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Are aquatic apes our ancestors?


Now it’s time for another entertaining controversy, akin to the eye scratcher about whether cats are technically “domestic” animals: This one’s about whether humans evolved from aquatic apes.

Nature broadcaster David Attenborough thinks maybe we did, as set out in a recent BBC Radio 4 series The Waterside Ape.

By contrast, Alice Roberts (who has herself broadcast for the BBC on human evolution) and Mark Maislin want us to know, in Scientific American, that it isn’t true:

Sorry David Attenborough, We Didn’t Evolve from “Aquatic Apes”–Here’s Why

These people do not sound very sure of themselves, do they? Anyway, they trace the idea to zoologist Alister Hardy:

Hardy put forward all sorts of features which could be explained as “aquatic adaptations”: our swimming ability—and our enjoyment of it; loss of body hair, as well as an arrangement of body hair that he supposed may have reduced resistance in the water; curvy bodies; and the layer of fat under our skin. He even suggested that our ability to walk upright may have developed through wading, with the water helping to support body weight.
For Hardy, this aquatic phase would have occupied the gap in the fossil record that then existed—between around 4m and 7m years ago. He sensibly concluded his paper saying that this was all only speculation—a “hypothesis to be discussed and tested against further lines of evidence”.

The idea resurfaced in Elaine Morgan’s book, The Aquatic Ape.

The original idea, and certainly Elaine Morgan’s elaboration of it, became an umbrella hypothesis or a “Theory of Everything”; both far too extravagant and too simple an explanation. It attempts to provide a single rationale for a huge range of adaptations—which we know arose at different times in the course of human evolution. Traits such as habitual bipedalism, big brains and language didn’t all appear at once—instead, their emergence is spread over millions of years. It’s nonsense to lump them all together as if they require a single explanation. More.

None of these features has even one single, serious explanation, now that Roberts and Maislin mention it.

At any rate, the sheer dudgeon of Roberts and Maslin against the (harmless) theory inclines one to think the theory worth a look.

Dudgeon does that.

See also: How cats achieved world domination without trying But then, with an apparently straight face, Callaway goes on to report that “experts” doubt whether the cat is truly a domestic animal (behaviour and anatomy are not “clearly distinct” from those of wild relatives). That’s the point at which one wants to get clear of anyone with “evolutionary” in their job title.


Human origins: The war of trivial explanations

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