Tarzan Wasn’t for Her

Erika Milam in Nautilus:

Elaine Morgan had sass. In Descent of Woman, published in 1972, she asked her readers to take science into their own hands. “Try a bit of fieldwork,” she suggested. “Go out of your front door and try to spot some live specimens of Homo sapiens in his natural habitat. It shouldn’t be difficult because the species is protected by law and in no immediate danger of extinction.” After completing observations of 20 random people, she suggested, substitute them when you are reading statements about universal human nature. The result?

“That window cleaner is one of the most sophisticated predators the world has ever seen.”

“The weapon is my grocer’s principal [sic] means of expression, and his only means of resolving differences.”

“The postman’s aggressive drive has acquired a paranoid potential because his young remain dependent for a prolonged period.”

Morgan added that you might imagine you were observing the wrong species and urged her readers to trust their experiences. “Remember,” she wrote, “you have been living among thousands of these large carnivores all your life, on more intimate terms than those on which Jane Goodall lived among the chimpanzees.”

In positing such a scenario, Morgan was engaged in serious work. All popular theories of human evolution to date, she insisted, were based on a male-centered notion of human evolution. Where were the evolutionary scenarios that began, “When the first ancestor of the human race descended from the trees, she had not yet developed the mighty brain that was to distinguish her so sharply from all the other species…”? This formed one of two major points Morgan wished to make in Descent of Woman.

The second was to advance a theory of aquatic adaptation that preceded life on the savannah. In semi-adaptation to a watery world, she imagined, humanity’s ancestors may have lost their body hair, gained a layer of subcutaneous fat to keep them warm, learned to walk upright (keeping their heads above water while foraging for tasty snacks in the shallows), came to use stones and manufacture tools for breaking open shells, and developed the ability to control their breathing when diving beneath the surface—a precondition for true spoken language and an obvious boon to any individual trying to communicate with most of her body submerged. In short, Morgan suggested humans acquired precisely those traits that distinguish them from the rest of the animal world while living around water, not in the arid grasslands. These activities, she noted, were associated with gathering, not hunting, an activity in which women’s contributions were widely acknowledged.

More here.