Elaine Morgan – the aquatic ape
Elaine Morgan is a tenacious proponent of the aquatic ape hypothesis: the idea that humans evolved from primate ancestors who dwelt in watery habitats. The octogenarian scientist became the oldest speaker in TED’s history ( age of 90) at TEDGlobal 2009 when she presented her addition to evolutionary science. Click here to see and hear this very entertaining and subversive view. Especially good on the priesthood and academia in the latter part…
She asks – why is the human phenotype so different from the chimpanzee, even though experts constantly point out how similar the genotypes are? Why are we bipedal while they walk on four legs? Why are we hairless while they are hairy? Elaine Morgan seeks to look beyond what she thinks are the utterly incorrect answers proposed by evolutionary biologists. If we’re so different than the other higher primates, something must have happened to make us so. So: what happened?
Morgan is intrigued by evidence that shows that savannah habitats — long thought to be a driving force behind the way humans evolved — didn’t exist at the time when the adaptations happened. This indicated that a paradigm was about to radically change. She says, What do scientists do when paradigms fail? They continue working on the paradigm as though nothing happened.
But finally a new paradigm was about to emerge. In the ’60s, a scientist wondered whether human evolution was shaped by a more “aquatic” lifestyle. But the idea was ridiculed by scientists for years — although now the theory is beginning to enjoy some favour. There is a set of questions that, in particular, throw doubt on the conventional story of human evolution:
Why are we hairless? The other mammals that are hairless are mostly aquatic — dolphins, whales. But what about elephants?, we might ask. Morgan says it’s been discovered that elephant ancestors were aquatic. While not all aquatic mammals are naked, like seals, all animals that are naked have so far been discovered to have had aquatic ancestors.
Why are we bipedal? There is only one situation in the mammalian world where mammals walk around on two legs: when they are in water.
Why do we have the layer of fat under our skins, unlike other primates? Aquatic mammals include a layer of fat, and a layer of skin. Humans can become obese in a way that is physically impossible for other primates.
Why can we control our breath? The only animals with conscious control of the breath are animals that spend time in water.
Why do we have streamlined bodies? Perhaps, Morgan suggests, to optimize us for mobility in water…