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Cite as: Chamberlain, Madeline. Elaine Morgan's Feminism: Did It Hinder the Aquatic Ape Theory? PARA Research Paper A-02.

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Madeline Bernadette Chamberlain


Elaine Morgan’s Feminism: Did it Hinder the Aquatic Ape Theory?


May 10th, 2007









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Of all the scientific theories of evolution that have arisen over recent years, the aquatic ape theory is likely the most fantastical.  The proponents of the theory claim that modern human morphology is due to hominids having lived for an extended period of time in an aquatic environment during the mid-Miocene fossil gap.  This theory, originally developed in the 1930’s by Alister Hardy, was rediscovered and revamped by Elaine Morgan to facilitate her feminist agenda.  Large portions of the theory are devoted to nullifying the andocentric claims of previous evolutionary theories.  Despite her work, the aquatic ape theory has been rejected by the scientific community since Morgan’s first description of it in 1972.  Morgan has been convinced that one reason why she was ignored was because of her feminist stance, combined with outsider status.  I argue that Morgan was quite mistaken when it came to laying blame; it was not her feminism that made her theory so indigestible to her academic critics, it was simply because of the theory’s speculative quality and flaws: in short, its utter lack of credibility. 


In 1972, Elaine Morgan was cross.  Upon reading books about evolutionary theory, she found the ideas to be flawed: “They were taking a very aggressive line, suggesting that the whole essence of humanity lies in murder and bloodshed… implying that everything evolved to benefit the male hunter”, ignoring the female and child (Brooks; 2003).  In response, this feminist house wife/television playwright wrote her 1972 book, The Decent of Woman to systematically punch holes in the androcentric theories of evolution.  She countered the “savannah hypotheses” of evolution such as Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967) with Alister Hardy’s aquatic ape theory, which described the development of humans in a more neutral and peaceful manner.  Later on, her subsequent publications attacked Lovejoy’s “The Origin of Man” (1981), another androcentric evolutionary explanation.   By means of the aquatic ape theory, she described bipedalism, speech, fur loss and female homo sapiens morphology in a non-androcentric manner.  The following are her explanations.


Bipedalism: Morgan (1990, 1991) begins her various discussions about bipedalism with an outline of the benefits of quadrupedalism such as: the young learn to walk quickly, if one leg is injured, three remain for locomotion and viscera is protected (1991: 10).  Bipedalism creates a great deal of problems for humans since they are not yet fully adapted to it; the “scars of evolution” remain.  Because of bipedalism, humans suffer from lower back pain, viscera is exposed to attack, blood pools in the lower limbs and childbirth is difficult due to the pelvis shape and angle (10).  Morgan asserts that there had to have been a very good immediate reason for adopting such a stance.  In her mind, the benefits of the savannah explanations are not immediate enough.


The claim is traditionally made that bipedalism arose to aid in the manipulation of tools (Morgan; 1982: 51, 1991: 10).  The human then had two feet for walking, and two hands for tool use.  Morgan points out that apes and monkeys can easily use their hands, but not when they are running.  According to Morgan, humans rarely use their hands skilfully when running or walking (10).  She fails to mention activities such as running with spears.


The second bipedalism explanation that Morgan disagrees with has its roots in pair-bonding.  According to Lovejoy (1981), the male needed hands to bring food back to the female and her offspring in order to seal and prolong the bond and to aid in the raising of a new generation of genetic information.  He argues that it was safer and more sound for a mother to take care of her child at a home base location.  This would prevent falling or other injuries to the offspring.  For this situation to work, a pair bonded male would have to bring food to the mother/child unit.  Polygamy would be inefficient; a male could not produce enough food for multiple females and children.  To not pair bond would be disastrous; the female and child would either starve, or the child could come to harm during a gathering expedition.


Morgan explains away these offered origins of bipedalism with apparent ease.  Firstly, any bulky food item could be easily dragged on the ground with one hand as the male trotted along on the remaining three arms (1982: 52, 1991: 11).  Secondly, humans are simply not meant to be pair bonded.  Monogamous mammals have minimal sexual dimorphism and, according to Morgan, humans do not (11). 


I’ll let Morgan sum up her version of the savannah theory in her own words:

                        This is what orthodox theory asks us to believe: that millions of years

                        ago, a population of apes on the savannah chose to walk on two limbs,

                        instead of running rapidly and easily on four like a baboon or chimpanzee.

                        They stood up, with their unmodified pelves, their inappropriate

                        single-arched spines, their absurdly under-muscled thighs and buttocks,

                        and their heads stuck on at the wrong angle, and they doggedly shuffled

                        along on the sides of their long-toed, ill-adapted feet. (1990: 34)

Was that the pain would pay off in a few hundred thousands years of evolution good enough reason to adopt this stance?  Morgan cries a resounding “no!”, though her theory sounds somewhat similar, underwater.


In the aquatic ape theory, bipedalism was derived from immediate benefit: not drowning.  Miocene droughts caused the habitat hominids lived in to shrink and resources to become scarce. Carnivores harassed the hominids and there was no where to hide; the trees to climb went with the drought.  The only place for the hominids to go was the water where the aqua-phobic carnivores would not follow.  If the hominid stood on its hind legs, it could go further out into the water, still able to breathe, than any quadruped with “fighting canine teeth” (Morgan; 1972: 26).  One would note that the aquatic ape would have had to stretch itself out painfully with is “single arched spine”, “under-muscled thighs” and misshapen pelvis.  Also, the head at the wrong angle could have proved problematic as the hominid stood as far off shore as possible while trying not to inhale water.  One might also question why if hominids got over their fear of water, why not the carnivores?  But Morgan assures readers that the effects of the water’s buoyancy would have alleviated any pain and that only our ancestor hominids were brave enough to retreat to the water (1990).


Speech: The savannah theorists claim that speech in humans arose as a means to facilitate hunting and tool making, suggesting that it was originally only necessary in males (Morgan; 1982: 89-90).  Morgan points out that the contrary exists in other animals, such a wolves, who hunt perfectly well in packs without extensive vocal communication (92).  She also mentions that the best way to hunt is not by verbal communication, but by hand signs.  She cites the !Kung as a people who hunt in this stealthy manner (92).


In the aquatic ape theory, human speech evolved due to a watering down of the two most important methods of communication in primates: touching/motioning and scent (Morgan; 1982: 91).  These two methods can communicate a wide variety of emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, and comfort; however, such means of communication were unrealistic in an aquatic environment (95-97).  Scent would not be conveyed well while swimming or standing in water.  Hand communications could be disastrous when one is attempting to stay afloat, or when trying to communicate on a very sunny day as the sunlight on the water would create an obscuring solar glare.  It is also difficult to fix one’s gaze on a subject when trying to swim or float.


Morgan asserts that it was easy for humans to adopt a verbal means of communication once they were already bipedal (1982; 92-94).  Due to the manner in which a human holds its head to avoid drowning, the larynx had moved further down the throat, which allowed for increased vocalization.  Humans can also open and close their nasal passages (a result from diving into water) and raise or relax their velum.


Loss of Fur:  One savannah centred androcentric explanation for fur loss in humans is that a reduction in fur would keep a hunter cooler during his mid-day hunt (Morgan; 1972, 16).  However, Morris claims that this would not have occurred during a particularly hot time period due to the risk of sunburn.  Morgan (16-17) deduces that Morris meant for fur loss to have occurred during the cooler, but also quite rainy, Pleistocene.  In response, she argues that fur loss during this time would have been detrimental to the species.  The male hunter may have remained cool during his activities, but the furless female would have become ill in the rain and struggled to hold onto her wet, furless child (17).  She also points out that while it may have been hot during the day in Africa, it would also have been quite cold at night, which a loss of fur would not have aided.


Morgan (1982) offers two counterpoints to the staying cool explanation.  Other savannah animals did not lose their fur, in fact, their fur aids in temperature regulation.  She also ponders the fact that though males may have lost their fur in order to keep cool during hunting females lost even more fur (25).


Another androcentric explanation for fur loss lies in sexual attraction; fur loss made humans more attractive and added to tactile sensations during sex (Morgan; 1982: 27-28.  Morris; 1967: 52, 66, 70).  Both of these are said to enforce pair bonding.  In other words, the hunter had to be sure that when he returned home day after day with food for the slowly developing child his mate was still there waiting for him.  Morgan explains these theories away by stating that “making sex more exciting does not necessarily favour monogamy” (29).  One might assume that it could favour the practice of maintaining multiple sexual partners.  She also points out that humans find hairlessness attractive because they already are furless.  Hominids with fur would probably not find furless mates attractive; they would most like find them abnormal and a potential cause of freakish offspring, for what other abnormalities may they possess?


The aquatic ape reason why humans are hairless is fur is not necessary in the water.   Morgan argues that most fully aquatic mammals have little to no fur (1982: 31-33).  Instead, these creatures have layers of sub cetaceous fat to regulate temperature.  Humans have such a layer of fat.  Morgan explains that hair remains on scalps to protect from the sun and to give a baby something to hang onto (1972: 35-36).  This is why female scalp hair is longer.  This also explains why some men go bald; their descendents probably did not care for aquatic babies. 


Female Morphology: Morgan (1972) relates Morris’s explanation for human female breasts in that it is rooted in pair-bonding and quotes him: “The simplest and most direct method of doing this was to make the shared activities of the pair more complicated and more rewarding.  In other words, to make sex sexier” (Morgan;1972: 17.  Morris; 1967: 65).  This meant ventro-ventral mating practices developed to make sex more “personalised” (Morris; 1967, 74. Morgan; 1972: 18).  According to Morris, however, the frontal region of the female was no longer interesting to the male.  There were no “fleshy hemispheres”, and so breasts evolved to solve this problem of aesthetics (Morris; 1967: 75).  Besides the outright sexist nature of Morris’s explanation, Morgan poses other problems with his theory.  Increased “sexiness” does not guarantee fidelity.  It does not prevent the male from wanting to mate with all the other fleshy breasted females.  Finally, this sexual adaptation has a short time limit: how well would the monogamy hold when the female aged and lost elasticity? (Morgan; 1972: 19).


The aquatic ape theory offers a much less sexist explanation for the development of the human female fleshy breast (Morgan; 1972: 37-39).  Quite simply, it benefits the offspring, not the male mate, which makes more sense evolutionarily.  Chimpanzees have flat breasts from which their young suckle by means of holding onto the mother’s fur.  Aquatic hominids had no fur for the child to hold onto, and to make matters worse, the baby and mother were slippery from being wet.  A fleshy breast lowered the nipple somewhat and gave the child something to hold onto in order to suckle.  In this manner, the mother could hold the infant in a relaxed position instead of holding the child up in place while suffering muscle fatigue.  The insulatory properties of the fleshy breast are also cited: the milk was kept warm and was able to retain nutrients.


But what about bottoms?  Morgan (1972: 58-59) claims that the general androcentric response to the female’s fleshy buttocks is to drop “it into the large miscellaneous grab bag labelled ‘for sexual attraction’”.  According to the aquatic ape theory, the female bottom was developed not to enhance female attractiveness, but to act as cushioning.  Before her buttocks evolved, “sitting there on the pebbles and the salty shingle and the wet sand and the rocks and barnacles, with a growing anthropoid infant on her lap, must have been hell” (58).  She also had two more orifices than males in direct contact with the ground that needed protection.  Morgan’s description of buttocks evolution in females is rather dramatic and somewhat unrealistic: “at the same time as she was using some of it [subcutaneous fat] to keep her baby happy, you can bet she was laying down also a pair of posterior hemispheres as fast as evolution could accommodate her” (58).  Despite the fact that she makes evolution sound like a female hominid picking and choosing which anatomical features suited her best within the course of a few years, she has a point.  A cushion to sit upon makes more sense and sounds more dignified than chalking it up to sex appeal.


And that’s what Elaine Morgan gave to females with her evolutionary theories; she gave them some dignity.  Women were no longer the passive bystanders of a glorious and bloody male evolution.  Their bodies were not the result of male lust and forced monogamy.  Speech and bipedalism evolved peacefully and in a non-gendered manner, not because of inter hominid warfare.  In a time filled with social unrest and the feminist movement, Morgan’s words were just what the feminist movement needed: the feminists were not simply making up female and male equality—it was proven.


Everything made sense.  Morgan’s explanation of human development fit perfectly all under one heading.  The public devoured her ideas, finding them “logical, exciting, provocative and liberating” (Richards; 1991; 115).  Morgan even received many letters entreating her to write follow ups to The Descent of Woman.  However, it was lacking something quite essential: a response for the scientific community.  Academic reviewers of The Descent of Woman and The Aquatic Ape were vaguely contemptuous.  No one would explain why the theory was false, only that it simply was.  In a letter to one of Morgan’s devotees, Lovejoy wrote, “the preponderance of evidence is so overwhelmingly contrary to the ‘aquatic ape theory’ that no one found it necessary to consider a published reply” (Richards; 1991: 116).  Unfortunately, this is the response that the scientific community gives to many of the proponents of fringe theories. 


Morgan and followers decided that the lack of response was due to a combination of factors.  For one thing, it seemed clear that the aquatic ape theory was so solid, other scientists could not come up with a solid refutation or alternate explanation: “The answer is that they can’t.  They haven’t got one” (Morgan; 1972: 272).  The refutations that were presented seemed more like a brush off, such as the two paragraph dismissal of the aquatic ape theory in a Pagel and Bodmer paper “A Naked Ape Would Have Fewer Parasites” (2003).  With little constructive criticism, Morgan came to believe that the silence was probably due to her outsider status and certainly her feminist standpoint.  This was something Morgan could fix.


A reading of Morgan’s works in progression illustrates that she attempted to conform her theories into a more academic mindset.  In short, she attempted to remove the sting of her feminism to make the aquatic ape theory more palatable to staid anthropologists.  The most marked difference is her usage of “man”, “woman” and corresponding pronouns.  In The Descent of Woman (1972: 8-9), Morgan notes the typical usage of “man” to mean “humankind” in anthropological writings.  In response, she uses “woman” instead and her hominid examples are always “she”.  This continues throughout the book’s discussion until, she claims, male and female development diverged enough to merit separate pronouns.  In The Aquatic Ape (1982) and subsequent publications, this trait has disappeared.  Morgan uses “man” and “he” frequently—never “woman” or “she”.  It is strange that a scholar who was originally driven by feminism would revert back to the sexist descriptors that she originally loathed, especially when it is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged to use more neutral words, such as the species name, “humans” or “humankind”.  It is likely that she simply attempted to conform to the scientific community in a manner that did not greatly effect her theory.


The erasure of feminism continues even deeper.  Compare the tone of Morgan’s earliest diatribe against the “Man the Hunter” explanation for fur loss:

                        …so we have to picture our maternal ancestor sitting naked in the middle

                        of the plain while the heavens emptied, needing both hands to keep her

                        muddy grip on a slippery, squirming, equally naked infant.  … It’s no

                        advantage to the species for the mighty hunter to return home safe and

                        cool if he finds his son’s been dropped on his head and his wife is dead

                        of hypothermia. (1972: 17)

to a more recent and subdued explanation of its error:

                        Theories about hair loss normally refer to the problem of keeping cool

                        during the hot tropical day… It is not clear why the hominids’ need in

                        this respect is thought    to have been unique.  Reference has been made…

                        to the lack of a carotid rete, yet the lack of it has not obliged other

                        savannah primates to shed their fur… (1991: 12)

Morgan is admittedly “flippant” in her first book (Douglas; 2005).  It is clear that Morgan’s dramatic feminist writing style progressed into one that relied on a more gender neutral scientific reasoning instead of gut reaction.  Her dramatic explanations of female breast and buttock morphology are also missing from subsequent publications.  Upon further research, I found that Morgan admitted to alterations to promote the aquatic ape theory.  In the 1985 postscript of The Descent of Woman, she writes: “I decided to restate the aquatic case separately, in a version which would not be quite as easy to brush aside.  So I wrote another book called The Aquatic Ape… In this the arguments were neutered and updated, and the style resolutely non-chipper” (273).  


A supporter of Morgan, Graham Richards (1991: 120) agrees that the feminist roots of Morgan’s theory may have put a bad taste in the mouth of the scientific community.  Despite this, it is apparent that the feminist origins of the aquatic ape theory is not the cause of its lack of acceptance.  Feminist philosopher, Nancy Tuana lauded Morgan for uncovering male partiality in evolutionary theory by “revers[ing] the bias” (1986: 74), but never mentions the aquatic ape theory itself.  A more compelling feminist response is that of anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman (1985).  Morgan brought to light myths in the androcentric theories of evolution, but, “unfortunately, this sensible analysis of popular error was contaminated by Morgan’s own elaboration and support of a very dubious theory of human origins, the “Aquatic Ape” hypothesis that our ancestors evolved in the water” (368).  Even the feminists had their reservations.


Though having an agenda and knowing what the outcome of the hypothesis will be before fully proving it is certainly a questionable scientific method, it continues to remain doubtful that this feminism is the source of rejection in light of the papers of Morgan’s supporters.  Papers such as Cunnane’s “The Aquatic Ape Theory Reconsidered” (1980), L.P. La Lumiere’s “Evolution of Human Bipedalism: A Hypothesis About Where it Happened” (1981), Verhaegen’s “The Aquatic Ape Theory: Evidence and a Possible Scenario” (1985) and Verhaegen, Puech and Munro’s “Aquarboreal Ancestors?” (2002) all uphold the aquatic ape theory and mention Morgan in good light, but never mention any feminist explanations.  These are not just blind followers of Morgan, and have added their own scientific research and hypotheses to the aquatic ape theory.  La Lumiere (1981) offers a viable location where hominid aquaticism may have occurred in Africa.  Verhaegen (1985) suggests how the modern features of humans would have aided in a prehistoric aquatic life.  For instance, hair and beard, saturated with sebum, filled in the gap the neck leaves to create a sleek and aqua-dynamic human from head to toe (23-24, Figure 1).   However, despite their innovation and gender neutral accounts of human evolution, they too are brushed aside or outright rejected alongside Morgan. 


Why is it that the aquatic ape theory is continually rejected?  Firstly, the tone of aquatic ape supporters remains fantastical and speculative, with no hard evidence.  Morgan even smugly admits that the aquatic ape theory is non-falsifiable (1990: 162).  Arguments are also often confusing and poorly constructed.  Take for instance a leap of logic in Cunnane’s (1980) paper: “The progression from the use of seashore pebbles as tools to the efficient use of flints as weapons would then have been a natural, simple step.  At this point, probably with the ability to make and control fire, humans would have been prepared to reinhabit the land” (51, emphasis mine).  Papers that leave readers wondering “how did that happen?” are not professional, nor are they convincing to the scientific community. 


Secondly, the theory has an air of being trapped in amber; it rarely evolves.  The theories have not been much updated since their refutation of the “savannah theory” phase, now obsolete since scientists have come to realise that hominids developed bipedalism in a mosaic landscape.  J.H. Langdon (1997) critiques: “The savannah hypothesis that Morgan criticizes turns out to be a straw man.  Anyone who dredges up a century of hypotheses can find many to ridicule; but if the field has already rejected them, the exercise is pointless” (490).  New fossil evidence has also not been taken in account (Langdon; 1997: 481).  Another major count against the aquatic ape theory is that simpler explanations for various aspects of human evolution exist.  Langdon warns against “umbrella hypotheses”, such as this theory, that attempt to explain every single detail.  Indeed, Morgan claims that her theory elucidates what other theories can not account for such as nakedness, fat, tears, sebaceous glands, descended larynx, etc all in one neat explanation (1990: 161).  “Perfect” explanations such as Morgan’s generally raise suspicion in the scientific field since it is rare that things as complex as human life can be justified with one cause.  Finally, the aquatic ape theory has been continually rejected because, quite simply, it is nonviable.


Morgan and followers have finally received the thorough criticism they taunted the anthropology field for, and yet, their end remains stunningly quiet.  I could find no response to Langdon’s refutation.  It seems as though, at least for Morgan, she never will respond, since she claims that she has no intention of writing any more on evolution.  A 2003 article (Brooks) in the Guardian states that Morgan’s “championing of the aquatic ape hypothesis is over”.  Her more recent books, though scientific in content, have moved completely away from the aquatic ape theory.  We must wait to see where her proponents will lead the aquatic ape theory in future, if at all.


An averse response to feminism is an all too simple explanation for the lack of positive response to the aquatic ape theory.  Though the theories that Elaine Morgan sought to dismantle are indeed almost laughably androcentric, her theory is laughably eccentric.  The scientific community, including those who are feminists, have rejected the aquatic ape theory, not for its original feminist agenda, but for its utter lack of validity.  The theory is lamentably constructed.  It is speculative with no evidence or any means of verification.  Furthermore, other than wording, the theory has evolved little in light of new archaeological finds.  Theories that are not updated will of course find little room in the constantly growing scientific field.  Finally, the aquatic ape theory is too simple.  It is unlikely that one isolated origin caused all of the current features of Homo sapiens that the theory claims to explain.  Rather than worrying about tangential reasons for rejection, Morgan and followers must look at the actual scientific causes.  In other words, they must make their articles more scientific with verifiable hypotheses and hard evidence rather than completely speculative, for until there is actual fossil evidence, the scientific community will continue to scoff at the aquatic ape theory.

Works Cited

Brooks, Libby.  “Come On In—The Water’s Lovely.” The Guardian.  May 1st, 2003.   Retrieved from,12982,946539,00.html on March 1st, 2007.


Cunnane, S.C. “The Aquatic Ape Theory Reconsidered.” Medical Hypotheses Vol. 6: 49-58, 1980.


Douglas, Kate.  “Interview: The Natural Optimist.” New Scientist. Issue 2469, 23rd April, 2005. 50.


Langdon, John H. “Umbrella Hypotheses and Parsimony in Human Evolution: A Critique of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.” Journal of Human Evolution.  Vol. 33: 479-494, 1997.


La Lumiere, L.P. “Evolution of Human Bipedalism: A Hypothesis About Where it Happened.” Philosophical             Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 292, No. 1057, The Emergence             of Man, 103-107.


Lovejoy, C. O. “The Origin of Man.Science. Vol 211: 1981, 314-350


Morgan, Elaine.  The Aquatic Ape.  New York: Stein and Day, 1982.


---. The Descent of Woman.  London: Souvenir, first edition 1972, revised 1985.


---. “Origins of a Theory.” The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?: The First Scientific Evaluation of a Controversial Theory of Human Evolution. Eds. Machteld Roede, et al.  London: Souvenir Press, 1991. 3-8


---. The Scars of Evolution: What Our Bodies Tell Us About Human Origins. New York: Oxford, 1990.


---. “Why a New Theory is Needed.” The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?: The First Scientific                          Evaluation of a Controversial Theory of Human Evolution. Eds. Machteld Roede, et al.  London: Souvenir Press, 1991. 9-22.


Morris, Desmond.  The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.


Pagel, Mark; Walter Bodmer. “A Naked Ape Would Have Fewer Parasites.” Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Vol.             270, Supplement: Biological Letters, S117-S119.


Richards, Graham.  “The Refutation That Never Was: The Reception of the Aquatic Ape Theory, 1972-1987.” The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?: The First Scientific Evaluation of a Controversial Theory of Human Evolution. Eds. Machteld Roede, et al.  London: Souvenir Press, 1991.  115-126.


Tuana, Nancy.  “Re-Presenting the World: Feminism and the Natural Sciences.” Fronteirs: A Journal of Women Studies.             Vol. 8, No. 3: 73-75, 1986.


Verhagen, Mark; Pierre-François Puech and Stephen Munro. Aquarboreal Ancestors?” TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution. Vol. 17, No. 5: 212-217, 2002.


Verhaegen, M.J.B. “The Aquatic Ape Theory: Evidence and a Possible Scenario.” Medical Hypotheses Vol. 16: 17-32,             1985.


Zihlman, Adrienne L.  “Review: Gathering Stories for Hunting Human Nature.”  Feminist Studies.  Vol. 11, No. 2: 365- 77, 1985.