Biology

Elaine Morgan at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes on Session 6

Posted by: Matthew Trost

elaine_morgan.jpg

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 favor. 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.

Morgan has struggled her whole life to show that perhaps the prevailing theory of human origins is wrong. After all, she says, history is riddled with instances where theories proved to be wrong. She says Dan Dennett, David Attenborough and other prominent scientists and thinkers have come to agree that the aquatic ape theory is important. To laughter and applause, she encourages TED to “come on in, the water’s fine.”

Morgan looks forward to a new point in science where conventional ideas about human evolution can be synthesized with the aquatic ape theory — but, for now, the “rival” theories live apart.

Photo: Elaine Morgan at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 6: “Curious and curiouser,” July 22, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Comments (7)

  • Hannah Keller commented on May 20 2012

    I love this…made this art piece with inspiration from her ideas tonight… random, I know!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/elinay/7232715928/in/photostream

  • Colleen O'Rork commented on Oct 10 2009

    And now Ardy arrives on the scene, and they’ve already got her covered in hair and swinging from the trees.

  • Richard Dempsey commented on Oct 4 2009

    I wonder where Ardipithecus ramidus falls in this discussion.

  • Jan Wise commented on Aug 23 2009

    One third of the world’s households do not get enough iodine, this reduces I.Q. points. I wonder if our iodine needs may reflect our origin by the sea.

  • Confused Dave commented on Aug 11 2009

    I’m horribly disappointed in TED for broadcasting this. To anyone not familiar with evolutionary biology she does make a compelling case, which is extremely disturbing as most of what she’s saying is actually demonstrably untrue. The distribution of fat, to take one example, which she claims is closer to aquatic mammals than other primates, is just baldly wrong. She claims at one point that she isn’t making stuff up, that what she says has been shown by others – but she’s notoriously bad at adequately referencing where her assertions come from. She piously cries that Darwin would turn in his grave in response to a quote which sounds suspiciously like it’s taken way out of context. And all this couched in a noxious “the scientific establishment wants to keep me quiet!” rumour-mongering. She discards argumentum ad populum, then makes an argument from authority – and in the process misrepresents genuine criticism of her theory as petty cronyism. This talk left a bad taste in my mouth.

    • Martin Gradwell commented on Aug 11 2009

      “The distribution of fat, to take one example, which she claims is closer to aquatic mammals than other primates, is just baldly wrong.”

      What, precisely, are you saying here? That aquatic mammals don’t have a well-developed subcutaneous fat layer? That humans don’t? Other primates do?

      “she’s notoriously bad at adequately referencing where her assertions come from”.

      Reference?

      “She piously cries that Darwin would turn in his grave in response to a quote which sounds suspiciously like it’s taken way out of context”.

      Do you really think Darwin wouldn’t turn in his grave in response to that particular comment? You may be right, but only because Darwin wasn’t specially noted for his posthumous revolving abilities.

      It’s ‘a noxious “the scientific establishment wants to keep me quiet!” rumour-mongering’ which ‘you’re horribly disappointed in TED for broadcasting’? From this, may I conclude that you don’t consider yourself part of the scientific establishment? Or are you Confused Dave?

  • Ian Goddard commented on Jul 22 2009

    Wonderful!! I am very excited about this TEDTalk – wish I had been there. In 1973 I bought Elaine Morgan’s book; The Decent of Women. Although she was ignored and even stigmatized her theories made a lot of sense, and still do. I hope this TEDTalk will now ensure that she gets her due credit. At the time the London Sunday Telegraph wrote – More scientific than Genesis, more up-to-date than Darwin, and more fun than Ardrey, she writes better than Desmond Morris. – Another great writer from that period suffered similar censorship – Robert Ardrey, author of African Genesis and others – still controversial but great in my opinion.