Here comes everybody

The internet ensures even "crackpot" theories are aired. Good, thinks Elaine Morgan

"Enter demos." Alistair Cooke used this ringing phrase in America, his 1973 television series about the country and its history. Earlier episodes had depicted the Jeffersons and the Washingtons; but now he was recalling the time when European settlers began pouring through the gaps in the Appalachians and heading west, to where the assumptions and mores of the eastern seaboard were only distant noises-off for the multitude of nameless homesteaders, cowboys, trappers and prospectors.

In our own day, democracy is taking another giant step forward. Throughout history, one of the jealously guarded prerogatives of all great institutions has been the control of access to information. And now the internet is breaking down the door. Surely we should rejoice? Don't all progressive thinkers welcome the wider dissemination of knowledge? Or is demos an uncontrollable beast if given too much licence? Do we really want to see Wikipedia replacing Britannica as the ultimate arbiter between what is fact, and what people might have - perhaps mistakenly - come to believe? Everyone is entitled to drink freely of the wells of knowledge, but who should be trusted with ensuring that the waters are not muddied?

Academia, presumably. That is its raison d'être - and few people are disposed or qualified to question it. If academia says one thing and the internet another, the authoritative choice for any serious inquirer should be a no-brainer, surely?

But here's a test case. In 1960, an Oxford professor, Sir Alister Hardy, floated the idea that several features distinguishing human beings from apes could be most readily explained if our earliest ancestors had inhabited a semi-aquatic environment, rather than having lived on the open plains, as was generally believed. At the time, Hardy's peers wrote him off as a crackpot.

Now, 48 years later, there is strong support for the aquatic idea on the internet, while it is the open plains hypothesis that has been cast into doubt by fossil evidence. When Professor Phillip Tobias, a leading authority on evolutionary theory, asked: "Now that savannah theory is dead, what will take its place?" he went unanswered. Sir David Attenborough made an open-minded inquiry into the matter, Scars of Evolution, on BBC Radio 4 in 2005.

Yet, on most university campuses, the Aquatic Ape hypothesis is still treated as belonging to the lunatic fringe and unworthy of debate. It is on the web that the debate - both for and against - rages, at sites such as www.riverapes.com and www.primitivism.com. The internet as a source of information is messy, chaotic and often misleading. But it is a godsend when academic practices have stiffened into inflexibility and university luminaries are regarded, in all intellectual disputes, as the final court of appeal.

Elaine Morgan's "The Naked Darwinist" is published by Eildon Press (£14.99)