to keep, a career and a standing in the community; nobody wants to be viewed as foolish. On the other hand Elaine was a non-scientist and therefore was not allowed to suggest this discussion. However, she played them at their own game. She did jump their hoops. She educated herself on all aspects of the field from palaeontology to anatomy to ancient environments and the dating methods used to establish evolutionary points in time. Why aren’t they listening? The first quote in this article by Dennett says it all. Elaine was much more congenial about all of these issues than I would be, I have to admit. I think she did begin to touch on the crux of the problem in her last publication though. Unfortunately, Elaine blamed herself a little; maybe the fact that she had written the earlier book, Descent of Woman, somehow took away from the merit of the Aquatic Ape hypothesis. If I have done nothing else by writing this article, what I really want to express is my deep gratitude to Elaine, as I know others, such as Graham Hancock and many well respected researchers feel the same, for her tenacity, patience, and good humour against all her unjustified critiques. I have linked an article that I came across written by Elaine herself regarding the AAT on Graham’s forum. It is only a few years old, but quite informative. HERE
I only wish that she could have known how valuable and instrumental she has been in helping to turn the dogmatic tide of our current orthodoxy of unquestioning and very questionable scientific doctrine. No Elaine, you did not hinder the Aquatic Ape theory and its general acceptance. Indeed I believe that she popularised it in our minds. Instinctively it makes sense and she put it on the table. Otherwise, I believe the theory would never have seen the light of day and nobody in science could have pursued it from within for fear of persecution.
What a ridiculous way to conduct science! You are threatened with excommunication if you step out of line. That would be bad enough if their science was actually sound and they had a good point about not rocking the boat, but their science is not sound. Not only is the Savannah Theory going the way of the Dodo, but the entire Darwinian doctrine in its most up-to-date form. I’m not joking; real scientists with real serious credentials who are highly respected within their fields have said as much. For instance, Professor James Shapiro (professor of biochemistry and molecular biology) notes that the current explanation of evolution is no longer tenable and has long been seen as incapable of explaining the most fundamental processes within biology. He states:
It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject — evolution — with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic theses work in illuminating specific instances of biological adaptation or diversity” (3).
And, as Professor Eugene Koonin (recognised expert in evolutionary and computational biology) points out: The edifice of the Modern Synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair” (4). This, folks, is just the tip of the iceberg. And if there is an interest in where this new paradigm is going, perhaps you can let Graham know and I can write a few more articles on the general state of evolutionary biology and how the Aquatic Ape Theory as updated by Elaine fits in the bigger picture. This is perhaps the most exciting part and purpose of this article, as all of Elaine’s work may not have been in vain.
The Aquatic Ape continues to Evolve
So just to finish this tribute, I would love to say to Elaine, if it is of any consolation, you have been part of a rising tide of a paradigm shifting movement, inspiring others to take it to the next level; I truly believe from my own research on the general topic of biological evolution that we are beginning to see light at the end of a very dark tunnel. There always were alternative ideas and theories regarding evolution, it is just that these have been actively suppressed and heavily ridiculed to keep them out of the general public discourse. But of late, particularly within molecular biology, vindication of these older ideas is happening. It can no longer be ignored. You were part of this revolution in evolution. The exciting thing about the Aquatic Ape Theory is that it will not die with your passing, although it may have seemed to be in danger of becoming extinct. It has a much greater distance to travel as it dovetails very well the principals emerging from a radically new way of understanding evolution, by the deeper understanding of evolution and its complexity. Whereas the old Savannah hypothesis is looking, as you instinctively noted back in the 70s, like a rather primitive and antiquated view of evolution that had a lot to do with the rampant sexism seen within our society at the time. The Savannah theory was more a product of its own time and thus a narrow interpretation of the evidence, so maybe now that we are in the 21st century, perhaps we should move on to where the science is taking us – UPWARDS and ONWARDS.
Note: Evidence is beginning to accumulate to support several aspects of the aquatic ape theory such as, the big brain hypothesis as a result of an aquatic diet (see: was-seafood-brain-food-in-human-evolution?) (5). And, a number of other aspects of the (AAT) are gaining more support by mainstream scientists. For example, I have also copied a list directly from riverape.com website of well respected scientists who have openly supported the idea of an aquatic past having a role in our fairly unique evolution http://www.riverapes.com/AAH/AATheories/Wading/HowAboutWading.htm (6).
Chris Stringer (British Natural History Museum) is open to the idea of a Wading Origin for Bipedalism
Less well known is Chris Stringer’s tacit support of (or at least openness to) the wading origins theory of bipedalism. He co-authored a student text book on Human Origins. In which a sidebar about the aquatic ape hypothesis was written in an unusually open (as opposed to the more common dismissive) way.
Stringer, Christopher. B. (1976).
In another publication …
Stringer, Christopher. B. (1997).
…he wrote “If our ancestors did go into the water, that would force them to walk upright.”
At Birkbeck College (London) at the end of 2000 I went to hear Chris speak about his Out of Africa Theory. At the end end of a very interesting talk, which considered the possibility of a coastal route for the exodus of modern Homo sapiens out of Africa around 150,000 years ago he stopped and responded to general questions from the audience.
I asked him "I have a question about your proposed coastal route out of Africa. Considering the fact that we swim so much better than chimpanzees, do you think that this swimming ability is derived and that if so do you think this ability evolved during this African exodus?"
Chris seem to twig straight away where I was coming from and delivered the expected cautious but unambiguous refutation of the AAH that anyone would do in his position today. Then, to my astonishment and elation he added words to the effect "… but if you are looking for something that might have resulted from an exposure to water how about the way we move around? How about wading?"
Professor Phillip Tobias (Witwatersrand University, South Africa)
Earlier in his career he was one of the main proponents of the so-called savannah theory – the model that humans evolved on the grasslands of Africa – but in recent years he has come to reconsider this line and has been taking the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis far more seriously than most of his peers.
At a recent meeting in London he apparently went further than ever in suggesting that the paleoanthropology owed Elaine Morgan "an apology" and that when it came to the savannah theory they had simply got it wrong and that, from that perspective, they were "back to square one."
In his recent paper "Water and Human Evolution" he re-iterates his openness to the idea. Although advocates of the AAH still await some kind of endorsement his new position has been sufficiently ambiguous to unnerve those paleoanthropologists with more orthodox inclinations.
At UCL, for instance, his recent public statements have been met with derision.
Sir David Attenborough
One of his latest narrations, for that of the BBC program "Gorilla" which showed the western lowland gorillas behaviour in and around the water of Mbeli Bai, he asked the rhetorical question, whilst the viewer watched a gorilla wade through the water up to his waist, was this how man first began walking?
(1). Wikipedia: (Daniel Dennett) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Dennett
(2). Morgan, E. 2008. The Naked Darwinist: Questions about human Evolution, Eildon Press (April 5, 2008). http://homepage.ntlworld.com/dylan.morgan/elainemorgan/Naked%20Darwinist.pdf
(3). Shapiro, J.A. 1996. In the detail…What? University of Chicago, biological sciences, educational resources [PDF doc article] in National Review, 63-65. http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/Shapiro.1996.Nat%27lReview.pdf .
(4). Koonin, E. 2009. The Origin at 150: is a new evolutionary synthesis in sight? in Trends in Genetics, Volume 25, Issue 11, 473-475, (15 October 2009) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2784144/
(5). Allen, J. S. (2010) Was Seafood Brain Food in Human Evolution? in Lives of the Brain http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/lives-the-brain/201001/was-seafood-brain-food-in-human-evolution
(6). The River Apes website. http://www.riverapes.com/AAH/AATheories/Wading/HowAboutWading.htm
*Info about Maria O’Hare and related research can be found at: http://diggingupthefuture.com