Alister Clavering Hardy

Sir Alister C. Hardy
File:Sir Alister Clavering Hardy 1896-1985.jpg
Born (1896-02-10)February 10, 1896
Died May 22, 1985(1985-05-22) (aged 89)
Nationality English
Fields Marine zoology
Known for RRS Discovery work
Continuous Plankton Recorder
Aquatic ape hypothesis
Notable awards Fellow of the Royal Society

Sir Alister Clavering Hardy, FRS[1] (10 February 1896 – 22 May 1985) was an English marine biologist, expert on zooplankton and marine ecosystems. He founded the Religious Experience Research Centre in 1969, after retiring as a professor at the University of Oxford.

Camoufleur and artist

Hardy was born in Nottingham, the son of an architect. He was educated not far away at Oundle School. He had intended to go to Oxford University in 1914, but on the outbreak of war he instead volunteered for the army, and was made a camoufleur, a camouflage officer. Hardy wrote that he had been[2]

equally drawn to science and art, and if the truth be known, I must confess that it is the latter that has the greater appeal. I am lucky in not having been torn between the two; I have managed to combine them.[2]

He was selected for camouflage work by the artist Solomon J. Solomon, who apparently mistook him for a different Hardy who was a professional artist.[3] Hardy however did have sufficient artistic skill to serve his military and scientific work. He illustrated his New Naturalist books with his own line drawings, maps, diagrams, photographs, and paintings.[4] For example, plate 2 of Fish and Fisheries illustrates the depicted "Rare and Unusual Fish in British Waters" both accurately and vividly. Hardy described the camoufleurs as including artists and "scientists with artistic inclinations", himself perhaps among them.[3]

In later life, Hardy travelled in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, China and Japan, recording his visits to temples in all those countries in watercolour paintings. Many of these are in the University of Wales Trinity Saint David collection.[5]

Biology and zoology

Hardy was the zoologist on the RRS Discovery voyage to explore the Antarctic between 1925 and 1927, as part of the Discovery Investigations. Through his studies of zooplankton and its relationship with predators, he became expert in marine mammals such as whales. Whilst on board the Discovery he designed and later built a mechanism called the Continuous Plankton Recorder or CPR. The CPR collects plankton samples and stores them on a moving band of silk, preserving them in formalin. His pioneering research into plankton distribution and abundance is continued by the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS).

Hardy was the first Professor of Zoology at the University of Hull from 1928 - 1942. In 1942, he was then appointed Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen, where he remained until 1946, when he became Linacre Professor of Zoology in Oxford, a position he held until 1961. In 1940, Hardy was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.[1] He was knighted in 1957.


Hardy discussed his evolutionary ideas in his book The Living Stream (1965), he had written a chapter titled "Biology and Telepathy" in the book where he explained that "something akin to telepathy might possibly influence the process of evolution". His views on evolution have been described as vitalist.[6] Hardy also suggested that certain animals share a "group mind" which he described as "a sort of psychic blueprint between members of a species." He also speculated that all species might be linked in a "cosmic mind" capable of carrying evolutionary information through space and time.[7]

Aquatic ape hypothesis

In 1930, while reading Wood Jones' Man's Place among the Mammals, which included the question of why humans, unlike all other land mammals, had fat attached to their skin, Hardy realized that this trait sounded like the blubber of marine mammals, and began to suspect that humans had ancestors that were more aquatic than previously imagined. Fearing a backlash against such a radical idea, he kept this hypothesis secret until 1960, when he spoke, and later wrote, on the subject, which subsequently became known as the aquatic ape hypothesis in academic circles.

Study of religion

Dating from his boyhood at Oundle School, Hardy had a lifelong interest in spiritual phenomena, but aware that his interests were likely to be considered unorthodox in the scientific community, apart from occasional lectures he kept his opinions to himself until his retirement from his Oxford Chair. During the academic sessions of 1963-4 and 1964-5, he gave the Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen University on the evolution of religion, later published as The Living Stream and The Divine Flame. These lectures signalled his wholehearted return to his religious interests. In 1969 he founded the Religious Experience Research Unit in Manchester College, Oxford. The Unit began its work by compiling a database of religious experiences and continues to investigate the nature and function of spiritual and religious experience at the University of Wales, Lampeter. In 1973 he met with A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and other devotees of the Hare Krishna movement and discussed Vedic literature, the divine flame and Rabindranath Tagore.[8]

Hardy's biological approach to the roots of religion is currently shared by a number of other researchers (cf. Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer) but unlike them Hardy did not wish to be reductionist, seeing religious awareness as having evolved in response to a genuine dimension of reality. For his work in founding the Religious Experience Research Centre, Hardy received the Templeton Prize shortly before his death in 1985.[9]


Hardy wrote numerous scientific papers on plankton, fish and whales. He wrote two popular books in the New Naturalist series, and in later life he also wrote on religion.

  • The Open Sea. Its Natural History (Part I) The World of Plankton. New Naturalist #34, Collins, 1956.
  • The Open Sea. Its Natural History (Part II) Fish & Fisheries. New Naturalist #37, Collins, 1959.
  • The Living Stream: A Restatement of Evolution Theory and its Relationship to the Spirit of Man. Harper and Row, 1965.
  • The Herring in Relation to its Animate Environment. Fish. Invest. Lond., II, 7:3. 1951.
  • (with E.R. Gunther) The Plankton of the South Georgia Whaling Grounds and Adjacent Waters, 1926-7. 'Discovery' Report, II, 1-146.


Hardy's "pioneering work" was recognised by South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands in 2011 with a set of four commemorative stamps bearing his image.[10]


Further reading

  • David Hay, God’s Biologist: A life of Alister Hardy (London, Darton Longman and Todd, 2011).

External links

  • Alister Hardy Society Homepage
  • Archives Hub
  • Australian Continuous Plankton Recorder Project
  • Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS)


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