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Elaine Morgan dies aged 92


elaine morgan, writer, theoristAward-winning screenwriter, feminist, columnist and theorist Elaine Morgan has died.

A coal-miner’s daughter, born Elaine Floyd, Morgan studied English literature and language at Oxford before teaching for the Workers’ Educational Asscociation (WEA).

Determined that her bookish only child should free herself from a life of grinding poverty, her mother had given her every encouragement. She passed her 11-plus and won an Exhibition to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she became secretary, then chairman, of the university’s Labour Club.

She met her husband Morien at a political rally, and after their marriage in 1945 the couple moved to the Mountain Ash area of Wales, which would become their home and community for the rest of their lives.

At the age of 11 she was paid a guinea by the Western Mail for a story and in 1952 she sold her first television play, Mirror, Mirror.

After winning a writing competition in the New Statesman, Morgan joined the BBC where, between 1955 and 1988 she wrote for television dramas that included How Green Was My Valley and Dr Finlay’s Casebook.

She won two Baftas, one for a five-part series on the life of Marie Curie, and one of her two Writer of the Year awards was for her work on Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’.

Never afraid to give an opinion, Morgan challenged the scientific establishment by developing an alternative theory of human evolution.

Published in 1972, The Descent of Woman became an international bestseller.

In it, Morgan critiques the male-centric approach science has used to explain evolution, calling it ‘Tarzanist.’

She asked what role early women had to play in evolution since women must have protected themselves while men were away hunting.

Morgan also pointed out what she believed to be a systemic confusion within the scientific community, which was mixing up the evolution of man-the-species with men-the-individuals.

Her intellectual curiosity eventually led her to further develop Sir Alister Hardy’s Aquatic Ape theory – the idea that women helped humans evolve by moving from the African savannah to the relative safety of water’s edge.

He made the case, in her words, that differences between people and apes “could be much easier to explain if our ancestors had lived not on the open grasslands but at the water’s edge”.

The professor had reasoned that “a naked skin lined with a layer of fat is unknown in other land mammals, but relatively common in aquatic mammals” and “wading would have provided a strong incentive for walking upright on two legs”.

Although popular with the public, Morgan’s theories did not gain widespread scientific support.

But on the title page of her 2008 work ‘The Naked Darwinist’ she put the following quotation from philosopher Daniel Dennett: “During the last few years, when I have found myself in the company of distinguished biologists, evolutionary theorists, paleoanthropologists and other experts, I have often asked them just to tell me, please, exactly why Elaine Morgan must be wrong about the aquatic theory.

“I haven’t yet had a reply worth mentioning, aside from those who admit, with a twinkle in their eyes, that they have also wondered the same thing.”

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has acquired some scientific currency in recent years following the discovery of fossils which suggest that humans became bipedal before the savannah developed.

Sir David Attenborough used his presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1991-92 to organise the first full-day discussion of Elaine Morgan’s “engaging” theory, and even Desmond Morris has said that he believes an aquatic phase of human development is “highly likely”.

In 2003, she became a columnist for the Western Daily Mail, writing on a broad range of topics in her customary style – ‘direct, spare, conversational and punchy’ and in 2011 she won the Columnist of the Year award from the Society of Editors at the Regional Press Awards.

Morgan extended her customary honesty to herself, writing openly about ageing, including recounting the difficulties she faced in adjusting to a less independent lifestyle following a stroke in 2012.

“My son Huw is sorting out all the various unknown people who are putting alarms and rails and things into the house before I move back in. I want to help out, but at the moment people are helping me out.”

It was only at the beginning of 2013 that Morgan retired from her writing career.

In addition to her Baftas and Writer and Columnist of the Year awards, Morgan received an OBE in 2009 for services to literature and education and one of the highest honours of the internet age when she was invited to deliver a TED talk to a global audience. She was an honorary Fellow of both Cardiff and Glamorgan universities.

And in April 2013, Rhondda Cynon Taf council bestowed its highest honour on Morgan by presenting her with the Freedom of the County Borough.

Following the announcement of Morgan’s death, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones said: “Elaine Morgan’s contribution to the fields of literature, science, journalism and Welsh life is immeasurable, particularly her role in promoting gender-equality and women’s rights.

“Her work was internationally acclaimed and its influence continues to be felt to this day. Despite her many successes she always remained deeply devoted to Wales and to her home in Mountain Ash. She will be sadly missed.”

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