Books and Blogs, Part 2

I fell in love with anthropology while following the debate about Thor Heyerdahl’s struggles to legitimize pre-Columbian contact and I love it still. To my mind Heyerdahl was convincing—but I recognized even then that my natural sympathies influenced my thinking on the subject and I tried to keep an open mind. Many subsequent findings chipped away at some of Heyerdahl’s ideas, but the basic evidence remains to this day. His arguments are perhaps best summed up in Early Man and the Ocean, published in 1978. One key element of that book was Heyerdahl’s ability to empathize with his opponents. Far from despising or ridiculing them, he recognized the altruistic component that inspired the isolationist school—they were fighting to defend the intellectual and cultural abilities of Native Americans to invent and innovate without the need for the Great White Fathers to bring them civilization. I tried to be as charitable as I read about the controversy.

When I was in the Navy and looking for something to read at sea, I chanced upon a book called The Descent of Woman, written by a Welsh screenwriter named Elaine Morgan in 1972.

descent-of-woman-book

Elaine was a feminist first, or at least that is how I have always thought of her. She stumbled into a scientific controversy more or less of her own creation after getting seriously annoyed by conventional descriptions of early man living on the savannahs of Africa. These descriptions, written by men, were also centered on the male experience. Perhaps the breaking point for Morgan was a description of the evolution of the female breast as being mandated to increase woman’s attractiveness to man. Morgan would in her book somewhat archly mention that their utility to a feeding infant might have had something to do with the phenomenon as well. What if evolution wasn’t just about men? What if many—maybe most—of the radical changes in human morphology and behavior were actually about increasing the survivability of infants and their mothers?

Her irritation with the then-current state of thinking led her to discover Alister Hardy, an English marine biologist who had noted in 1930 that the fat attached to human skin in some ways resembled the blubber found in most marine mammals. He hypothesized that man may have been more aquatic in the past, although he kept his theory secret until 1960. For some reason he feared that the scientific establishment might react negatively to a new hypothesis that would fly in the face of what they were currently publishing. His nutshell summary, conveniently preserved on Wikipedia, is “My thesis is that a branch of this primitive ape-stock {hominoids} was forced by competition from life in the trees to feed on the sea-shores and to hunt for food, shell fish, sea-urchins etc., in the shallow waters off the coast. I suppose that they were forced into the water just as we have seen happen in so many other groups of terrestrial animals. I am imagining this happening in the warmer parts of the world, in the tropical seas where Man could stand being in the water for relatively long periods, that is, several hours at a stretch.”

Because humans share a variety of traits with marine mammals (bradycardia, occasional webbing between fingers and toes, relative hairlessness, the ability to control their vocal cords and a number of others, the theory had ‘explanatory power’—that is, it could at one stroke resolve a number of issues that had puzzled scientists for a long period. It captured Elaine Morgan’s attention as thoroughly as Thor Heyerdahl had captured mine.

In fact, Hardy’s theory and her own thoughts on it sort of took over her book—The Descent of Woman. The book, which is really well-written, covers a lot of territory and Morgan’s own ideas about Hardy’s theory were extensive and included some of her own that were perhaps past the bounds of probability. It was a great read and the book was a success. But Morgan ran into an academic buzzsaw when she tried to advance the theory in the scientific realm. Elaine Morgan differed from Thor Heyerdahl in one key aspect—Heyerdahl was a scientist, albeit working outside his originally chosen fields of zoology and geography. He knew how to couch his ideas in language acceptable to the scientific community. Morgan, on the other hand, was a screenwriter, used to writing for dramatic impact and not shy about making leaps of the imagination.

Academia was not kind to Morgan. Scientists from a number of fields have been very harsh with what became known as the Aquatic Ape Theory, including a cameo appearance by someone who is involved in the climate debate, a certain Greg Laden. Morgan clearly pushed all the buttons of scientists who were painstakingly trying to reconstruct a lifestyle for early humans, and coming at a time when truly junk theories such as ‘Chariots of the Gods’ were getting media attention and large volume book sales, some of their irritation is understandable. But a lot of their criticism was done without much in the way of examination or analysis and 30 years later, some of Morgan’s ideas are starting to be grudgingly allowed into mainstream discussion.

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