The Aquatic Ape Theory
ELAINE MORGAN Qualifications: M.A.(Oxon), two University fellowships, one honorary doctorate. Author of books on human evolution including The Descent of Woman (1972), The Aquatic Ape (1982), The Scars of Evolution (1990), The Descent of the Child (1994), and The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997)
"An aquatic ape is a likely ancestor of humans in terms of primate behaviour, marine ecosystems and geographical timing. - Prof. Derek Ellis, Dept. of Biology, Univ. of Victoria, Canada.
"All other theories about the origin of our species have reached an impasse. - Dr. Michel Odent. author of Water and Sexuality.
"I have been convinced of the aquatic theory since the beginning."- Prof. Karl-Erich Fichtelius, Sweden.
"For my money, she is more scientific than Genesis, more up to date than Darwin, more fun than Ardrey, and she writes better than Desmond Morris." - John Rowan Wilson, The Sunday Telegraph.
"[AAT] conforms to current theories of speciation better than the savannah origins model, and accounts for a number of diverse phenomena hitherto not seen as connected." - Prof. Graham Richards, author of Human Evolution.
"It has to be admitted that the new theory has stimulated a thorough reconsideration of what we believe we know, to investigate new facts, and to acquire new knowledge." - Prof. H. Preuschoft, Dept. of Comparative Anatomy, Univ. of Utrecht, The Netherlands.
The question confronting all speculation on human origins is why we differ from the other apes in so many different ways: nakedness, bipedality, and the ability to speak are striking examples. Darwinists believe that these differences must have been caused by some change in habitat or life-style undergone by our ancestors, and not by those of the chimpanzee. The question is, what change?
For most of the last century the accepted answer was that proposed by Raymond Dart - that the apes ancestors remained in the trees while our own ancestors moved out onto the grasslands, where shortage of fruit and leaves compelled them to become hunters.
Professor Sir Alister Hardy, F.R.S., when he was a young Oxford marine biologist, noted that a fat-lined hairless skin was more commonly found in aquatic mammals than in terrestrial ones, and conceived that the crucial change might have been a shift to a more watery habitat. In 1960, after keeping silent about this idea for thirty years, he published an article about it in New Scientist. He was sternly rebuked by his colleagues for airing bizarre views on a subject outside his speciality and bringing Oxford academics into disrepute. Nothing more was heard of the idea for twelve years.
In 1972 I was moved to write a book appealing for parity of esteem between the sexes. I was reacting strongly against Darts macho version of human emergence, as relayed by popular writers like Robert Ardrey. The only alternative paradigm on offer was the aquatic suggestion briefly mentioned in Morriss best selling The Naked Ape. I found it instantly convincing and with Alisters permission incorporated it into my narrative.top
The Descent of Woman became a popular best-seller, but the scientific community, .naturally enough, reacted with contempt. They had strong reasons for doing so. I had no scientific qualifications, the book was politically motivated, the style was confrontational and I wrote it too fast to have done much research. The concept of the ape that moved to the plains had been unquestioned for over forty years. When they looked for fossil remains they looked on the savannah, and that was where they found them - bones and teeth belonging to the very earliest bipeds. That was also where they found, dating from a much later period, the first signs of tools and weapons. The obvious inference was that that was where our ancestors first evolved and where they had always stayed.
Hardys case was not based on fossilised skeletal remains, but on studying and comparing the anatomy of extant species - the soft tissues as well as the bones and teeth. That had also been Darwins method. Indeed in his day it was the only one available. Many of these features - such as the loss of body hair, subcutaneous fat, greatly diminished sense of smell, descended larynx, etc - were never studied in detail by the palaeontologists because they did not fossilise. And if you look for these human-like features in other primates that have moved from the trees to the grasslands, you will not find them. You are more likely to find them in species that live partly or wholly in water.
There are a number of aquatic mammals - including whale, dolphin, dugong, hippopotamus, manatee - with hairless skins. Others like walrus and sea elephant are well on the way to becoming hairless. Most of these animals also have thick layers of subcutaneous fat. Some anatomists have made the case for believing that a coat of hair outside the skin is clearly the best means of regulating temperature in air, but it does not work nearly as well in water, where a lining of fat under the skin is more efficient. We are the only primates to possess a layer of subcutaneous fat.
Then there is speech. No other mammal on sea or land has learned to speak. But the precondition for being able to speak is acquiring voluntary control over breathing . Breathing is, in most animals, as involuntary as the processes of digestion or the beating of the heart. But all diving mammals have voluntary breath control. I know of no terrestrial mammal that has acquired it. Thats why the laboratory rat, which has been trained to do so many clever tricks in order to gain a reward or avoid a punishment, cannot be trained to obtain a reward by squeaking for it.
It has been pointed that no aquatic mammal habitually walks upright in the way do. (No non-aquatic mammal does, either.) But Hardy pointed out that an ape walking down a beach and into the sea would very soon have to rise up and proceed on two legs in order to keep its head above water. And in fact, wading in water is the only situation in which apes and monkeys invariably resort to walking on two legs.
These arguments might not add up to an overwhelming case for accepting that Hardy got it right. But they are not crackpot arguments. They are speculations based on observation and reason, and are firmly rooted in Darwins theories of how evolution works.top
The onus of proof
I was informed of a time-honoured rule of procedure which lays down that when a prevailing belief is challenged in this way, it does not need to be defended. The onus is on the challengers to submit their own beliefs to criticism and questioning, and stand ready to answer the objections. That is fair enough, but it is difficult to do when the questions are not officially voiced. Its been stated a score of times that the aquatic theory was in fact carefully evaluated by experts and found to be flawed. But no-one has ever disclosed the time, the place, the names of the investigators, or their reasons for rejecting it.
Also, one of the arguments for seeking a new hypothesis was simply that the existing one was hard to believe. Humans are, for example, among the sweatiest creatures in the entire animal kingdom, extremely ill-adapted for a habitat where water is in very short supply. Another point was that after fifty years of supremacy, the savannah scenario had failed to arrive at an agreed explanation of any of the hallmarks of mankind. But observations of that kind were deplored as destructive criticism and not the right way to go about things.
I had no way of knowing what the objections were until Douglas Adams advised me to try the Internet. The reaction I encountered on-line was virtually 100% hostile. I was repeatedly assured that everybody thought it was rubbish, and totally unnecessary. There was the savannah, and that was where they kept finding more and more of the hominid fossils. They were real hard evidence, and all talk about the water was mere waffle. The aquatic theory was categorised as part of the lunatic fringe of science, together with the Yeti and the UFOs.top
Over the years a series of developments seemed to lend credence to Hardys idea. There was the discovery of swimming babies. There was a growing interest in dietetics, and in the revelation that the relative amounts of Omega 3 and Omega 6 in the sea food chain were in precisely the ratio most conducive to the kind of rapid brain growth experienced by our ancestors.
Intensive attempts to teach apes to speak confirmed that they could readily use and understand sign language, and all that prevented them from talking was their lack of voluntary breath control. There was a growing conviction that the rapid dispersal of hominid ancestors from Africa to Asia and the off-shore islands had been accomplished by a migration along the continental coastlines, rather than travelling overland. My suggestion in 1982 that elephants may have descended from aquatic mammal ancestors gained acceptance. There was television footage of gorillas wading bipedally in the swamps of the Congo. The aquatic theory collected supporters, in print and online, though never in any of the peer-reviewed journals.
Despite all that, the solid obstacle remained: the fossilised bones of our predecessors, and the apparently unshakable belief that they lived and died on the open plains. In the 1990s that core belief was badly shaken. A closer study of the flora and fauna found in the same deposits as the hominid fossils proved that the fossilised bones of small mammals and the fossilised pollen of plants belonged to species that were known not to flourish in grassland environments. Sites that are now savannah were not savannah at the time when the bones were deposited there. It was concluded, and is now accepted, that there were proto-hominids walking on two legs in Africa before the savannah ecosystem came into existence. Professor Philip Tobias, one of best-known and most influential proponents of the savannah hypothesis, announced that it was time to abandon it and think again. We are back to Square One, he said.top
Closing the ranks
The question Why are we so different? was once again wide open. There might be good reasons for rejecting AAT but the favourite one - because weve got a better answer - was no longer operative.
Professor Lee Berger was swift to sum up the immediate reaction: Just because the savannah theory was wrong , that doesnt mean the aquatic idea is right. That is certainly true. There may be a third paradigm that nobody has thought of, which would throw a flood of light on the whole question. As yet, though, nothing of that kind has been unveiled.
Another response was to say that nothing has changed, because when scientists used the term savannah , they had always envisaged a landscape containing wooded areas, and rivers flanked by gallery forests, and lakes. One difficulty there is that whenever they attempt to explain anything about human anatomy, they still attribute it to the rigours of life on the open plains. The other difficulty was: If our ancestors, like the ancestors of the chimpanzees, continued to live in and around the trees, why would that shared habitat cause them to split apart into two species so dramatically different from one another?
However, everyone kept calm and the conventional wisdom prevailed. AAT, the aquatic ape theory, still remains officially beyond the pale. Students in most universities are told that it was an idea briefly fashionable in the seventies, but proved unsound and is now obsolete. But it has not gone away. It makes good sense to a lot of people. The Internet has kept it alive, and since Tobiass declaration a few other well-known figures have suggested that it should not necessarily be ruled out. Sir David Attenborough presented an open-minded accounts of the history of it on BBC radio, and Professor Daniel Dennett wrote in his book Darwins Dangerous Idea: During the last few years, when I have found myself in the company of distinguished biologists, evolutionary theorists, palaeoanthropologists, and other experts, I have often asked them just to tell me, please, exactly why Elaine Morgan must be wrong about the aquatic theory. I havent yet had a reply worth mentioning, aside from those who admit, with a twinkle in their eyes, that they have also wondered the same thing.top
Effects of the boycott
The policy of We dont wish to talk about that makes for a quiet life in academia, but has its disadvantages.
One is that those with an active interest in AAT - and the numbers are growing all the time - find themselves virtually in an intellectual ghetto. Online newsgroups tend to devote their energies to internal differences of opinion - whether the first venture was into salt water or fresh, and whether it happened before, or during, or after the split between hominids and chimpanzees. Good questions - but the more we confine ourselves to pursuing them, the easier it is for others to depict us as a kind of inward-looking cult. There is no cult. There is no Authorised Version. Ive sometimes been asked: Whats the message? What is it you are asking us to believe? Here it is:
No agreed explanations have yet been arrived at concerning any of the physiological hallmarks of mankind. They must have been caused by some factor in their early environment. We dont know what it was, but a waterside habitat cannot be ruled out."
There are disadvantages for the orthodox too. They find there are some areas, like nakedness, where the aquatic case seems particularly persuasive, so it is difficult to discuss them without at least some reference to it. A quick look at the record reveals that in many universities it is not discussed at all. In fact there is a distinct trend towards publishing less and less about the Darwinian question: What was it in the environment which caused these distinctively human characteristics to be selected for? The new in-topic is Which genes and which mutations were involved in this selection process?
That is perfectly good science and to be welcomed. It may bring great benefits to individuals and to society. It just seems a little bit sad that on the eve of the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, scientists should be celebrating it by saying in effect to Darwins ghost: That was very interesting, what you had to say. But in connection with the human race, its something we dont talk about any more.top
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BBC Natural History Unit programme on the Aquatic Ape on YouTube
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5
"It is difficult to see how all the points assembled to back the Aquatic Theory can be explained away. - Dr. Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape.
"An aquatic hypothesis offers far simpler explanations." - Dr. Chris Knight, author of Blood Relations.
"The 'aquatic ape' hypothesis has come of age.... [Elaine Morgan] provides a wealth of meticulously researched findings, detailed hypotheses and still controversial solutions in areas where others have volunteered nothing at all. The cost of conceding to Morgan would be a palaeological crisis as profound as that of the earth scientists when adjusting to the equally 'impossible' idea of floating continents." - Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
"It says much for Elaine Morgan's skill as a writer that my views about her latest book and what she was trying to achieve by writing it changed completely while I was reading it... deserves to be read seriously... no one can deny that she has marshalled her material clearly and economically and made good use of it."- Johnathan H. Musgrave, Biology and Society
"We believe that this proposal [AAT] should be taken seriously. - Prof. Michael Crawford, author of The Driving Force.