Women the Gatherers: Sexuality and Feminism at the Animal-Human Boundary

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Women the Gatherers: Sexuality and Feminism at the Animal-Human Boundary

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The New York Academy of Sciences

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In 1972, Elaine Morgan published Descent of Woman, in which she outlined a critique of current theories of evolution as androcentric. All theories of human evolution, she suggested, denigrated the contributions of women to the evolution of modern humans. Inspired by Sir Alistair Hardy's proposal that early humans may have gone through an aquatic phase in their evolutionary past, she compiled a list of common sense evidence to which popular readers could relate, like the pattern of hair on a man's back, that pointed to the importance of water in the acquisition of humans' upright posture, bipedalism, language, tools for gathering food, and social organization. In short, everything that distinguished us from our primate ancestors.

The legacy of her book today exists in both the gender and science literature, where she is cited as one of the first authors to call attention to the widespread male bias in anthropological theories, and in the small, but steadily growing literature on the idea that humans may have undergone an aquatic phase in our evolutionary past. On the one hand, her work highlights a historical moment when anthropologists and evolutionary biologists self-consciously mobilized to change the dominant theories of human evolution by including women as self-determining actors. On the other hand, advocates of the aquatic ape increasingly distanced the theory from its historical origins. In order for Morgan's ideas to be accepted as scientific, they were stripped of her sharp feminist wit, dissociated from Morgan herself, and repackaged as legitimate science. In this form, her ideas are now getting the professional hearing she always wanted. In 2005, Morgan was asked whether she felt like an "outsider" in biology. "Not nearly as much as I used to," she replied.

The reception will be held after the event.
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Speaker

Erika Lorraine Milam

Princeton University

Erika Lorraine Milam is an Associate Professor of History at Princeton University. Her first book, "Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary," focused on evolutionary theory and the connections between biological investigations of reproductive and courtship behavior in animals and humans, from Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century to Sociobiology in the 1970s. Her current research turns to the controversy over instinctual aggression in defining human nature in the 1960s and '70s

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