Elaine Morgan

M.A.(Oxon.), FLS, FRSL, OBE

The Aquatic

Ape Theory

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Hardy’s question


Humans differ from all the other apes in a wide variety of ways. A naked skin, walking on two legs, and the ability to speak are striking examples. Darwin’s theory of natural selection implies 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, had 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, he published an article in New Scientist entitled “Was Man more aquatic in the past?”. He was sternly rebuked for airing such bizarre views on a subject outside his speciality. Nothing more was heard of the idea for twelve years.


In 1972 I began writing a book, The Descent of Woman, appealing for parity of esteem between the sexes. I was reacting against the strongly macho version of human emergence outlined by Dart , and popularised by writers like Robert Ardrey. The only alternative paradigm on offer was Hardy’s aquatic suggestion briefly mentioned in Desmond Morris’s best selling book The Naked Ape. I found it instantly convincing and incorporated it into my narrative.


From that point on I continued to promote the idea, with Alister’s consent and approval. He himself published nothing further on the subject except one article in 1977 and a preface to my second book in 1982.

The reaction


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. Moreover, the concept of the ape that moved to the plains had been unquestioned for over forty years.


Another reason for rejection was that evolutionary theory had become almost exclusively the domain of palaeontologists, based on the study of fossilised skeletons. Hardy’s case was based on studying and comparing the anatomy of extant species - the soft tissues as well as the bones and teeth. That had also been Darwin’s method. A number of these features - such as the loss of body hair, subcutaneous fat, greatly diminished sense of smell, descended larynx, etc – had never been studied in detail by palaeontologists because they did not fossilise.


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. Many of them 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 in water a naked skin lined with fat is more efficient. Humans are the only primates to have evolved this feature.


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. That’s 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 humans 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 a conclusive proof that Hardy got it right. But they are not crackpot arguments. They are speculations based on observation and reason, and quite as firmly rooted in Darwin’s theories of how evolution works as any other explanation that has been advanced.

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. I would be happy to take part in such an exchange of views but the opportunity has never arisen. It’s been stated a score of times that the aquatic theory was in fact carefully evaluated by experts in Hardy’s day 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. The unspoken assumption seems to be that the aquatic suggestion is, like the tales of the yeti and the UFO, self-evidently too absurd to deserve even to be debated.


This attitude has persisted despite new strands of evidence that have emerged since the seventies and appear to lend credence to Hardy’s idea.

Accumulating evidence


There was, for example, the news about swimming babies – the revelation that a human baby is not afraid of water if introduced to it early enough, and can in fact learn to swim before it can learn to walk.


Then 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. The television footage of gorillas wading bipedally in the swamps of the Congo supported the idea that wading behaviour could have been the fore-runner of our own bipedalism. 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 for many years: : the fossilised bones of our predecessors, and the apparently unshakable belief that they lived and died on the open plains. But that too began to change.. A closer study of the flora and fauna found in the same deposits as the hominid fossils proved that the fossilised bones of 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, for decades 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.

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 we’ve 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 doesn’t 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 tend to 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?


Up to the present the conventional wisdom has officially prevailed, and the aquatic theory remains officially beyond the pale. But it has not gone away. It makes good sense to a lot of people. The Internet has kept it alive, and since Tobias’s 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 Darwin‘s 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 haven’t 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.”

Effects of the boycott


The policy of “We don’t 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. I’ve sometimes been asked: “What’s the message? What is it you are asking us to believe?” Here it is:


“No agreed explanations have yet been arrived at concerning the origin of any of the physiological hallmarks of mankind. They must have been caused by some factor in their early environment. We don’t know what it was, but a waterside habitat is one tenable hypothesis.”


There are disadvantages for the orthodox too. They find there are some areas, like nakedness, where the aquatic case seems particularly persuasive, and that makes it difficult to discuss them without at least some reference to it. A quick look at the record reveals that in many universities it is never discussed at all. In fact there is a distinct trend towards publishing less and less about the Darwinian question: “What was it that caused these distinctively human characteristics to be selected for?”


In the year when scientists are celebrating the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, they are eager to apply the concept of natural selection to all the rest of the living world. It is sad and ironic that when it comes to the human race they seem to be saying “Oh but we’ve moved on from that. That’s something we don’t talk about any more.”