The aquatic apewoman

We're naked because we evolved in tropical seas. Andrew Brown meets the writer who has set the Internet buzzing with a forgotten theory
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In a Victorian house in a Welsh mining village lives a 75-year- old woman with no scientific training and a startling theory about human evolution, which she has defended in numerous books and now in "flame" (ie. insult) wars raging on the Internet. And if the world is too full of people with startling theories of human evolution, what makes Elaine Morgan unique is that her theory may very well be true.

The Aquatic Ape theory holds that humans differ from other primates because their ancestors spent some evolutionarily significant time as wading and swimming animals. She discovered it in the writings of Sir Alister Hardy, FRS, an enormously distinguished zoologist who noted in 1965 that most of the adaptations that distinguish humans from chimpanzees, say, are also found in aquatic animals and not elsewhere.

Hardy's idea was largely ignored. It was Elaine Morgan who popularised the theory, first in The Descent of Woman, a bestseller in 1972; and in a succession of later books, of which The Descent of the Child has just been reissued in paperback.

All these look at the differences between humans and other primates and argue that most of the remarkable ones are best explained by supposing that our ancestors spent a million years or so as shoreline-dwellers. There they lost their fur and developed fat for insulation instead; there, with the water to buoy them up, they had to learn to walk upright. She has even argued that the water's dazzle made vocal language necessary because the traditional primate "language" of gestures and facial expression was harder to use in that environment.

When she came across the Aquatic Ape theory she was 52, with a long and successful career as a television writer behind her, having started in television's pioneer days. The first few times a play of hers was broadcast she and her husband had to ask a neighbour if they could go round to watch it. Later, she won Bafta awards and dramatised A Testament of Youth. Her controversial writings are more elegant, clear and vigorous than most popular science and, by the same token, incomparably more persuasive and easier to follow than real science. No wonder her professional readers regard her with suspicion. She also understands evolution and natural selection - a much rarer accomplishment than it ought to be: like Stephen Jay Gould, she sees that the most powerful evidence of evolution is not the perfection of our adaptations, but their imperfections.

Yet Morgan has no formal scientific training, no formal links with any university. Until she discovered the Net, she had no regular correspondence with palaeontologists. She writes for the reasonable, intelligent and generally educated outsider, and she thinks as one, too. No wonder academics assume she must be wrong.

There are further problems. The academic standing of the Aquatic Ape theory "has been weakened because it is the undergraduates who pick it up; and if you're a professor of anthropology, you hear this stuff coming out of the mouths of people you know are nits so you don't take it seriously," she says. The Aquatic Ape theory seems to have become one of the folk myths of American universities, a pseudo-scientific dream of prelapsarian paradise by a warm Indian ocean: "The sort of place where deadheads would feel at home," one graduate student wrote contemptuously on the Net.

There is a certain irony in this fate, for The Descent of Woman, the first aquatic ape book, was not inspired by scientific zeal so much as by zeal against pseudo-science: the myth of primitive man as a hunter and killer which was propounded in the late Sixties in hugely popular books by Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris. Morris has since come out in favour of the aquatic ape hypothesis. The original evidence for man's primal ancestor as a hunter and possibly murderer was produced by Raymond Dart, a distinguished South African palaeontologist.

Man as hunter has since been discredited as science, but not before it was hugely influential as a myth of origin. The idea that we evolved at a time when men were apemen and women were clubbable, is still pervasive in our culture today; when Morgan wrote her first book, the savannah theory seemed to have the authority of science behind it, too. So in The Descent of Woman the Aquatic Ape theory emerged as a work of feminism. The real enemy was not the palaeontological establishment, but the Flintstones.

Over the years her arguments have grown more sophisticated, but she didn't have her books read by professionals. She just plugged away, convinced that common sense and application could not lead her too far astray. "I would go up and listen to lectures if I heard they were coming off, but I am not connected with any university."

But when she discovered the Net last autumn her position changed radically. "Now I'm learning what are the weak points of the theory. My approach has been to start from the fact that we are remarkably different in a remarkable amount of ways from our closest relatives and to try to find an explanation. It sees to me a remarkably consistent pattern that the things that we have got, like the naked skin and the fat, are adaptations found in aquatic mammals."

The elegance and economy of the central thrust of the theory has won her a distinguished fan club. Daniel Dennett, probably the world's most fashionable philosopher, gave her three pages of consideration in his latest book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. When she was last in Oxford, she was taken to supper by Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins. The hypothesis has been treated imaginatively in a novel by Peter Dickinson. None of these people, however, are palaeoanthropologists; and on the Net Morgan's ideas are handled more roughly.

One of her virtual opponents wrote: "I attempt to demonstrate that your research cannot be counted on to have factual content. Thanks to you, I am repeatedly successful at doing so. I make a point of not saying you are a deliberate liar. However, since the only other explanation I can think of is that you are an incredibly poor and unreliable researcher, this is probably of small comfort to you."

She seems rather to enjoy this treatment. "A fellow I came across on the Net spent his first three letters saying, `Nobody believes you' as if that was any kind of argument. Of course, you do tend to log in at the end of a long day, and write things which, if they found their way into ordinary letters, you would never post."

The immediate polemical style that the Net encourages - a mixture between correspondence chess and bomb-throwing - gives a professional writer and amateur scientist great advantages over someone with the reverse of these qualifications. The best a scientist can say is that the evidence is patchy, incomplete, and certainly does not establish her case. You tell from a skeleton whether its owner once walked upright, but you cannot tell whether they did so in water, or on land; nor whether they were hairy and thin or chubby and naked.

Such a vacuum in prehistory is abhorrent. Only time will tell whether the Aquatic Ape theory holds water.