Paranoid Theory: The Ape That’s All Wet

By: Matthew Battles
August 5, 2009

Elaine Morgan is a Welsh screen writer whose credits include Dr Finlay’s Casebook and How Green Was My Valley. But for more than thirty years she is best known as a stalwart defender of the theory that mankind descended from aquatic apes.

Morgan has passionately advanced this notion in some half-dozen books since the early 1970s. Most recently she defended her theory at the bespoke intellectual salon juggernaut TED’s global meeting in Oxford. In Darwin’s bicentenary year, she warns, evolutionists will chime in to “enlighten us on almost every aspect of Darwin… [but] there’s one aspect of this story which they have thrown no light on, and they seem anxious to skirt around and step over it and talk about something else.” In language like this we catch the distinct timbre of paranoid theory.

But hold on. While the Aquatic Ape hypothesis shares traits with Intelligent Design — notably, a reliance on post-hoc just-so stories rather than testable hypotheses and empirical evidence —Morgan’s paranoid critique of mainstream science deserves our admiration. For hers is a critical science, not an empirical one. Morgan’s interest in evolution began with a justifiable frustration with male-centered explanations of human traits; she grew zealous as she came to know the gender-skewed structure of authority in academic natural history and the generally sketchy nature of paleontological evidence.


The idea has an interesting history. Anaximander first speculated mankind’s descent from water creatures in the sixth century BC. In the early twentieth century, eminent marine biologist Alister Hardy noted that in several traits (hairlessness, subcutaneous fat deposits, conscious control of the breath) humans bear a resemblance to some aquatic mammals. Desmond Morris visited the theory in his highly popular book The Naked Ape, where Elaine Morgan first encountered it. In its defense she has conducted an admirable-if-eccentric course of scientific criticism in the public sphere, which she charmingly expounds in her TED talk.

Did humankind crawl from the seas a second time in a slightly farcical sequel of life’s terrestrial adventure? It’s highly unlikely. But Morgan’s spirited, romantic defense of her ideas makes for a bracing plunge in the energizing waters of paranoid theory.



What do you think?

  1. She’s got her fin in the doorway of relevant similarity, an ongoing problem in philosophy of science. We are like monkeys, monkeys have opposable thumbs. We are like dolphins, dolphins have subcutaneous fat deposits. Both comparisons contain similarity. But which is more relevant – well that would be where the evidence would determine which beautiful theory had the additional asset of truth. But what evidence is allowed depends itself on notions of relevant similarity. And actually ‘relevance’ just relocates the question; similarity itself is problem enough! So through that open door parades a fashion show of beautiful and strange theories, whose elaborate patterning can so distract us from the tedium of stitching together all the evidence. Which paradigm cloak should we wear tonight? That yellow one: Waterproof!

  2. The best part of Morgan’s theory, about which Gavin McNett once wrote a good article for Lingua Franca, is the idea that it would explain why we frequently feel the need to pee when we step into the shower. Because we’re descended from aquatic apes, that’s why! Bravo for posting about Morgan — she’s definitely our type of scientist.

  3. There’s a great Kobo Abe novel, Inter Ice Age 4, where the lucky will evolve INTO aquatic apes and survive the melting of the ice caps.

    The wheels keep on turning, we’re bound to end up in the ocean a few more times before we’re gone.

  4. Good point, Tom — and I think there’s something in Olaf Stapledon about that too, maybe?

  5. Haven’t read that Kobe Abe, Tom; I must! (please consider that an order placed). I also want to find Leo Szilard’s book about mankind taking orders from the dolphins—but that’s another post.

    The question of relevant similarities gets transposed into another key in evolutionary biology, with convergent adaptations and all kinds of causal vectors that are hard to sort out. But what gets lost—at least in the first blush—are all the meaning-making possibilities offered by the similarities & sympathies, rhymes & homologies.

  6. Need *arts and sciences – nice!

    In Karel Capek’s War with the Newts ( a species of smart giant salamanders is discovered in the ocean. They are peaceful and not too numerous until they are given tools (to help harvest pearls) and taught to talk (first word, and tool, is “nife”). Once they get language they get dangerous, and start spreading and organizing into societies and terraforming the planet so there’s more water and bays for them. Taylor and Nova would discover the Statue of Liberty underwater, in this version. Maybe our future is out there right now, just waiting for the Word.

  7. Snowball’s Revenge! Our future–and our future nemesis–is out there right now, although it may not need the Word to clean us out; an enzyme for metabolizing plastic may be enough to do the trick.

Comments are closed.