Elaine Morgan, who was born in 1920 and died in 2013 at the age of 92, was a well-known advocate for the inclusion of feminist perspectives in the theories of evolution. Most commonly known as a television writer, Morgan had multiple awards for her various writings. One of those successes was her bestseller The Descent of Woman, discussed below. Challenging the theories of evolution that focused on males and their needs, Morgan’s book deviated from the norm of portraying females as sexual objects.
Born as Elaine Floyd, Morgan lived in Wales most of her life. She grew up in extreme poverty. She later attended Oxford University, graduated with a degree in English, and taught there for three years after she graduated (Douglas, 2005). Later in life, in an attempt to help make ends meet, she began writing. She was a successful writer for BBC, winning multiple BAFTA and Writer’s Guild Awards. Though she had a prosperous career writing for television, her passion was outside of the entertainment field.
Her interest in science began after reading an article by Sir Alister Hardy, who proposed the Aquatic Ape Theory. She expanded on this hypothesis, and even though it was later discredited, her work in science included indispensable theories about women in evolution. She cultivated this passion for the sciences when she began reading books on human evolution (Morgan, 2012). After Morgan read The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, she was inspired to learn more about the differences between humans and apes, and whether or not those differences could be explained from our ancestors’ behaviors.
Morgan was a staunch believer that the Man the Hunter Hypothesis, being as prominent as it was, was an incorrect portrayal of gender in human evolution. Furthermore, she believed that regarding women as being one of the scarce resources that men fight over was absolutely incorrect. The more she read on the subject, the more outrage she felt on this issue of gender in human evolution (Morgan, 2012). This was because adult males were the central focus, with little mention of women. It was Morgan’s belief that it was incorrect to assume a woman’s role in prehistory was limited to being a trophy or object for men. Morgan sincerely believed that since she had concerns about the conclusions being made, someone else would as well, and she waited for someone with more scientific credentials to write a book (Morgan, 2012). After years of waiting, she took it upon herself.
The resulting book, The Descent of Woman, gained recognition, although Morgan originally thought that it would not be well received due to her status as a woman without legitimate scientific credentials. Because her college degree was not in the sciences, established scientists disregarded her work (Douglas, 2005). Her book took a more casual tone than most scientists saw fit, for which she was often criticized. To write her book, Morgan taught herself everything by simply reading books that pertained to her topic. Although she did receive backlash from some, she received positive feedback from feminists and went on to write more books challenging the androcentric view of human evolution. Morgan recognized that the success of her book was reliant on the fact that it discussed the topic of sex, and because it was released at the same time of the initiation of the women’s liberation movement.
In her first chapter, Morgan set the foundation of her argument. Morgan comically made this argument by noting that women were omitted from text on human evolution, until they were dragged “onstage rather suddenly for the obligatory chapter on Sex and Reproduction” and were told “all right, love, you can go now” (Morgan, 1972, p.3). With this satirical tone, Morgan went on to discuss gender issues and myths highlighting the biases with hypotheses throughout many aspects of human evolution.
Written by Sylvia Frazier, Brenna Puestow, Kaitlyn Sonnentag for the course “Gender and Human Evolution”, taught by Caroline VanSickle and published as part of the Women in Paleoanthropology special collection.
Douglas, K. (2005). Natural optimist. New Scientist,186 (2496), 50-53.
Elaine Morgan. (2013, July 18). Obituary. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/10189152/Elaine-Morgan.html.
Morgan, E. (1972). The Descent of Woman. New York: Stein and Day.
Morgan, E. (2012, October 12). Elaine Morgan: Read the final extract from her great autobiography. Wales Online. Retrieved from: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/elaine-morgan-read-final-extract-2020931.