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The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution From a New Perspective [Hardcover]

Elaine Morgan
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 27, 1995 0195098951 978-0195098952
Why are chimp babies skinny, while human babies are so fat they float? As humans developed greater intelligence--and increased cranial capacity--how did babies and mothers adapt to increased fetal brain size? And how did humans develop our unique intelligence. Elaine Morgan, an internationally bestselling science writer known for her iconoclastic take on evolutionary theory, addresses these questions and more in The Descent of the Child, an intriguing and controversial look at human evolution from the point of view of infant development.
Beginning with the assertion that much of our thinking about human evolution exercises an unconscious bias--that we envision an archetypal human being as an adult--Morgan sets out to explain why human infants evolved in the way they did. We are often told how, in the course of a million years, adults acquired increased dexterity, adaptability, intelligence, and powers of communication. We are seldom reminded that over the same period infants became more helpless, more vulnerable, and more inert. Morgan focuses on the relationship between these two facts as she develops a stunning theory of the origins of human intelligence she argues that our capacity for intelligence is a byproduct of evolving babyhood. Uniquely among primates, homo sapiens are born with considerable struggle, emerge wholly helpless, and continue to be dependent for a long time afterwards--only their eyes, faces, and vocal cords work. They don't know that they're not always going to be like that, Morgan posits, but, bent on survival, they try to manipulate their parents or other caregivers to do things that the babies can't do for themselves. (For instance, they'll cry for food, and only human babies continue crying after being picked up, sending a strong message not to be so remiss next time.) These early struggles, according to Morgan, provide our formative intellectual activity. It is in infancy that we really learn to think and to question.
In her much debated earlier works, Morgan has championed the controversial Aquatic Ape Theory of human evolution against the widely accepted Savannah Theory. The Descent of the Child takes her further into the fray with a provocative new argument adding new evidence to support AAT even as she explores such urgent topics as conception and infertility, the maturation of the fetus, child rearing and parental roles, overpopulation, and a woman's place in society. This fascinating book should be read by parents (both new and soon to be) as well as anyone interested in child development or human evolution.

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Morgan, a science writer with a penchant for presenting controversial theories (The Scars of Evolution, Oxford, 1991), continues this tendency in her latest book. Here, Morgan's premise is that human intelligence is a by-product of evolutionary pressures on infants. While it is intriguing and probably good science to suggest that the current thought about human evolution might benefit from prudent review of stages of development other than the adult (as it has from reviewing gender differences), there is little evidence presented. Morgan offers a superficial review of information about sex (covered more thoroughly in Matt Ridley's The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, LJ 1/94, and Richard E. Michod's Eros and Evolution: A Natural Philosophy of Sex, LJ 12/94), reproductive development (covered well in Robert Pool's Eve's Rib: Searching for the Biological Roots of Sex Differences, LJ 5/1/94), child rearing and parental roles, along with a rambling discussion of current socio-political problems. Additionally, her examination of evolutionary theory, particularly natural selection, is vague. The overall result is a diffuse skimming of topics that require more thorough presentation and inclusion of alternative theories.
Constance Rinaldo, Dartmouth Coll. Biomedical Libs., Hanover, N.H.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"Provides a rollicking review of human sexuality,...childbirth in warm water, and mother infant competition....The Descent of the Child...leaves the reader...very informed about infant development."--The Los Angeles Times

"A feast for the mind....the story that Elaine Morgan tells is both hopeful and redolent with the wonder of the greatest of all miracles, the generation of new life and its gradual development into an adult human. This is a wonderful little book"--Times Educational Supplement

"The biological origins of human 'naturalness' and its role in our modern life are the central themes of this original and racily written book....This book will entertain the general reader, and may inspire some to study biology in greater depth....Morgan's enthusiasm for her work is infectious"--New Scientist

"How children develop from Zygote to human being is here knowledgeably and readably laid out for the layman. Elaine Morgan draws on all available scientific work and pulls it together...a compelling read"--The Times (London)

"A highly readable treatise on human development so good it can be recommended to any new or about to be ma (and pa)....We can learn a lot from and about babies and children, and Morgan is a first rate guide."--Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (April 27, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195098951
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195098952
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,095,769 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Water babies? October 10, 2000
Morgan's books uniformly challenge traditional thinking. Unlike her other works, which postulate a novel thesis, then go on to provide conjectural evidence for its validity, this one is a wealth of information which is finally brought into a conceptual framework. In this book, her theory of human evolution passing through an aquatic phase remains the basis for why the human fetus develops in ways vastly different from our nearest biological neighbours, the chimpanzees and great apes.
In order to establish a foundation for her claim, Morgan takes us along a highly detailed, but characteristically readable, trek. The journey commences at the moment of conception, follows the stages of development of the human infant. Along the way we are introduced to the pros and cons of older theses of fetal progression. The difficulties of birth are intense; Morgan augments the event's hazards with abundant detail about the baby's physiognomic changes occurring at this moment of entry into the world. She manages to downplay much of the mythology about 'birth trauma' by showing how evolution has equipped infants with natural defenses against this abrupt shift of environment.
Morgan then continues the development of children and the many parental and other social obstacles children endure. Children spend an immense amount of time and energy in learning to communicate. Parents need to learn to listen to these efforts and understand the process more adequately. While Judith Rich Harris' THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION hadn't been published when this book was written, Morgan stresses the strong impact of peers on children's development. As Rich Harris points out, this area needs further attention, although it's doubtful it would change Morgan's ideas.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, compelling subject, lively language February 4, 1997
By A Customer
In this lively book, Elaine Morgan presents the intriguing idea that the study of the evolution of the infant provides a better look at our origins than the usual view of adult changes through the millions of years of our existence. She takes us on the journey from insemination to conception to birth with clarity and humor, including social comments with the scientific wonders. And presents a rather amazing theory that we became the only "naked ape" with a huge brain capacity in a watery environment, linking us closer to dolphins and whales than to gorillas or chimpanzees. She left me wanting to know more, with a bibliography to explore!
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I only read this book two years ago, at 55! Elaine Morgan haschanged the way I look at babies forever. I have a two year-oldgranddaughter nearby. All I see her do now is illuminated by this book. She, my granddaughter, is an absolute champion at figuring out how to get us, the adults in her life, to do her bidding, in a way that just proves Elaine Morgan's theory, Babies know just what they need and how to get it. All parents and grandparents be warned, you will be won over without any problem at all, you will love every minute of it. This is THE gift book for every new mother in your life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinated but skeptical September 28, 2011
Elaine Morgan's book is easily readable and thought provoking throughout. The central premise is that the stages of development are not merely showing snippets of our evolutionary past nor simply foreshadowing our adult state. The book covers development of a child from conception to puberty, although the so-called latency period appears to be lumped all together and not explored much. At each stage the author points out various aspects of children not found in adults, nor in our closest relatives and addresses possible evolutionary reasons for them.

The book is highly convincing, and it is truly thrilling to look at this subject from a different perspective. Why wouldn't attributes of children be selected for or against just as much as attributes of adults, if not more? Infant mortality and childhood death have never been non-existent. The book could have been improved by more statistics on mortality and explorations of sexual selection, embryo selection or even sperm selection, of which she only slightly mentioned embryo selection.

Her explanation of why we can certainly be called the naked ape even though we mostly have hair is one that later critics seem not to have read. Women don't generally have hair long enough for young to hold on to all over their bodies, and it is terribly uncomfortable for most women to attempt to hold up the weight of a young child by the hair of their heads.

Overall, she did a wonderful job of showing how human children are adapted relatively well to the situation of being human children.
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