The Aquatic Ape & I

While browsing ScienceBlogs, I saw Greg Laden’s post that Elaine Morgan, a proponent of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH), had passed away. I also found a BBC obit, Leading writer and feminist Elaine Morgan dies aged 92, in which the word ‘unassuming’ occurs frequently.

My mother was an avid reader, and belonged to several book clubs. I latched on to her copy of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape in my early teens. Later she picked up Morgan’s The Descent of Woman, and I read that, too. In some ways Morgan’s book was a feminist response to Morris. Drawing on earlier works cited by Morris in his book, Morgan proposed a scenario where our primate ancestors lost most of their hair in the course of using nearby seas or lakes as a source of food and as a refuge from land predators. She also proposed that female primates began using seashells as tools. She poked a lot of fun at Morris, too. I later read Robert Ardrey, Lionel Tiger (a great name) and a few more of Morris’ books, and thought I was well read on anthropology.

Along with the usual SATs, I took the English AP test before college. An unexpected assignment was to create a dialogue between two authors, so I chose Morris and Morgan. I’m sure the College Board reviewers were expecting something like Joyce chatting with Tolstoy and I’d probably be appalled to read what I wrote today, but science and science fiction were what I was reading then, so that’s what they got.

In college, one of my Architecture profs dismissed Morgan and the like as, “popular anthropology,” and AAH does seem to be a sort of cold fusion-like dead end – with only a few true believers. Someone named Jim Moore has tried to hold AAH underwater by maintaining a website called The Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim? either a scientific critique or a takedown of the theory, depending on your sympathies.

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