[Paleopsych] Interview: (Elaine Morgan) The natural optimist

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Interview: The natural optimist
      * 23 April 2005
      * Kate Douglas

    Elaine Morgan's first career was as a television playwright and
    scriptwriter, for which she won a dozen awards, including three
    BAFTAs. She began writing about evolution in 1972, when her first
    book, The Descent of Woman, was published (Souvenir Press, 2001). She
    is best known for championing Alister Hardy's theory of an aquatic
    influence on human evolution (The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, Souvenir
    Press, 1999). Her new book, Pinker's List, is published by Eildon

    You come from an area with a strong socialist tradition. Did you have
    a left-wing upbringing?

    I was born a few miles down this valley in Pontypridd. My father
    worked in the colliery. He was unemployed for most of the 1930s. Back
    then, the National Union of Mineworkers ran everything. But my father
    wasn't a coal miner. He drove the ventilation fan and later manned the
    water pump, so he wasn't in the NUM. Whenever they came out on strike,
    he got no strike pay. We had no money coming in. We never took any
    newspapers - partly because of the expense. It wasn't a very political

    Where did your political convictions come from?

    In 1939 I got a scholarship to the University of Oxford to study
    English. That's where I got politicised. The war was on and the male
    students started going off halfway through the course as they were
    called up into the forces. So when I joined the Democratic Socialist
    Club - as the Labour Club was then known - I got to take office.

    How did you get into writing for television?

    We were fairly skint, and with two kids in the house I couldn't get
    out to work. In those days the BBC was willing to take almost
    anything. It was definitely a seller's market. Nobody knew how to
    write plays for TV because it had only just been invented. And the
    good writers, of course, wanted to write for the stage.

    But you were very successful.

    I sold my first play in 1952. In fact, I sold three plays before we
    had a television - I had to go and watch them in other people's
    houses. My career in television lasted nearly 30 years, but I was
    never tempted to move from Wales to London. When I got my first award
    I went up to London for the party and I met an American who said,
    "Dollars to doughnuts, you'll be in London in six months." I thought,
    "Dollars to doughnuts, I will not."

    At what stage did you get interested in human evolution?

    I started reading about it at the end of the 1960s when Robert Ardrey
    and Desmond Morris started writing popular science books. I thought,
    "Not only do I not like the feel of what these people are saying, but
    I think they've got it wrong." The whole thing was very male centred.
    It was taken for granted that the important thing was the evolution of
    "man the hunter". My first book, The Descent of Woman, published in
    1972, was a feminist response to that. To be perfectly honest it
    seemed unlikely that it would be taken seriously. I had mugged up on
    some evolution because I had this idea, but I wasn't very well
    informed. Also, I was flippant, and I put jokes in it.

    How did you go about teaching yourself?

    I asked the library to order some of the books mentioned in Morris's
    bibliography. After I'd read them, I ordered some books from their
    bibliographies, and so on, until I got the answers I needed.

    You are best known for championing the theory that humans are
    descended from an aquatic ape, first suggested by the marine biologist
    Alister Hardy in New Scientist in 1960 as a way of explaining our
    species' unusual characteristics. How did that come about?

    In The Descent of Woman I was saying that all these anomalies cannot
    have evolved on the savannah, because there they would have been
    maladaptive for the females and the young.

    For instance, it was claimed that males lost their body hair to allow
    them to cool down when overheated in the chase. Yet the non-hunting
    females became even more hairless than the males, with nothing to
    compensate them for shivering through the chilly tropical nights. But
    if it didn't happen on the savannah, then where did it happen? And
    that's what put me onto Hardy.

    Hardy had been politely ignored by the scientific establishment. What
    response did you get?

    After I had written the book, I thought for quite a while that I must
    have got it wrong. Everyone was saying I was wrong. So I went on
    writing plays for television. But then this American guy, a policeman,
    started writing to me and nagging me to push the aquatic ape idea. He
    contacted lots of the leading people in the field saying, "I'm just an
    ordinary sort of guy, but can you tell me why you don't believe in the
    aquatic ape theory?" And when they answered him - some of them did -
    he sent their replies to me. He was my gadfly.

    He wouldn't let me rest until I did something about it. And when I
    read the letters the experts had written they made it plain they
    didn't like it, but they didn't make it at all plain why.

    So in 1997 you wrote The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. How did that go down?

    It was my fifth book on human evolution. This time there was a review
    in Nature along the lines of "Morgan has certainly got her act
    together", but no views on whether the thesis was tenable or not. With
    a few exceptions, the establishment scientists ignored it. There has
    not been a single paper in any of the professional journals outlining
    the case for the aquatic ape hypothesis, and only one paper outlining
    the case against. I do not think this is a helpful way to proceed.
    Nevertheless, recognition is coming very slowly, through scientists
    like Phillip Tobias and Michael Crawford. The hypothesis has become
    more respectable since fossil-hunters discovered hard evidence that
    our earliest ancestors became bipedal before the savannah ecosystem
    came into existence.

    Do you still feel like an outsider in biology?

    Not nearly as much as I used to. Over the years I have been allowed to
    give presentations in about a dozen universities, including Oxford,
    Cambridge, University College London, Tufts and Harvard - and I have
    been courteously received.

    You are still crusading. Your new book is about how the study of human
    nature has been and continues to be subverted to political ends. Why
    have you called it Pinker's List?

    In one of his earlier books, How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker, who
    works on language and cognition at Harvard University, wrote a list of
    human emotions that need explaining: kindness, altruism, cooperation
    and so on. He didn't include things like aggression, revenge and
    hatred, which he regarded as Darwinian and deep-rooted. To Pinker and
    those who share his view, the positive emotions are problematic and
    secondary - at best self-deceiving, at worst hypocritical. This is a
    tragic and depressing vision of human nature. It simply reflects
    today's conventional wisdom. But Pinker's latest book, The Blank
    Slate, goes further. It is overtly political. He seems to be arguing
    that the best hope for humanity lies in the magic hand of market

    Do you see Pinker's view of human nature as a reflection of the

    I do think that people have quite unconsciously started to accept this
    feeling that's in the air: that humans are a pretty rotten lot, full
    of aggression, revenge, stupidity, jealousy and so on, restrained only
    by a veneer of enlightened self-interest. It's reinforced by the
    media's need to command attention, most easily achieved by depicting
    violence and corruption. People being decent to each other, as most
    people are most of the time, can make boring viewing. So science and
    the media together are helping to create a climate of devaluing the
    way we look at other people and ourselves.

    Do you believe that Pinker's entire reductionist approach is

    All I'm saying is that there are other ways of looking at things.
    Nature and nurture are inseparable, intricately interdependent. But
    concentrating too much on the genetic component is debilitating. OK,
    some people are dysfunctional, but if you want fewer of them in the
    future, either you can lock them up in ever increasing numbers, or you
    can say, "How much of it is due to their environment. How can we
    change the environment so that the next generation will be a bit

    Can understanding human nature help us change for the better?

    Biologically, the instinct to behave badly towards one another and the
    instinct to behave well towards one another are pretty much in
    balance. What we have going for us is that we are able to think. We
    have foresight. We can think about the effects our actions may have on
    ourselves and on others. We are the only species that can do this. I
    believe we are thinking towards some purpose. I believe with the
    philosopher Peter Singer that we are increasingly able to empathise
    with more kinds of people.

    Is humanity becoming more humane?

    It is. For example, the growing revulsion against war is
    unprecedented. Not so long ago people thought war was glorious. Now
    there is a spreading conviction that the glory has gone out of it. And
    I think that's an excellent thing.

    What do you hope for the future?

    I believe the factors that are stopping people having so many children
    have been underestimated. I have a vision that in, say, 400 years the
    human population will be about a sixth of what it is now. And it will
    be a nicer world to live in. We won't have to fight for scarce
    resources. We will leave less of a footprint on the ecosystem. And we
    will be more pleased to see one another. When we are overcrowded we
    think, "I wish all these people would go away." But if you haven't
    seen anyone for a couple of weeks, they all seem rather wonderful.
    People will get on better with each other.

    You sound pretty optimistic.

    I was brought up in the middle of extreme poverty - actual hunger for
    many people - but people's spirits were high because they believed a
    better time was coming. They believed they were building a better
    world for their children. They could put up with an awful lot of
    deprivation because they had hope and optimism. That optimism is
    going. Politically, I think the left has lost its way. It has lost its
    self-respect and its confidence in the future. I think the pendulum
    has got to swing back again, and I think it will soon.

    Do you get angry?

    I'm a pussycat 99 per cent of the time. I did get annoyed in 1972, and
    I'm slightly annoyed again in 2005. Considering how long I've been
    around, that's not bad. That's only two hissy fits in 84 years.

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