Wow. What A Woman we lost yesterday. Why did she affect so many things around her so much? Because she was very spirited and very, very clever. At the age of 84 she still did the crossword in 20-odd minutes. And that would be the Guardian crossword – classy, plus left wing, for Elaine, OBE, Bafta and bar, thank you. And it’s harder than the one in the Times. She felt she had to do it, to know when she was losing it. I don’t think she ever did, at least not prior to her stroke last summer, and I suspect not intellectually after it either.
You can get her basic gen from the BBC page, but you’ll know what kind of person she’d have needed to be to get to Oxford before the war, as a working class girl (I suppose “upper working class” since her dad was in a technical or management place at the pit). She’d originally intended to try to get in for science, but thought it might be easier in English. In the fifties and subsequently, during some very formative years for the BBC she became a very notable scriptwriter: some of Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, a film about Lloyd George, an adaptation of Testament of Youth, and many many others – all done from her home near Pontypridd, near where Tom Jones and David Kelly came from.
She read The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, and became interested in the idea of a water-side influence on human evolution, and in turn, on the way this and other issues might have had specifically female influences on evolution. Quite soon she became internationally known amongst feminists, and an American bloke bet her a dollar to a doughnut she’d soon move to London. As it was her, she bet him a dollar to a doughnut she wouldn’t – and she didn’t.
When I moved to Wales and found she lived in the next valley, I tried to invite myself round to see her, and she kindly agreed. I wasn’t sure whether the bunch of blue and white freesias I brought her would be to her taste, so I was delighted to see she had in the vase a similar bunch but yellow, that needed replacing. She made us some tea, and made her way unsteadily to the table, where she got rather suspicious about my lines of inquiry. I think she wondered what I was up to – a reporter maybe, preparing a piece for publication without telling her. Actually of course, I was just asking a lot of nosy questions from someone I never expected to meet, but whom I’d long found terribly interesting.
Yes, I’m afraid it is true that she tended to place a lot of confidence in beliefs before they quite deserved it. She told me that day that ducks couldn’t take off vertically from water (diving ducks can’t but the ones most commonly seen can when they want to). She also told me that all we had of Proconsul was a tooth, which surprised me but which I subsequently repeated without checking it. Maybe a bit more scientific culture at uni would have helped, but maybe not, since I can assure you that much vertebrate palaeontological orthodoxy consists of beliefs that don’t deserve the confidence they’re granted. It is I think true that aquatic explanations are not really needed to explain our upright posture, nor maybe certain other things it offers explanations for, but I would be very surprised if in a thousand years from now they don’t end up believing some things in us result from the millions of years we spent evolving beside, and so often becoming fossilised in, water. And over forty years ago when I first read her “The Descent of Woman”, the aquatic idea was most certainly worthy of careful detailed consideration. Though it’s true many details don’t quite work out as originally sketched, it’s most certainly true that it and Elaine have got the same kind of unjustified aggression not too dissimilar from that experienced by Julia Gillard. And certainly, evolutionary scientists have a lot of their own mistakes to sort out.
She told me she was finding it hard to get her books published. If someone like that was finding it hard, the time was certainly ripe for old-style publishers to be bypassed and the new Amazon-style self-publishing to be welcomed. She had recently written a book Pinker’s List where she called into question the view she thought Pinker was putting, that humans were essentially aggressive. I read her book, and didn’t find its style too far removed from the sort of things Pinker says in his interviews. Some years later, and Pinker is now known for saying people are rather friendly and civilised after all. Hmm. I really don’t think Pinker’s books deserve to be read so much more widely than that book by Elaine. I now use it to prop up a bookshelf, but note with interest that Amazon offers it new for $208.70 and even used, for $46.35. Oh, and my copy has a dedication from the author! (The book has lots of particularly nice commissioned drawings in it too.)
But she didn’t value my opinion. Prior to its publication I offered to read it through, but she didn’t accept the offer, and when I read the copy she gave me, I found she’d given Elliott Sober an “s” at the end of his name, and lots more things I’d have been happy to adjust. At the end of my second and last visit, she suddenly turned to me and said in that strong deep voice Welsh women keep in reserve for suddenly settling a situation: “And now you can go!”
Well, of course I scurried off pronto. But prior to that I’d had the honour of taking her to a talk by Dan Dennett, which she much enjoyed. We went up to talk to him afterwards, and I noticed he was rather wary of her. She’d already told me Richard Dawkins had gone off her in a big way. Dennet had noticed me pulling a face in the audience when he’d reported that Penrose had claimed quantum effects ere necessary for intelligence (or was it free will?) because it added randomness. He’d immediately gone on to reassure the audience that he disagreed, but he’d already marked me out as a potential problem, so when he asked Elaine about me, he just said “Who’s this?”, not even looking at me. I could have replied all sorts of things but I just smiled enigmatically, and Elaine jumped in and said “A Friend”. 🙂
So I can claim to have been a friend of The Great Elaine! But I wasn’t. She didn’t like me, and when I met her at a talk later, she tried to snub me. I think she considered me uppity. It was just a sense of equality from me really, and in truth I’ve solved more evolutionary mysteries than she did, but there was always much more to her than just that. Until just a few months ago she wrote a rather good regular column in the Western Mail entitled “A Pensioner talks” or some such. It tended to concentrate on things like the consolations of growing old, and how Tony Blair had let down the working class. I felt it was better than the average non-specialist column in better selling newspapers.
I recently heard about her last book, published in 2008, The Naked Darwinist, available free, which summed up the AAT and its mismanagement by science. It was interesting comparing it with my book! She has a Past and Future type chapter, and she comments on the Umbrella Hypothesis nonsense, but offers a different take-down to the one I gave it. Also, she explains why she didn’t like Aaron Filler’s approach. She had though already said how you must take the good bits people offer and chuck the bad, which I did with Aaron but she didn’t. Above all, don’t miss Elaine’s response to Jim Moore. While many simply ignore the AAT, Moore is explicit about his criticisms, but they do really comprise an obsession of hate. Here are some endorsements by her supporters (mostly more prominent than Moore!)