Sunday, 28 April 2013

#aquaticape vs #spaceape : evolutionary theory death match?

oh HAI. Did you get here from the internet? Did you perhaps see the phrase 'aquatic ape' in one of the many fine news sources that cover advances in science and other randomly cool stuff--maybe this piece in the guardian? Did you, by some strange conjunction of arcane google-fu and a lifelong interest in mermaids, learn about the aquatic ape theory through this fascinating piece in the daily mail? Really, it is fascinating; you get to look at this picture if you read it:

(not my photo. obv.)

No? I guess that means that I get to be the one to tell you about the Aquatic Ape Theory. For which I apologise in advance, but not very sincerely.

Not long ago, let's say, in 1960, a very interesting man called Sir Alister Hardy addressed the conference of the British SubAqua Club at Brighton on the theme 'Aquatic Man: Past, Present and Future.'  Hardy was a marine biologist with a strong interest in the evolution of man, and seems to have been frequently preoccupied by religion; his legacy lives on in the rather esoteric Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales TSD. He seems to have got a prize for his work there off the Templeton Foundation, which is pretty much the most fascinatingly hermetic yet surprisingly bountiful source of anthropological and archaeological research funding ever. They fund work at Çatalhöyük, for instance, but also offer a giant cash prize for 'affirming life's spiritual dimension', which I think means proving God exists. Anyhow, not the point.

 Hardy  suggested that, like the ancestors of killer whales and water-snakes, our primate ancestors moved to the waterline to exploit the sweet sweet seafood buffet available. For Hardy, this explains our impressive swimming abilities, lack of body hair, streamlined shape (when's the last time you imagined an orangutan in one of those Special K red bathing suits? Don't try it), and our ability to withstand extreme temperatures. Other things, like our upright posture and tool making ability, are also attributed to this aquatic  lifestyle, and generally, any sort of question over the evolutionary function of bits of human anatomy is gently bunted into the water. The idea that sinuses serve a sort of ballast function is a personal favorite; but it is in heavy competition with the idea that we stand upright to keep our heads above water. Sitting around in bodies of water to keep cool is of course attested by Marco Polo, who noted such bizarre behaviour somewhere around Hormuz in the 13th century. Whether or not this gets you eaten by crocodiles or peevish hippos if you do it in our evolutionary homeland in Africa is, as far as I know, unaddressed by the Aquatic Ape Theory.

(not my photo, off Newsround I think)

This theory, fringe as it was, still captured the attention of many. Elaine Morgan (you may Wikipedia her yourselves, as her official homepage biography suggests you do) published the Aquatic Ape theory in book form, and the series of books that she has published on the subject highlight her personal research journey. That's what I am going to call it, because otherwise I might accidentally refer to The Naked Darwinist as an obsessive missal about body hair, the academy, and feminism in 1972. Anyhow, the theory found backers, largely outside of palaeoanthropology, and sufficient numbers were reached that conferences were held. Conferences in fact continue to be held, which you would know if you were following my instagram feed in November when I posted a photo of the conference leaflet, but nevermind. 

So, that's the theory. But the fact that we have to be taught to swim, that sinuses aren't used as ballast by anything, that there's no evidence for the theory that stands up to particularly rigorous examination--that's really not the point. The Aquatic Ape thing is fascinating because it really does have a life of its own, as you can see from this John Hawks blog from way back in 2005, and updated in 2009 when the topic got dredged up again in the popular media (by the way, he has a way more sensible explanation of the evidence, if you're really interested.) These 'fringe' theories, how do they survive? My twitter feed has been an explosion of skepticism, but the forthcoming conference boasts some notable speakers and a hefty £300 registration price tag. Is the participation of National Treasure David Attenborough enough to guarantee a hearing?

Well, guess what. I'd like to test the principle that fringe science, with sufficient celebrity endorsement, is enough to get more press than any of the awesome "lamestream" anthropology stuff that gets reliably smothered in the Journal of Human Evolution or the American Journal of Anthropology. So, I give you:
#SPACEAPE

Basic Arguments of the Space Ape Theory:

1. we have evolved big brains relative to our bodies because we don't need our bodies to move around in space.
2. we don't have much body hair because what would be the point of a few more follicles worth in 2.73 Kelvin (-270 Celsius)?
3. sinuses, far from being evolutionary spandrels, are little miniature internal space helmets.
4. our outsize eyes clearly show our relation to other species in space.


Follow-on arguments include the theory that language must have evolved once we re-terrestrialised, because as we all know, in space, no one can hear you scream.

Ok ok enough, stop beating a dead ape.

Sarcasm aside, I do think it's healthy that there is a forum for even the most out-there of evolutionary theories. If you told me a few years ago that early hominid hunters were basically drop-bears ( as Bunn did at ESHE last year, covered by @lemoustier on her blog here), I'm not sure how seriously I would have taken you. I don't think we're going to suddenly find evidence for Aquatic apes, or, sadly, Space ones. But I do wonder if I can just get Chris Stringer to politely rubbish my Space Ape theory, will the publishers come calling?

8 comments:

  1. Love it Brenna :-) & thanks for the link!

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  2. I'm still confused.

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  3. Next step: organize a space ape conference.

    Omigod... I just read the daily mail article. //facepalm///

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  4. And yet you believe in out of africa.

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  5. Non-human great apes do not naturally swim or exploit marine resources.
    Humans do naturally swim and exploit marine resources.
    The only question is to the time that humans adaptations started to include water adaptation.
    Was it 100 years ago, two million years ago, or before humans split with other great apes?
    P.S. Is an aquatic snake or crocodile any more dangerous than a terrestrial snake or big cat?

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  6. @somitcw - No other ape spends so much time trying to fly. So evolution must have been dinos > birds > apes > humans. I mean it is obvious. Oh...and our really strange ability to digest lactose! Well, at least us westerners, so that must make us a completely different split from eastern humans with a bit of cow mixed in. Maybe why India's worship the cow and we westerners don't see anything special, I mean we are decended from cow obviously.

    ....do I need the sarcasm font?

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  7. We did not descend from aquatic apes, of course, although our ancestors were anatomically & physiologically not adapted to running over open plains as some anthropologists still believe.
    Instead, Pleistocene Homo populations simply followed the coasts & rivers in Africa & Eurasia (800,000 years ago they even reached Flores >18 km overseas), google, eg, “econiche Homo”.
    –eBook “Was Man more aquatic in the past?” introd.Phillip Tobias
    http://www.benthamscience.com/ebooks/9781608052448/index.htm
    –guest post at Greg Laden’s blog
    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/30/common-misconceptions-and-unproven-assumptions-about-the-aquatic-ape-theory

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