Alister Hardy is best remembered for his controversial aquatic ape hypothesis, which says that our ancestors evolved by natural selection in a watery environment. Hardy believed his hypothesis explained a number of human traits – our lack of body hair, for example.
For marine biologists, Hardy is best remembered for inventing the CPR, the continuous plankton recorder, which has allowed scientists to map the world’s distribution of plankton and observe how it changes with time.
For researchers of religion, Hardy is best remembered for founding the Religious Experience Research Centre. The fact that Hardy was religious came as a surprise to his scientific colleagues and students, including Richard Dawkins, who had known Hardy as a champion of Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Hardy wondered why, as animals, humans should have any capacity for religious experiences; he proposed that religious beliefs may have influenced human survival and evolution. Hardy received the Templeton Prize for this work.
Alister Clavering Hardy was born into a prosperous family on February 10, 1896 in Nottingham, England, UK. He had one older brother, Vernon.
His father, Richard Hardy, was a successful architect. His mother was Elizabeth Hannah Clavering, who enjoyed the outdoor life – she introduced Alister to the natural world. At a very young age, he became fascinated by insects and began collecting and studying them.
He also found God.
Education and War
Alister’s first school was Bromcote, a preparatory school in the seaside town of Scarborough, where he enjoyed studying life in rock pools. He became enthusiastic about flying when, at age seven, he learned that the Wright brothers had made their first flights. When Alister was eight his father died.
In 1911, age 15, Alister Hardy left home for Oundle School, a well-known private boarding school. He was interested only in the sciences, which led him to begin a forestry degree at the University of Oxford in October 1914. He stayed for just a month.
His stay at Oxford was short because World War 1 had begun. Hardy joined the army as a volunteer. He served as a camouflage officer on Britain’s coastline, ensuring important installations were concealed from enemy view. His brother Vernon was sent overseas and ended up in Germany as a prisoner of war.
Hardy returned to Oxford in 1919, studied zoology, and graduated with distinction in 1921. His degree included six months of research work at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy – he won this trip as a scholarship prize. While working in Italy he became fascinated by marine life, especially plankton.
Studying Marine Organisms
Rather than study for a Ph.D. Hardy became a naturalist at the British Ministry of Fisheries. His task was to study the relationship between herring – an important catch for Britain’s fishermen – and the distribution of plankton in the North Sea.
He spent much of his time on fishing boats at sea collecting plankton samples. He invented equipment to allow fishing vessels to collect samples without needing a scientist on board.
Mission to the Southern Ocean
In 1923, Hardy accepted an invitation to be chief zoologist on a two-year mission to the Southern Ocean to study how the distribution of plankton and small animals such as krill affects the distribution of the whales that feed on them.
The two year voyage began in September 1925 and ended in September 1927. During this time Hardy invented the Continuous Plankton Recorder or CPR to automatically record plankton levels. The recorder, a small collecting vessel, could be towed by any ship – scientists were not required. Its use on a number of ships allowed biologists to determine plankton’s worldwide distribution.
The CPR Survey started by Hardy and Sir Cyril Lucas continues today, providing a long-term record of the world’s plankton distribution.
The ship Hardy sailed on, the Discovery, had a long, interesting history. It carried Captain Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica in 1902, where ship and crew were trapped by ice in sometimes appalling conditions for two years before they were rescued.
Return to Academia
In October 1928, age 32, Hardy was appointed Professor of Zoology at the University of Hull, where he remained for 16 years. From 1942-46 he was Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen, before returning to Oxford as Linacre Professor of Zoology. He retired at age 65 in 1961.
The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
On March 5, 1960, Hardy spoke at a meeting of the British Sub-Aqua Club. He proposed, tentatively, that major differences between humans and other primates arose because our species evolved in water, where he said our ancestors waded and swam in pursuit of food.
The idea had come to him three decades earlier, but he did not publish it because he was warned the idea of humans as ‘aquatic apes’ would damage his career. Hardy went public just a year before he retired. He believed discussing it at the Sub-Aqua Club would provoke little controversy.
He was wrong! The newspapers got hold of the story and ran eye-catching headlines such as:
A horrified Hardy rushed into print. On March 17, in New Scientist, he said he was making no such claim. He did, however, put his hypothesis in print for the first time as “a speculation.”
Under the title: Was Man More Aquatic in the Past? Hardy conjectured that:
- tropical primates – our ancestors – moved to the shore, and then into shallow water, and then into deeper water in pursuit of food.
- in the tropics our ancestors could spend many hours in the sea without becoming chilled
- they learned to stand upright because they waded in the shallows and, in time, stood in deeper water, which supported their weight
- their body hair dwindled as it did on whales and seals
- like whales and seals our ancestors developed an insulating layer of fat under the skin. This subcutaneous fat is absent in other wild primates
- compared with other primates, the human body is far more streamlined for swimming
Hardy’s hypothesis of our aquatic beginnings gradually won the support of a minority of anthropologists. It continues to receive only minority support. Detractors say the hypothesis fails as proper science because it cannot be falsified according to Karl Popper’s definition.
More recently, scientists have accepted that eating a diet rich in seafood aids people’s intellectual development.
This has led supporters of the aquatic ape hypothesis to wonder if a seafood diet boosted our ancestors’ intelligence, giving them a survival advantage. This could indeed be true, even if one does not accept the full aquatic ape hypothesis.
Hardy was fascinated by God, the ways in which religions evolve, and the role religion has played in human evolution and survival. After retiring from Oxford, he lectured and authored books such as The Living Stream and The Divine Flame on these themes.
In 1969, at age 73, he founded the Religious Experience Research Centre in Oxford to accumulate and organize a database of spiritual experiences reported by people. He was awarded the 1985 Templeton Prize for this work.
Hardy was baptized as an Anglican and he remained one at heart. In later life, his mind drew him to become a member of the Unitarian Church.
1939: Science Medal of the Zoological Society
1939: Pierre Lacomte du Nouy Prize
1940: Fellow of the Royal Society.
1957: Knighted, becoming Sir Alister Hardy.
1985: Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion
In 2011, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands issued a set of stamps to commemorate Hardy’s visits to the islands on his Southern Ocean expedition in the 1920s.
Personal Details and The End
Hardy enjoyed exercising: this involved boxing when he was a young man and he was an enthusiastic walker all his life. His favorite pastime was painting watercolors. He illustrated his scientific publications with numerous drawings and sketches.
Every year, he attended a reunion of the men he served with in World War 1. These were mainly miners from Northumberland.
Hardy met his wife Sylvia Lucy Garstang in 1919, when both were studying zoology at Oxford. They married in December 1927, two months after he returned from the Southern Ocean. He bought Sylvia an engagement ring in Cape Town on the voyage home. The couple had two children: Michael, born in 1931, and Belinda, born in 1934.
Every year, the Hardy family sent their friends a Christmas card featuring a picture specially drawn by Hardy – often of a scene in Oxford.
Alister Hardy suffered a stroke on May 12, 1985. He had been due to receive the Templeton Prize in London the next day. He died aged 89 on May 23, 1985. His wife Sylvia died five months later. The couple were survived by their children, Michael and Belinda.
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N. B. Marshall
Alister Clavering Hardy. 10 February 1896 – 22 May 1985
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 32, pp. 222-273, Dec. 1986
V. C. Wynne-Edwards
Obituary: Sir Alister Hardy, F.R.S.
Journal of Animal Ecology, Vol. 56, No. 1, pp. 365-367, Feb. 1987