Review/Critique of Elaine Morgan's 2009 TED Talk

On 22 July 2009, Elaine Morgan gave a talk at the annual TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, UK, in a session titled "Curious and curiouser". It's garnered a lot of notice (and drove a lot of traffic to my site) so I figured I should write up a response specifically to that talk.

The first thing that struck me happened even before they put the video of her talk online. I looked at the TED site and read the blurb on Morgan, and they highlighted a quote from a writer in the Sunday Telegraph. This is also prominently displayed on Morgan's web site, indicating that she included it in her PR packet for the TED talk. I hadn't paid much attention to it before, but what struck me was how anyone could use this for self-promotion, how on earth they could consider it a compliment. Here it is:

"For my money, she is more scientific than Genesis, more up-to-date than Darwin, more fun than Ardrey, and she writes better than Desmond Morris."
John Rowan Wilson, Sunday Telegraph
Now take that one step at a time:
  1. "more scientific than Genesis". Unless you're talking about the Genesis probe from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, what isn't "more scientific than Genesis"? That's an extremely backhanded compliment at best; if someone said it about me I'd regard it as a not very subtle insult.

  2. "more up to date than Darwin". More up to date than a guy who died 127 years ago. Again, who isn't? Insult number two.

  3. "more fun than Ardrey". Possible compliment, although I never liked Ardrey's stuff so I'd consider a low bar to clear. Interesting parallel though, since Ardrey was a screenwriter who thought up and wrote about poorly supported pop ideas of human evolution that ultimately didn't agree with the facts. At least Ardrey had the excuse that there was less good info when he was doing his stuff.

  4. "writes better than Desmond Morris". Although I'm also not a Morris fan, to say the least, many people are and I think this is a decent compliment. One which you'll note mentions only Morris' writing, not his knowledge or research.
So this backhanded compliment/insult is apparently, judging by her prominent use of it, thought by Morgan to be a marvelous thing to have said about her.

After a few more days the TED people put the video of her talk online and I watched it, so let's get to it. One thing; the official transcript they have on their site doesn't match her talk in several spots. My transcription was done by me while listening to the talk and going over any difficult sections several times if necesssary. It looks like their transcription was done after the fact as well but not as carefully checked. No really huge problems with it, but a couple of small things, like their saying she used the word "dicta" (several times) near the end when she clearly said "diktat", which gives a very different meaning to an important point.

Morgan's words are marked by what time they appear in the video and are in italics, mine aren't. I've indicated some of her accompanying gestures in brackets.

[0:40] "Cause there's one aspect of this story which they have thrown no light on and they seem anxious to skirt around and step over it and talk about something else. So I'm going to talk about it. It's the question of why are we so different from the chimpanzees?".

Yes indeed, paleoanthropology and primatology have done virtually nothing whatever in the last half century. All those thousands of researchers, all those expeditions, all those hours in zoos and the wild, at fossil sites, in the lab, and poring over books and journals; all that never happened. What can you really say about someone who says something like that? Does she actually believe it, or is she just trying to snow a gullible audience*? Either way, it's not a good start.

* (TED audience members pay $6,000 to attend, although TED is quick to claim this isn't much because they allow 20 people to pay only $2,000, and starting this year allowed 30 freebies among their audience of over 1,400. In addition, they have to apply to be members of the audience, which includes answering questions they say takes about an hour (!). It's a carefully vetted audience. That doesn't necessarily make them gullible -- although it might make them a teensy bit more likely to appreciate what they're given -- what makes them gullible is that, as their reaction shows, they accepted what Morgan said without reservation.)

[1:32] "That one is a naked biped. Why?"

Could someone in the AAT/H camp do some minimal research to get this right... I don't know, watch The Fisher King or something where Robin Williams takes off his shirt? Have none of these people ever been to a beach? Do none of them notice that shaving with razors is a $2 billion dollar a year business, and that electric shavers generate billions more each year? Why does The Boston Globe report that "In Reading and at other sites, P&G is devoting more resources to emerging hair removal technologies for women, which is an estimated $10 billion industry worldwide." Why do people without hair buy these things?

If you start with a wrong description for your question you will get a wrong answer. Guaranteed. GIGO.

Morgan has always insisted on using a wrong description and therefore asking a false question, which means she has always guaranteed she cannot possibly get the right answer.

[1:48] "Now 50 years ago that was a laughably simple question. Everybody knew the answer, they knew what happened. The ancestor of the apes stayed in the trees, our ancestors went out onto the plains. That explained everything. We had to get up on our two legs to peer over the tall grass or to chase after animals or to free our hands for weapons and we got so overheated in the chase we had to take off that fur coat and throw it away. Everybody knew that for generations, but then, in the 90s something began to unravel. The paleontologists themselves looked a bit more closely at the accompanying microfauna that lived in the same time and place as the hominids and they weren't savanna species. [does "puzzled" frown] And they looked at the herbivores and they weren't savanna herbivores. And then they were so clever they found a way to analyse fossilized pollen. Shock horror. The fossilized pollen was not of savanna vegetation. Some of it even came from lianas, those things that dangle in the middle of the jungle. So we're left with a situation where we know that our earliest ancestors were running around on four legs in the trees before the savanna ecosystem even came into existence. This is not something I've made up, this is not a minority theory, everybody agrees with it.

Perhaps by "then in the 90s", she means "1890s", because it was before that when pollen was studied in the fossil record. And certainly both microfaunal assemblages and pollen were extensively studied and used to reconstruct ancient environments decades before Morgan claims. I mean really, what does she think Noel Boaz did with the grant money he got from the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation in 1979 to study "Microfaunal Sampling at the Upper Neogene Site of Sahabi"? Since he couldn't, in Morgan's world, actually been doing that study, maybe he went to Vegas? Maybe he bought a new Porsche? Someone from the Leakey Foundation should really look into that one. What was J.C. Ondrias doing really doing when he claimed to be studying microfauna in Greece in the mid-1960s? When they started excavating at Sterkfontein in 1966, collecting microfauna in their work, what were they doing with it -- since according to Morgan they could not have been studying it. How could Estella Leopold write about paleo pollen analysis in China in 1977 in the book, Paleoanthropology in the People's Republic of China? What was Raymond Bonnefille doing writing "Implications for pollen assemblages from the Koobi Fora Formation" in 1976 if Morgan is right that such work didn't happen until 25 years later?

BTW, I pointed out in my review of her 2008 book that, contrary to what Morgan says here, lianas grow in other than jungle (in fact they're more abundant in drier conditions) and some are savanna plants. And that took me less than 5 or 10 minutes to find out, online. So with Morgan we're talking about someone who makes claims that she won't even spend 5 or 10 minutes researching from her office chair.

At 3:46 she starts in with the paradigm thing. It's a paradigm shift folks, it's all over. Run for your lives. quickly, quick, quic.... zzzzzzzzzz

Whaa?! fell asleep there. Onward.

Seriously, when you hear the words "paradigm shift" (or even the word "paradigm" applied to an idea the speaker or writer disagrees with) it's a huge red flag and you should brace yourself to be hit with a load of BS. Because ninety-nine times out of hundred it's coming your way in bucketfuls. And that's what happens here. Look. I've seen disagreements within paleoanthropology. Major disagreements. They happen all the time, as they do in any science that isn't long settled. That's how science gets better and better answers over time. The picture Morgan paints of paleoanthropology, the supposed stasis and top-down authority, is just nonsense.

[5:25] And if you're going to say, "I'm going to stop talking about selective pressures," you can take "The Origin of Species" and throw it out of the window. For it's about nothing else but selective pressures.

Couple points. One is that it's not all selective pressures. Morgan has long wanted selection -- and not sexual selection, just natural selection, and really only the narrow range of natural selection due to environment -- to be the be all and end all of human evolution. But it's not. Genetic drift is important, for instance, just as it is for any other organism's evolution. And in the paper Morgan obliquely refers to here Evelyn J. Bowers points out that "a trait can not evolve unless a useful mutation appears" and therefore asks us to "consider what kind of mutation might be involved in forming a bipedal pelvis" rather than just mull endlessly on selective pressure. Because Bowers then points out that the selective pressure needn't be so dramatic or drawnout a process as we once thought, because the change to effective bipedalism just isn't so difficult or drawnout a change as we once thought; it's not unlike changes to hair, where large physical changes come from minor genetic changes. In the case of bipedalism, all that's needed for a big physical change is fairly minor changes in a few genes which regulate development. This changes how we think about the type, degree, and duration of selection pressure needed, a critical thing to know when you examine selection. Morgan seems to find this quite uninteresting except as a field from which to extract out of context quotes.

[7:27] "But by now everybody agrees that the elephant had an aquatic ancestor. They've come round to agree that all those naked pachyderms have aquatic ancestors. The last stopper was the rhinoceros; last year in Florida they found extinct ancestors of the rhinoceros and said seems to have spent most of its time in the water.

The ancient members of the rhino family she's talking about -- from the Florida reference it's almost certainly Teleoceras -- have actually been known (their fossils are pretty common and widespread) for decades. True, they found some last year in Florida but that's like saying they found some sunburned tourists last year in Florida and pretending it's a new thing. And while Teleoceras was semiaquatic it was not ancestral to modern forms of rhinos, it was a side branch. So like the common claim that the semiaquatic Moeritherium is ancestral to modern elephants, this claim is false. The rest of the "elephants were aquatic" idea is also on shakier ground than Morgan claims (echoed, I must say, by far too many sources which should know better). It comes from a study of elephant fetuses which have one feature that the researchers say shows aquatic ancestry, but it's a pretty thin thread to hang an elephant's ancestry from. It may turn out be so, but it's far from a settled question at this point; just an intriguing possibility. Morgan's rhino claim isn't even an intriguing possibility; it's completely bogus.

[7:50] So this is a close connection between nakedness and water. As an absolute connection; it only works one way. You can't say all aquatic animals are naked. Because look at the sea otter. But you can say that every animal that has become naked has been conditioned by water, in its own lifetime, or the lifetime of its ancestors. I think this is significant. The only exception is the naked Somalian mole-rat. Which never puts its nose above the surface of the ground.

In fact most semiaquatic mammals are hairy, and when you look at how many times aquaticness and semiaquaticness evolved among mammals, the overwhelming number of times it led to hairy beasts. More than 90% of the time in fact. And of course you again have to remember that we aren't hairless. You want the number of times the evolution of aquaticness and semiaquaticness led to a mammal with copious amounts of hair on it's head, patches of hair at the crotch and armpits, and hair on the body amounting to lots of very short fine hair on most of the body in some individuals ranging up to lots of thick curly hair on most of the body? Never. Not once. Not even one single time.

Let's mention the mole rat here. Morgan usually adds in the babyrusa, the wild pig found in areas of Indonesia, and claims it's semiaquatic. It's not; it swims well and can swim some distance, but that is not the same as being semiaquatic. And even if it was it using it as an example runs into the same problem as using the naked mole rat. Morgan claims these are hairless due to the habitat they live in, but if that were so we would expect other animals in that same habitat to be the same, especially closely related mammals with similar habits. Well, there are several subspecies of babyrusa and they're not all hairless as is the one we're most familiar with, yet they have similar habits and habitats. There are also five species of mole rats with similar habitats, yet only one is hairless. What these mammals provide is an example which shows that it's not surprising that one member of a group might be much more hairless than other members of that group, for idiosyncratic reasons rather than habitat. We see it with babyrusas, we see it with mole rats, and what do you know, we see it with humans.

[8:32] "But you can say this: all the apes and all the monkeys are capable of walking on two legs if they want to for a short time. There's only one circumstance in which they always, all of them, walk on two legs and that is when they're wading through water."

Simple nonsense, and I'm afraid I have to point out nonsense that she knows is not true.

[8:56] "Look at the fat layer. We have got under our skin a layer of fat all over nothing in the least like that in any other primate. Why should it be there? Well they do know that if you look at other aquatic mammals that fat that in normal land animals is deposited inside the body wall, around the kidneys and the intestines and so on has started to migrate to the outside and spread out in a layer inside the skin. In the whale it's complete; no fat inside at all. All in blubber outside. We cannot avoid the suspicion that in our case it's started to happen; we have got skin lined with this layer. It's the only possible explanation of why humans, if they're very unlucky, can become grossly obese, in a way that would be totally impossible for any other primate. Physically impossible. Something very odd about our fat layer; never explained."

We'll put the whale part of this down to exaggeration and let it slide; the rest isn't so easy to give her a pass on since she knows the facts from evolution of fat expert Caroline Pond as well as other people, including me, pointing them out -- so much for her claim that it's "never explained". Non-human primates which get fat do so in the same way humans do; their fat spreads out just as ours does. Yet Morgan calls this fact, which she has been informed of many times, as totally impossible, physically impossible.

[9:57] The question of why we can speak. We can speak. And the gorilla can't speak. Why? Nothing to do with his teeth or his tongue or his lungs or anything like that. Purely to do with its conscious control of its breath. You can't even train a gorilla to say "Ah" on request. The only creatures that have got conscious control of their breath are the diving animals and the diving birds. It was an absolute precondition for our being able to speak.

Two things: one is that the idea of concious control of breathing not being found in non-human and non-diving animals is overdone at least; if it weren't then they couldn't swim underwater, as dogs and monkeys do for instance. Untrained dogs can even hold their breath, on average, longer than untrained humans. Humans do have more concious control of our breathing than most other mammals but this is a lucky side benefit of bipedalism, which frees up the muscles around what would otherwise be our forelimbs. These muscles are also the muscles around our lungs, and since they aren't used heavily and automatically for locomotion they are free to help us in breathing control. Very lucky break, as speaking language as well as we learned to would be much harder, if not impossible, without this lucky side benefit.

Okay, make that three things, think about this: you can train a dog to bark on command, right? In fact you can teach a lot of animals to vocalise on command. And as I pointed out, many of them can swim underwater which requires them to breath in and hold their breath. So a lot of non-diving animals in fact do what Morgan says they cannot do.

[10:32] And then again, there is the fact that we are streamlined. Trying to imagine a diver diving into water, hardly makes a splash. Try to imagine a gorilla performing the same maneuver. and you can see that, compared with gorilla, we are halfway to being shaped like a fish. I am trying to suggest that, for 40-odd years, this aquatic idea has been miscategorized as lunatic fringe, and it is not lunatic fringe.

I'm afraid this is an unfortunate juxtapositioning of Morgan's, because the idea that we are streamlined, which she and Hardy pushed from the beginning, is one of the bigger reasons to think of the idea as lunacy. It's certainly true that trained humans can dive much more neatly than I'd expect a gorilla to do. Especially since gorillas don't dive. What an odd coincidence that she picked such an unlikely comparison rather than defend her idea that humans are streamlined. Look at yourself in a mirror; Morgan thinks you look sort of like a fish, Hardy said you look like a boat. I say you look not unlike our close relatives when they stand up; somewhat shorter arms and longer legs, but similar, and with an awful lot of bits sticking out in rather inconvenient places for streamlining. Not to mention our hair. Who's right, Morgan, Hardy, or me?

[11:00] And the ironic thing about it is that they are not staving off the aquatic theory to protect a theory of their own, which they've all agreed on, and they love. There is nothing there. [emphatic repeated pointing] They are staving off the aquatic theory to protect a vacuum. (Laughter) (Applause)

Even if there was no theory whatever out there (which is untrue) it would make sense to "stave off the aquatic theory" because it runs counter to facts and is argued for with falsehoods. Does it makes sense to accept an idea which is counter to facts and argued with falsehoods? Morgan is essentially arguing that it does.

[11:26] How do they react when I say these things? One very common reaction I've heard about 20 times is, "But it was investigated. They conducted a serious investigation of this at the beginning, when Hardy put forward his article." I don't believe it. For 35 years I've been looking for any evidence of any incident of that kind, and I've concluded, that that's one of the urban myths. It's never been done.

Funny stuff. Nonsensical, but funny. Morgan is well aware of many such "incidents", including my web site. She's therefore saying something she knows isn't true; there's a word for that.

[12:32] "And if you've got a scientific problem like that, you can't solve it by holding a head count and say more of us say yes than say no. Apart from that, some of the heads count more than others. Some of them have come over. [gets ready to count on fingers] There was Professor Tobias; he's come over. Daniel Dennett; he's come over. Sir David Attenborough; he's come over. Anybody else out there, come on in, the water's lovely. And now we've got to look to the future. Ultimately, one of three things is going to happen. Either they will go on for the next 40 years, 50 years, 60 years saying yeah, well we don't talk about that; let's talk about something interesting. That'll be very sad. The second thing that could happen is that some young genius will arrive and say I've solved it, it was not the savanna, it was not the water, it was this. No sign of that happening either. I don't think there's a third option. So the third thing that might happen is a very beautiful thing. If you look back at the early years of the last century there was a standoff and a lot of bickering and bad feeling between the believers in Mendel and the believers in Darwin. It ended with a new synthesis. Darwin's ideas and Mendel's ideas blending together and I think the same thing will happen here. You get a new synthesis; Hardy's ideas and Darwin's ideas will be blended together and we can go forward from there and really get somewhere. That will be a beautiful thing. It would be very nice for me if it happened soon." [audience laughter and applause]

Tobias' "coming over" statements: "Nowhere have I stated, either in print or on a public platform, or on the media, that I support the AAH!" and "I have also said "I am not yet convinced that the AAH is correctly applied to all of the morphological and functional traits that its proponent have proposed as "acquatic [sic] traits" of the hominids". Dennett's "support" isn't terribly clearcut either. There are three times I know of when Dennett has referenced the aquatic ape idea. The first time he says that in the early 1990s he asked (unnamed) people to come up with an off the cuff detailed refutation of the AAT/H and they couldn't; I've pointed out that they couldn't do that even for well known wacky ideas like books on the Bermuda Triangle, the Philadelphia Experiment, and so on (those were some of the other books by the publisher of Morgan's first books). Then in a BBC Radio program on the AAT/H he offered that he didn't think there'd been "the right sort of measured and sober response; at least if there has been I haven't been able to find it". Well, I'd have to say that Dennett didn't look too hard -- try a Google search, Dan :) But then maybe my site, or Adrienne Zihlman's articles, or the articles in the book The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?, aren't "the right sort". Lately he's written an article where he places the AAT/H in a category of "enticing hypotheses that are actively defended but still insufficiently supported by hard facts", which is hardly a ringing endorsement even before you remember that he's suggesting that ID (the creationism variant "intelligent design") "get in line behind" them.

Attenborough's support is more clearcut, but how accurate he is when he gets into it is shown in my review of his BBC Radio 4 show on the subject -- not very.

If I were a praying man every night I'd be on my knees pleading to be delivered from "support" like that.

[14:55] "So if it's going to come and it's going to happen what's holding it up? I can tell you that in three words: academia says no. They decided in 1960 that belongs with the UFOs and the yetis and it's not easy to change their minds. The professional journals won't touch it with a barge pole, the textbooks don't mention it, the syllabus doesn't even the fact that we're naked let alone look for a reason to it. Horizon, which takes it cue from the academics, won't touch it with a barge pole. So we never hear the case put for it, except in jocular references to people on the lunatic fringe. I don't know quite where this diktat comes from. [holds hand up and brushes down, indicating it's from on high] [looking up] Somebody up there is issuing the commandment Thou shalt not believe in the aquatic theory, and if you hope to make progress in this profession and you do believe it you'd better keep it to yourself cause it will get in your way.

This is talk that can only come from someone who has not the slightest notion of science, scientists, the history of science. Her claim, longstanding but here made probably more explicit than she has before, that academia works by diktat and edicts, or even that it could, is beyond nonsensical.

Elaine Morgan's 2009 TED Talk

Feedback: E-mail me