[Paleopsych] Interview: (Elaine Morgan) The natural optimist
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Sat Apr 23 08:58:21 UTC 2005
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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