My take on The Aquatic Ape

My take on The Aquatic Ape

The Aquatic Ape
By Elaine Morgan
Type: book

You and I are seriously weird primates.  There’s that great opening in Desmond Morris’ classic book, The Naked Ape, where he looks at a human versus a whole range of other primates (apes, monkeys, lemurs…that sort of thing).  Obviously, one of the biggest things that would stand out is that you can see our skin.  People think of us as hairless, but we actually have a lot of hair…it’s just different hair.

Moving around a room, the bipedalism would be pretty obvious.

Watching a bit more, speech and tool use might stand out (although, if you didn’t understand the language, that might not be as clear…driving around in a car would probably be noticeable). 

That’s all the big picture stuff.  Get into more detail, and we’re even stranger.

You know how, when you got a zoo, you might see a fat-looking orangutan?  The poor guy has a giant gut, like he’s pregnant with a ten-year old kid.  You know what you don’t see?  Thunder thighs. 

Apes (and monkeys other non-human primates) pretty much don’t get fat arms and legs, because they don’t have a substantial layer of fat under the skin, like we do.

You know who does?

Marine mammals.

That might get you looking at humans and marine mammals.  After all, some of those are pretty hairless looking (dolphins, whales, manatees).  If you dig more, you’d see a few more similarities.

One of the obvious things?  We swim.  Oh, pretty much every vertebrate can swim some what (although apes generally hate the idea).  Thee are a couple of primates that don’t mind getting in the water, and the proboscis monkey can get out there in the water.

But we can really swim.  Underwater.  Turning, diving…playing Marco Polo.  Heck, have you seen synchronized swimming in the Olympics?  😉

You know what else?  We like it.  People even like just soaking in a bubble bath.

Take a squirrel monkey and stick it in a bath…you’ll be lucky if you have ten working fingers left.

For primates…that’s just weird.

It’s not just behavioral.  Our noses are physically different in a way that helps us swim…same thing with the larynx.  We have a “diving reflex” that slows our hearts in the water so we need less oxygen. 

So, we have some similarities with aquatic mammals and some dissimilarities with primates.

The aquatic ape hypothesis suggests that, at a particular point in human evolution, we spent significant time in the water.  That doesn’t mean we were hanging out with Ariel and Aquaman…just going out in the water after shellfish and such.

Put that way, it doesn’t sound so strange…lots of human societies depend on the water, even spent a lot of time in it.  Take a look at a suburban neighborhood on Google Earth.  You’ll see a lot of swimming pools.  On the Planet of the Apes?  Probably not so much.  😉

Elaine Morgan, a Welsh writer, popularized the idea with her 1982 book, The Aquatic Ape.  She’s not a paleoanthropolgist, but she put together a nice examination of the idea.  She takes it a lot further, using the AAH to suggest explanations for why we cry, why we talk, even why we have face-to-face sex. 

That may be one reason why the book hasn’t gotten widespread acceptance.  It may try to explain too much.

That’s the problem with a lot of “fringe” ideas.  If you can poke a whole in part of it, you ignore the whole thing.  If you can show that one set of Bigfoot prints are fake, you reject them all.  If one guy thought a weather balloon was a UFO, all UFOs are weather balloons.

Those rejections aren’t very scientific.

The book took on so many factors, that it was relatively vulnerable to finding alternative explanations for at least one of them.

I think one of the best arguments in favor of the hypothesis is that…it makes sense to people.  🙂   Not everything that makes sense to people is right, of course…in fact, it’s often not. 

When you read the book, though, I think most average people immediately think it works, generally.  Maybe that’s the skill of the author, though.  One thing she does is provide the “savannah hypothesis” explanation for the issues…that’s the one you probably know.   It’s a selective presentation, though.  Are there any other savannah animals that have their skin showing?  No, not really…except arguably rhinos and elephants (who may not be really savannah animals, I guess).  Giraffes and zebras have pretty short hair…so I suppose you could argue that short and our “coats” are similar.  Any other bipedal savannites?  No, but some antelope-types do stand up to look around, and so do meerkats, of course. 

I get a little sense that if any one of the broad possibilities for marine mammals match up that agree with the AAH, that gets presented, and everything on the savannah side has to match before it shows up.  It’s not that cut and dried, and it’s great that she presents that hypothesis as well. 

The other one that gets presented just intuitively feels silly to me…the neoteny hypothesis.  That one says that we are like fetal apes…only, we aren’t, mostly.

Is the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis right?

No way to know, yet.  There was an appropriate period when more of the land was under water in the right area.  You can find alternative explanations if you take the features one at a time.  Overall, though, it seems like a simple possible explanation for a lot of weird human features.

I don’t see any particular reason to reject it out of hand, and it’s a fun idea that might eventually get more evidence one way or the other.

What do you think?  Feel free to let me know. 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in The Measured Circle blog.

5 Responses to “My take on The Aquatic Ape”

  1. Beth Says:

    I heard that the marine connection could be where we get our fear of snakes and the idea that they are slimy.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Beth!

      Do you know what the logic behind that was? Are we supposed to be mistaking them for eels, which could be dangerous? There are certainly dangerous snakes on the land.

      One problem with that hypothesis is that I understand that chimpanzees are afraid of snakes as well. I recall hearing that Washoe (a chimp who knows sign language) once spontaneously signed to another chimp to “come hug quick” when there was a snake.

  2. Snailquake Says:

    Very nice entry! You might like to know that your link to Elaine Morgan’s website is broken. Her new url is:

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Snailquake!

      I appreciate you taking the time to post the link! I posted that more than four years ago…I’m guessing it was good then. 🙂

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