The Descent of Woman

The publication of Elaine Morgan’s work The Descent of Woman in 1972 incited some seriously radical discussion. As the first argument for the equal role of women in human evolution, it created an international debate and became a rallying-point for feminism, changing the terminology of anthropologists forever.

“Part feminist polemic, part evolutionary bombshell.” The Guardian

Starting with her demolition of the Biblical myth that woman was a mere afterthought to the creation of man, Morgan rejects the enduring male-centric theories of evolution to rewrite our understanding of human history.

Rather than women developing breasts to fulfil the sexual appetites of men (see: Desmond Morris’ claim that female breasts evolved to remind men of buttocks during new-found face-to-face copulation, as opposed to rear-mounting as is the case with almost all other land mammals), Morgan argues that the female body evolved to adapt to its own needs.

“Evolutionary patterns are more likely to have followed woman’s needs and requirements than man’s.” Carol Dix, The Guardian, 1972

Indeed, Morgan argues that human breasts developed as they have so that young children could get a better grasp whilst feeding; something especially important in the absence of body hair. While many believe that our human lack of body hair (unlike our primate ancestors) occurred to keep men cool while hunting, this does not explain why women also lost their body hair. As Jill Tweedie comments in a contemporary Guardian article:

“There were two sexes around at the time, and I don’t believe it’s ever been all that easy to part a woman from a fur coat, just to save the old man from getting into a muck-sweat during his supreme moments. What was supposed to be happening to the female during this period of denudation?”

While some of the phrasing is somewhat objectionable, Tweedie’s point is irrefutably cogent. Tweedie goes on to sharply observe that:

“The fact that the substitution in a book on anthropology, of the pronoun “he” for the “she” should come as quite such a shock is proof not only that anthropologists, like all scientists, carefully pose only those questions to which they have some sort of answers but that their original hypotheses are often emotionally suspect and, in the particular case of the evolution of the human species, most unscientifically male-orientated.”


The Descent of Woman points out the entire Western world’s half-blind approach to understanding our own human pre-history, and calls for a complete re-evaluation of what we thought we knew. It remains a key text in feminist history, as well as an extension to the author’s famed Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

Morgan’s theories have garnered more and more academic credence since the publication of her seminal works The Descent of Woman (1972) and The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997). To hear more about the aquatic ape hypothesis, tune into BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday morning and listen to Sir David Attenborough explain this ground-breaking interpretation of human pre-history!


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