Water Apes: Carrying the torch for a failed theory
Last week the popular website IO9 ran a tongue-in-cheek story headlined, “Could Humans Have Evolved From Dolphins?” While posted in fun, originally the humor wasn’t entirely clear (it has since been updated), so the story caught ire of some of the scientific blogging community.
This was not because the story was so outlandish. It was because it seemed to give credence to a pseudo-scientific theory that should have been put to bed decades ago—that is that our species separated from our primate cousins due to our affinity for and eventual habitation of an aquatic environment.
In other words, we were once water apes.
So where did this idea come from? And more importantly, why is it still around?
The idea of a human water origin goes back to 6th century Greeks and has been revived in several forms since. In recent modern times the proposition that humans may have spent some time as sea mammals, was first brought to light in popular press by zoologist Desmond Morris in his 1967 best seller, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal. There, in his unabashed exploration of the human animal as a zoological curiosity, Morris suggests that there is one “ingenious theory” that could explain our lack of body hair, streamline bodies, upright posture, and several other anatomical anomalies that separate humans from all of our primate relatives.
That “ingenious theory”, now referred to as the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH) or Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT), was first considered by Antarctic Marine Biologist Sir Alister Hardy. Hardy proposed that there was a time in human evolution when we were aquatic apes—creatures of the sea. Hardy was aware that his proposition was far from the mainstream – so far in fact, that he sat on it for almost thirty years.
Finally, however, he broke his self-imposed silence and tentatively presented his thoughts at a conference of the British Sub-Aqua Club in Brighton, England in March of 1960. The swift publicity surrounding his speech surprised Hardy, but the popular press’s “abbreviated” treatment of the topic worried him. Fearing he was being misunderstood and eager to clarify his views, Hardy gladly accepted an invitation from New Scientist magazine to present his theory in full. On March 17, 1960 his article, Was Man More Aquatic in the Past? was published.
In that article, Hardy paints a picture of our primate ancestors being forced out of the trees and onto the sea coast by stronger competitors and predators. He supposes that at first we ventured into the shallows crouched on all fours digging for shellfish and other easily-gathered prey. Eventually we may have stood upright for “hours at a time” as we tried to avoid submersion while wading into deeper water. Finally, we became adept at swimming.
From there he sees us developing into a fully aquatic creature–
“..diving for shell fish, prising out worms, burrowing crabs and bivalves from the sands at the bottom of shallow seas, and breaking open sea-urchins, and then, with increasing skill, capturing fish with [our] bare hands.”
Only after improving our tools and hunting techniques would we, the now aquatic apes, have been sufficiently equipped to venture back onto land and into the savannah. In the evolutionary process, Hardy surmises, we would have lost most of our body hair in the way of dolphins and whales. As we pursued deeper and faster prey we would have developed a more streamlined body than other primates.
Hardy cites professor Frederic Wood Jones’ Man’s Place Among the Mammals (1919). That book, he says, caused him to first consider aquatic origins thirty years earlier. In his book, Wood Jones wonders why, unlike other primates, humans’ body fat is attached to their skin—a distinction, Woods Jones reminds readers, which is “familiar enough to everyone who has repeatedly skinned both human subjects and any other member of the Primates.”
This brief observation was enough to trigger Hardy, an expert in Antarctic biology, to think about blubber – that thick layer of fat that insulates and protects marine birds and mammals. Hardy realized that an aquatic origin would answer the question of the body fat along with many of the other questions that had been raised about the differences between humans and our brethren, the great apes. The more Hardy thought about an aquatic origin, the more it seemed that this theory could be a missing link in our understanding of human evolution.
In the end, Hardy’s thesis was politely ignored by the scientific community. In fact, it probably would have fallen into obscurity if not for Desmond Morris and subsequently, a little-known Welsh television screenwriter – Elaine Morgan.
Although not trained in science, Morgan was no slouch academically. She held a degree in English from Oxford. She was a screenwriter of enough talent to merit a tidy collection of prestigious awards. She was inquisitive enough to have read Morris’s book and then bold enough to publicly question it.
Morgan took issue with Morris for being too male-centric in his assumptions about how humans evolved our unique behaviours and phylogeny. In her mind, his explanations elucidated nothing about why women evolved many of the same attributes as men and why both sexes are so different from other apes. As a challenge to Morris’s assumptions, Morgan wrote her first book, The Descent of Woman: The Classic Study of Evolution (1972) where she publicly took him to task.
But despite her differences with Morris’s theses, there was one point on which she and Morris were in agreement – on that “ingenious theory.” In that one short passage Morgan recognised a truth—that the Aquatic Ape Theory, if proved out, would shake the foundation that supports all of our current thinking on human origins. That premise, Morgan decided, neatly explained everything that makes us unique as primates— our hairlessness, our bipedalism, our streamline bodies. From the moment of that realization Morgan became a passionate promoter and, for the next forty years, the sole torchbearer for the AAT.
When The Descent of Woman was released, Morgan braced herself for backlash. She knew her criticism of Morris was tendentious, but it was, after all, 1972. Women’s Lib was in the air. In such a zeitgeist she would not have been surprised if 50% of the population disagreed with her. But her real anticipation was over her discourse on the AAT. For this she expected criticism of the scientific sort. First, she foresaw an attack on her qualifications to even address the subject; who was this screen writer pretending to know a thing or two about evolution and human origins? She also recognized that her attitude in her book was, at best, flippant and that her research was superficial. She assumed that the scientific community would step forward en force to tear down her entire thesis.
Instead, like Hardy, Morgan was ignored.
A savvy woman, Morgan knew better than to take this as a win. Silence in the scientific world is an ominous sign, not a victorious one. Besides, she was looking for scientific scrutiny. She wanted enough critical response so she could either concede that she was misinformed or build a better case. Since neither of these happened, and because she’s not the type to crawl quietly back into her hole, Morgan decided to take up the cause in earnest.
After giving herself a crash course in evolutionary studies, Morgan released The Aquatic Ape in 1982. This work was blessed with a Forward written by the illustrious Sir Alister Hardy himself. In it Hardy reminds readers that:
“..some of the greatest contributors to evolution theory had no academic training in biology.”
The Aquatic Ape carried a more serious tone than Morgan’s previous book and supplied what she considered to be more evidence in support of the AAT. Again, to her surprise and dismay, her work was met with silence from the academic community.
But the public was captivated. By 1987 Morgan had generated enough interest in the theory that a conference was organized by the European Sociobiological Society and the Dutch Association of Physical Anthropology. Held in Valkenburg, Netherlands, the purpose of the conference was to try to determine which niche humans must have filled in order to evolve so differently from other apes—was it the savannah or the sea?
Raymond Dart’s savannah hypothesis was the prevailing theory at the time. For this reason, AAT was held up as a competing theory to Dart’s—“Cold and Watery” or “Hot and Dusty” was how anthropologist Vernon Reynolds phrased it in the title of his summary of the proceedings. The conference was well-attended by enthusiasts representing both sides of the argument, with lines forming outside the doors to many of the popular lectures. Twenty two participants representing the full range of support and opposition to AAT presented papers. Together they covered such topics as primate behaviour, marine ecosystems, geophysical history, cultural anthropology, and physiological differences between apes and humans.
After a long day of civil disagreement in what the authors of the proceedings called a “fair and friendly atmosphere” the scientists ultimately came down on the side opposing the Aquatic Ape Theory. As summed up by Vernon Reynolds, “while there are a number of arguments favouring the AAT, they are not sufficiently convincing to counteract the arguments against it.” In fact, several former supporters of AAT concluded that the evidence against the theory was stronger than that for it.
So that should have put an end to AAT.
But today at 88 years old, Morgan still carries the torch for human’s aquatic origins. Since The Aquatic Ape, she has written four more books on the subject. She’s a popular and engaging lecturer, has been interviewed on television, and was featured in a BBC documentary. She tells audiences that she wants AAT dissected argument by argument, evidence by evidence, the way any other scientific theory would be. And, she quips in her 2009 TED Lecture, referring to her own advanced age, “sooner would be better than later.”
What Morgan doesn’t seem to realize is that with so many hundreds or even thousands of trained eyes looking at AAT over the last forty years, if it held any water at all, a good number of anthropologists would have excitedly jumped on board. Instead, while her credentialed supporters include the likes of medical doctors, geologists, geographers, and nutritionists, none are paleoanthropologists—the very experts she is hoping to sway.
When I first read about the Aquatic Ape Theory, I was skeptical. More than skeptical – I rejected the idea outright. If humans had passed through a portion of our recent evolution in the sea, why weren’t scientists talking about it? And besides, who was this woman? The term crackpot came to mind. Or opportunist—she certainly has sold a lot of books on the subject. How can she know more than all the scientists who have been studying human origins for the past century? (Always a pseudo-science red flag) I was prepared to join the rank and file of detractors and grant her a single dismissive paragraph when I started this piece.
But then I watched her 2009 TED lecture – and I liked her! Sure, I still reject her theory, but Morgan is easy-going and engaging. She’s funny. She’s smart. She comes across as anything but a crackpot. And that charisma has everything to do with why her long-debunked idea is still circulating. It got her on TED didn’t it? It’s not her theory everyone loves –it’s her.
And in response to that, I’ll leave you with the very apt words of anthropologist John Hawks:
Is the Aquatic Ape Theory fairly described as pseudoscience? Every statement of natural causes is potentially scientific. What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is social. Pseudoscience is supported by assertions of authority, by rejection or ignorance of pertinent tests, by supporters who take on the trappings of scientific argument without accepting science’s basic rules of refutation and replication. Pseudoscience is driven by charismatic personalities who do not answer direct questions. When held by those in power, like Lysenkoism, it destroys honest scientific inquiry. When held by a minority, it pleads persecution. I think that the Aquatic Ape Theory in 2009 fits the description.
So yes, the water is lovely Ms. Morgan. Entirely lovely. But it was never our home.