Sadness and science

Today is a sad day. I received a letter from the family of Dr Elaine Morgan, author of The Scars of Evolution and other inspirational books on human evolution, letting me know that Elaine died last Friday. She was 92 years old and had lived a wonderfully full life, so her passing is not a tragedy. But it is still sad that such an inspirational, intelligent, kind and humble woman is no longer with us.

She has been a tremendous inspiration to me. It was reading her books on the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH), and her ideas in the seminal “The Descent of Woman”, that led me to write Watermark. But it wasn’t only what she wrote that I found inspirational. Her bravery and dedication in taking on the scientific establishment in arguing the case for the AAH was a wonderful example to us all that there should be no holy cows in science. If science really is an objective search for evidence, then challenges to accepted thinking would be welcomed, you would think. But that wasn’t the case for Elaine, and her trials and tribulations in getting the role of water in human evolution taken seriously shone an interesting light on the difference between the ideal view of what science is, and how it is actually practiced.

The philosophy of science fascinates me. But that term, “philosophy of science” confuses some people. What is there to be philosophical about? Science is an entirely objective pursuit, surely. But, it is carried out by humans, so can it really be entirely objective? And, do we want it to be? Perhaps objectivity is a laudable goal, but maybe one that will never be achieved. In any case, there is something chilling to me about the idea of an entirely objective scientist, motivated only by evidence and not by an acceptance or understanding of the human condition (whatever that may be!). Elaine was motivated by the human condition. By the curiosity and wonder that is characteristic of our species. It may be true of other species, but we have no way of knowing that, at present. We do know it about ourselves, though.

There are four books that have had an enormous effect on my understanding of science:

  • “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” Karl Popper
  • “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn
  • “What is this Thing Called Science?” Alan Chalmers
  • “The Descent of Woman” Elaine Morgan

All four are fascinating, but of those four, Elaine’s book has had the greatest influence on me, probably because I’m a woman who, like her, had become heartily sick of the “man the hunter” theories of human evolution. Men stood up to hunt better, men made and used tools, men have strong upper bodies for spear-chucking etc etc. Women co-evolved as a side-product; they were relegated to picking up berries off the floor, making themselves sexually attractive to men and looking after the resultant babies. But what about this great big thing in our heads? That’s what really differentiates us from all other species on the planet. All the time our brains were evolving to be larger and larger, there was very little change in the tool sets we were making. Sorry, men were making. We just didn’t need all that brain power to bang rocks together a bit more accurately.

The arguments are very persuasive that our brains developed to accommodate language, and so it must have given us a significant advantage to be selected for so effectively. And with language came music and laughter and empathy and all the “touchy-feely” stuff which had been ignored in theories of what drove human evolution. We are fundamentally communicators, not hunters. Sure, we have to hunt and scavenge to survive. But many species do that very effectively in social groups; lions, wolves, orca etc.  You don’t need a massive brain like ours to do that well. And which sex is generally accepted to be more adept at language? I leave that question hanging 🙂

Elaine has been described as a “housewife” in newspaper and media articles many times, as if there is something truly amazing about looking after a family and being able to think outside the box. I agree with Elaine; humans have evolved the way we have because women were, and still are, adept at doing both.

Rest in peace Elaine. You lived a wonderful life.

Watery apes and small-minded columnists

Blog skull mediumI wrote Watermark partly because I love crime fiction and wanted to have a go at it myself, and partly because I have an interest in human evolution. I admit in the book that I’m not completely convinced by the whole argument in the aquatic ape hypothesis, but that there are some interesting and thought-provoking questions that the theory postulates answers for. On the 9th and 10th May this year there was a conference at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, attended by professional scientists who are undertaking research into human evolution. The conference was about anthropological, medical and nutritional aspects of human evolution, and concentrated particularly on the role of water and how we may have been influenced by it as a species. There were pro and con views of the extent to which water played a part, of course, which is what you expect in balanced scientific debate.

And then I came across an article in the Guardian by the editor of Nature, Henry Gee, and my heart sank. It’s sarcastic, dismissive and really demonstrates the worst excesses of “smarty-pants” scientists. Oh, and at the end of the article he plugs his own book that’s coming out in October! As he seems to be a fan of Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanations are often the right ones – OK massively paraphrased but you get the gist!) perhaps I could apply the razor to his article and shave away the bigotry to reveal a shameless bit of self-promotion? Perish the thought! We all have to promote our books Henry, but not at the expense of rubbishing the commitment and hard work of others.

If your interest is piqued, try reading some of Elaine Morgan’s books on the subject. She is now very elderly and quite poorly, but has spent a large part of her life in well-informed and very able pursuit of a fair hearing for alternative theories of human evolution. Henry Gee doesn’t name her at all, but lumps together all protagonists of the AAH as unqualified people whose opinion is worth nothing. To caricature such a modest, generous and hard-working woman in this way when she is now too ill to respond, is appalling. She was very kind and supportive of me when I was writing Watermark, and I will always have a great fondness for her.

See BBC “Great Welsh Writers” series.