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

Elaine Morgan

Souvenir Press 1994
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
Elaine Morgan's The Descent of Woman (1972) was about the importance of a female viewpoint on human evolution, attacking the then common assumption that the subjects of evolution were adult males. The Descent of the Child does the same thing for children, looking at the ways in which different selective forces and physiological and developmental constraints make childhood a critical arena for evolutionary change. It begins with sex and conception and, with the occasional digression, moves steadily through pregnancy, birth, and early childhood development, dealing with particular topics in short chapters. Connections are made with evolutionary brain growth and the origins of bipedalism and language, and comparisons are made throughout with other animals (especially other primates). The potential for conflicts between the interests of the child and its parents, and particularly between those of the foetus and the mother during gestation, are nicely brought out.

Morgan has been attacked for being unscientific in the debate over the controversial aquatic ape theory (which only features in passing in this volume), but while The Descent of the Child is fairly shallow — it is popular science, after all, and it does touch on most of the major topics in human evolution in under two hundred pages! —, it seemed well informed to me. Morgan provides a decent bibliography and (though I'm not personally familiar with the majority of the sources) the support for most of her claims seems quite compelling. I have only one minor complaint, and that is that the language used was sometimes too informal. To take one example: "Babies, collectively, have one very strong card they can play: they can die. By means of natural selection that would hand the initiative back to them and enable them to say...". This sort of intentional language is used by almost everyone who writes about evolution, but while it is reasonable in academic works, where the audience can be assumed to understand what is really meant, I don't think it is a good idea in popular ones.

As well as those curious about human evolution, The Descent of the Child will interest parents (and prospective parents) who want to know not just what happens during conception, gestation, birth and child development, but why these things happen the way they do. Readable and provocative, it is in the best traditions of popular science writing.

July 1995

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- Elaine Morgan - The Scars of Evolution: What Our Bodies Tell Us about Human Origins
- more primates + paleoanthropology
- more popular science
%T The Descent of the Child
%S Human Evolution From a New Perspective
%A Morgan, Elaine
%I Souvenir Press
%D 1994
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0285632124
%P x,197pp