What is the Waterside Ape?

Next Wednesday, Sir David Attenborough will discuss a theory violently once ridiculed by scientists worldwide- a theory made popular by someone with absolutely no scientific training, yet one that gripped the world since its publication. At 52 years old, Elaine Morgan, incensed by the total absence of women in the history of evolution, championed the alternative explanation for human evolution: the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

“A revelatory read for anyone interested in human origins.” BBC Wildlife

This theory was first put forward in 1960 by marine biologist, Professor Sir Alister Hardy. He cast his investigation to the Pliocene epoch, which, although it lasted roughly five million years, is not supported by any contemporary fossil information. This void in our understanding of evolutionary history – the so-called “fossil gap” – means that our journey from being hairy quadrupeds to naked, fatty-skinned, bipedal beings remains a mystery.

Elaine Morgan gives a revolutionary hypothesis that explains our anatomic anomalies—why we walk on two legs, why we are covered in fat, why we can control our rate of breathing? The answers point to one conclusion: millions of years ago our ancestors were trapped in a semi-aquatic environment.

“It was one of the most outrageous, improbable evolutionary ideas ever proposed… now the idea… is becoming respectable.” The Observer

It is generally accepted in our Post-Darwinian society that apes evolved into humans when climate changes forced them to descend from their decaying tree-tops to live on the savannah. Both Hardy and Morgan believe that primates’ physiology changed dramatically when a population of woodland apes became stranded on a large island close to what is now Ethiopia. After the waters receded and the apes returned to the mainland, their aquatic adaptations remained.

Morgan points out that the only other mammals with these features (naked and covered with fat) are whales, seals and pachyderms. To explain her theory as to why humans differ in so many ways from other primates, she published The Descent of Woman in 1972, and The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis in 1997.


Despite scientists’ resounding disregard for her theories, the books both became international bestsellers, and in the decades since Morgan’s aquatic ape hypothesis, it has gained widespread support – including from Sir David Attenborough.

In recent years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in Elaine Morgan, she has appeared at literary festivals, been profiled in ‘The Guardian’ and voted as one of the 100 most important Welsh people ever.



At 9am on Wednesday 14th September, Sir David Attenborough will speak on BBC Radio 4 to address this once ridiculed theory which is now evermore increasingly accepted in mainstream scientific discourse.

Sir David first considered the controversial theory on Radio 4 in 2004. In this new series of two programmes, The Waterside Ape, he brings us up to date with the story and the evidence put forward since then – both for the hypothesis and also for its continuing detractors.

Back in 2004, Sir David asked Elaine Morgan how long it would take for the aquatic adaptation theory to become a mainstream account of human origins. She answered, “I’ll give it ten years.” As we review the new evidence, has she been proved right?

(Blurb taken from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07v0hhm)




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