Friday, August 09, 2013

RIP Elaine Morgan

I'm a big fan of Elaine Morgan. And I'm inclined to buy the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis from her.

I know that there are some questionable elements, but I've never been able to understand why the speculations and holes it contains are any worse than equivalently speculative "just-so" stories and holes in the mainstream Savannah theories or which Evolutionary Psychology is riddled with. No-one has highly accurate data about what was going on then, particularly not about behaviour, and everyone is filling in the blanks with the conjectures that seem most plausible to them. None of the arguments I've seen against AAH, seem definitive enough to justify the sneering that critics seem to delight in.

Reading the obituaries, I found my way to a terrible article in The Guardian.
She insisted that the savannah hypothesis failed because it couldn't account for the survival of females. Abandoned by the hunters out tracking game, fending for herself and her children, a female alone on the plains would inevitably become dinner herself.

Morgan absolutely DID NOT say that Tarzanist evolutionary theory was flawed because it ignored the plight of the poor female ape, unable to defend herself from the big lions while the strong male defenders were out hunting. This is a travesty of her point; an absolutely witless reading of the argument. Yes, she talked about the problem facing the human-ancestor on the savannah. And yes, she used the female pronoun. But NOT to imply that this was only about the female. Because she was deliberately using the female pronoun to talk about proto-humans in general to challenge the use of the male as the generic.

Surely someone at The Guardian should have picked this up.

In fact, the whole point of the article, to damn Morgan with faint praise (even if she was wrong scientifically she's interesting as an example of the challenges of feminist science), is flawed. AAH may or may not be right. But it's a perfectly strong and valid contender for being right. Much of the carping against it is based purely on its "form" (ie. coming from an outsider).

Morgan is no different from the lionised pop-science writers of today like Malcolm Gladwell, James Gleick or Nassim Nicholas Taleb who also push their own idiosyncratic scientific understandings to tell compelling stories that help illuminate our understanding of the world. Of course such stories sometimes simplify. Of course they assert ideas that may be under dispute as certainties. But that's fine. Such stories are still our best popular understanding of the topic.

Feminism, in Elaine Morgan, is NOT scientifically problematic. And her "pop" is no more problematic than it is for dozens of important thinkers today.

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