Elaine Morgan

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

The Aquatic

Ape Theory

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Jim Moore and www.aquaticape.org


Jim Moore believes that the aquatic theory is bunk, and his on-line dossier denouncing it has been growing ever thicker over the decades. Since his site is www.aquaticape.org,  many people looking online for information on the subject come across his views before they have heard the arguments in favour of the theory. He is ready to attack anyone who speaks out in support of it, but I am his favourite target, and I have been urged to respond.


One problem is that my books are in print and he can give references to them, but his website statements are subject to regular revisions, amendments, and additions. So I should make it clear that the quotations attributed to him below are all taken from the version of his website that appeared online on 18th March 2010.


[Webmaster comments:  In view of Jim Moore’s critisim of Elaine’s lack of meticulous references in her first book I initially went to the trouble of providing links to the precise points in Jim’s long documents where her citations appeared. This involved taking a copy of his site to insert links at the appropriate points. Unfortunately you will now have to search for yourself as Jim responded immediately by insisting that such an action was in breach of his copyright. His exact words to Elaine were “ I'd like you to change this; frankly as you are a long-time professional writer I'm suprised to find you so cavalier about the abuse of copyright.”


As long as the quotations are not changed you will be able to find them with a search engine in the usual, if somewhat tedious, way. Enjoy!


The  responsibility for the initial decision was totally mine. I have corrected it. I am inserting this warning in case anyone else  is tempted to the same abuse of copying large amounts of Mr. Moore’s opus. The good news is that if you wish to copy from Elaine’s site even the complete and published book The Naked Darwinist, she is more than happy.]



When I began writing books, I had not acquired the habit of keeping notes and references. Jim complained of my reluctance to supply him with these details, but there was no reluctance. I gave him any that I had, and resolved to institute a better system of filing documents, and compiling bibliographies.

By 1997 I thought I had finally cracked the problem. Jim’s verdict on the book I wrote in that year was: “She has included references for some but not all of her statements (this is to be expected since many of those statements are false.) I haven’t yet checked the references for her quotes to see if this book is a change to her well-established pattern of using misquotations.”

Either they were all in order by that time, or he still hasn’t got round to checking them. He may have been particularly busy for the last thirteen years.


All that would be needed to prove this charge would be half a dozen instances where the words of the original author were placed side by side with what I claimed that author had said. That would provide a damning proof of how I had changed the words and distorted the texts. Perhaps half a dozen examples is asking too much. Maybe three or four examples would suffice.

Or even one or two.

I have found places on Jim’s website where he uses phrases like “altering quotations to suit her needs, as documented elsewhere on this site. ”  But it is always “elsewhere.” It reminds me of the Alice in Wonderland school of disputation: “If I tell you three times, it is true.”


Here is the history of one quotation I used thirty-eight years ago, which Jim has inflated over the years into a cause celebre. It was from a scientist who declared: “The assertion that we are the least hairy of all the primates is, therefore, very far from being true; and the numerous quaint theories that have been put forward to account for the imagined loss of hair are, mercifully, not needed. ”

Perhaps Jim felt that no real scientist would have used that phraseology, and I must have rewritten it. He pressed for a reference. I explained I had copied it from Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape. When pressed further, I asked Desmond where it came from. He couldn’t remember, but hazarded a guess that it might have been something he’d heard discussed on a tv programme such as the Brains Trust.

Jim remained convinced that some skulduggery was involved. Years later, I discovered that it was written by Professor Frederick Wood Jones, and said so in “The Aquatic Ape Hypotheses” (1997). Jim commented as follows: “Oh yes, on page 72 she offers a mea culpa about her previous quoting of Frederick Wood Jones about hair loss, or rather the lack of it, in humans. She says quite correctly ‘I did not know its origin’ but she completely misses the point about the fact that what she did wrong when she quoted him by proxy (she got the quote from Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape) was that she simply made up the situation whereby Morris got the quote. I guess she thought it sounded good to say it was said during a tv show.”

He implied that either Desmond had never made that remark, or else he too had been lying, because Wood Jones could not have participated in “a TV show that didn’t start till a year after he’d died.” (No one had ever suggested he participated.) Jim has never explained what I – or Desmond – could possibly have stood to gain by concealing the authorship of the quotation. Finally, Jim stresses that “it took some hunting”  to find the source of the quotation, and ends his most recent account of it with a nod and a wink: “(Shame she never offers any thanks to the person who pointed out the actual source of Wood Jones’s quote. :-)”

Nobody pointed it out to me. I came across it by accident, when I was leafing through Wood Jones’s book looking for something else. That wasn’t a mea culpa. It was a Eureka.


In my first book I noted that humans are among the sweatiest and weepiest of mammals and discussed possible reasons for this. I speculated that we might have evolved to exude salty tears and salty sweat as a way of excreting excess salt from our bodies. That theory proved unsustainable, and when I discovered that I said so. Thirteen years ago, I described encountering “hard scientific evidence which seriously undermined the case for the excretory theory of tears.” (Aquatic Ape Hypothesis p 107)

Jim prefers to ignore such retractions and continue flogging all the dead horses. He uses phrases like “A common, ongoing claim by most AAT/H supporters is….”  No one can prove or disprove a statement about what “most AAT/H supporters” believe. It is reminiscent of the copywriters' claim that "nine out of ten cats prefer our brand." His readers often assume that I must be included in that anonymous “ongoing” category. Perhaps that's what they are meant to do.

Sometimes, he simply misunderstands. Here is just one example. He quotes me as saying: “I did once make the mistaken assumption that the nasal spine was in evidence prior to H. erectus.”  His website records - more than once - with horrified exclamation marks, that I went back on that admission “the following day(!)”  by continuing to talk about the probability of downward-pointing nostrils in earlier hominids.

But “no nasal spine before erectus” does not signify “no noses before erectus.”

Noses, supported by a spine of cartilage (which does not fossilise) must have been in existence for a

long time before a fully ossified projecting ridge of bone evolved to reinforce them.


Sometimes, instead of simply denouncing things I have said, Jim claims he has the power to divine the emotions I am experiencing . He reports for instance:

“a. [She] doesn’t like it when you imply that she is the main proponent of the theory.”  

On the contrary, I feel flattered. Who wouldn’t? It’s true that I deny being the originator: an entirely different matter. In the early years when people dismissed the idea as the ravings of a Welsh housewife, it was important to remind them that Alister was an Oxford professor with an FRS and a knighthood.

“b. [She] doesn’t like it when you mention any claims made by AAT/H proponents other than her.”

Nonsense, I love it: the more proponents the better. I have learned things from all of them, and in some cases it’s been a very great deal. As the list grows longer, I hope Jim will mention them all and often - just as long as he doesn’t demand that every one of us must be responsible for and defend unanimously everything that any of us has ever said. If he took that line with savannah theorists, they’d be down on him like a ton of bricks.


Since faith in the savannah scenario began to crumble, Jim has upheld the assurance that nothing was changing, and the savannah theory as I represented it had been a straw man of my own creation. I was told that “savannah” had always been envisaged as a mosaic of open grasslands, rivers, wooded areas, lakes, and patches of gallery forest.

That may have been what was envisaged. But in those days whenever anyone used the savannah ecosystem to explain any of humanity’s distinguishing features, the explanations invariably hinged on the pitiless heat of the midday sun and the chasing of herds which inhabit not the undergrowth but the wide open spaces. Any time they spent in the shade apparently left no traces on their physiology. It was – exclusively - the hours spent on the open grassland that was said to have transformed them from apes into humans.

Few professional scientists now deny that that scenario was mistakenly treated as established beyond all reasonable doubt. Don Johanson, in his latest book “Lucy’s Legacy”, summed up the volte-face in a single sentence. Recent palaeontological research, he observed “has sounded the death knell for the so-called savannah hypothesis that reigned supreme when I was a student.”


A long time ago, I wrote a brief brochure entitled “AAT” and had a hundred copies printed. It was not on sale. It was a flier, an ad hoc advertising ploy, designed to be distributed free to delegates at a conference in San Francisco of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I wanted to air some ideas there and they wanted me not to. My aim was to be provocative, to break the silence and the taboo, and induce at least one or two of them to ask: “What the hell is this about?” so that we could talk about it.

Online Jim resurrects this document, finds its anonymity sinister, and implies that a lot of sleuthing went into unmasking the authorship. (He could have asked “Did you write this?” but that’s not his style.) He puts it under the microscope and highlights some errors in my thinking at that date (e,g, about the hymen) which I discovered and corrected myself years ago. I have failed to track down a copy of this item but I cannot believe it contains anything of substance which has not been superseded and discussed in far greater detail in the books I published in the ensuing decades.


Jim asserts  that a central contention of the aquatic theory is that  "a major reason that these water environments were necessary for the evolution of bipedalism  is to  help support  the body weight of our ancestors while walking upright."  He doesn't understand  why I quibble about that interpretation.


If I had said that, I could have been implying that a terrestrial primate could never have learned to walk bipedally on land without the support of the water to help it. Jim would  have every  right to regard that as an absurd idea.  If he thinks that was what I meant, I must take the blame for not making my meaning clearer. Let's try again.


I believe that wading was the definitive reason why our ancestors took to habitual bipedalism: by standing and walking erect they could keep their heads above water and continue to breathe. On p.47 of  "Scars" I wrote: "Walking erect in flooded terrain was less an option than a necessity."


Secondly, I wrote that "Most of the disadvantages of bipedalism were cancelled out" by the fact that the water helped to support our body weight. So yes, that circumstance  was highly significant. But it was no part of the "reason" why we walked upright.  It was a  fortunate bonus. It made everything easier.  But it was not a causal factor  and  it was not  a precondition.


I have never doubted that a terrestrial primate could have learned to walk bipedally if an equally compelling motive had arisen on land. Up to now, no one has produced a convincing account of such a motive.   None of the alternatives put forward has convinced more than a meagre handful of scientists, and most versions depended heavily on the savannah hypothesis and are being quietly dropped.  Jim has not come up with anything new, but his forte has always been demolition rather than construction.


Jim believes that he is a real scientist and Hardy supporters are not. He accuses them of every intellectual crime from naivete and fraud to “ignoratio elenchi” and “extreme environmental determinism.”  Supporters of Hardy pay “no regard”, he chides us, “to phylogeny, relatedness, and descent with modification .”

The question I set out to answer was basically simple. It was why chimps and humans, despite being so closely related genetically, are so strikingly different in so many ways. Phylogeny and relatedness are not ignored in posing that question: they lie at the very heart of it.

He attacks us for paying too much attention to the environment. He seems to be under the impression that “environment” refers to the scenery. He points out that serious scientists deal with things like “food, food-getting, and social interactions, and only tangentially with environment.” Most scientists would say that food sources are an integral and major aspect of the environment, and so are the living creatures sharing that living-space, whether they are predators, prey, mates, competitors, or parasites.


Jim begins by pointing out: “A great many, probably most, types of aquatic mammals are hairy, so we see that losing body hair is not an aquatic feature.” He makes it sound like a QED. He could have added: “A great many, certainly the vast majority, of non-aquatic mammals are hairy, so we see that losing body hair is not a terrestrial feature.” Where does that leave us?

He points to the elephant and says “The reason large mammals tend to not have body hair is that they overheat when they have it.” I don’t think he means that we too lost our body hair because our ancestors were so huge. What other lesson does he want us to draw from the elephant?

He points out: “human skin is very unlike that of hairless aquatic mammals”. True. It is also very unlike that of furry land mammals. That leads to no conclusion except that something unusual must have happened. He stresses that the variation in hairiness between different human tribes “post-dates the transition to our species.”  Indeed it does, and that would be equally true whether the original hominids were hairier than their descendants, or less hairy. What does he want us to deduce from that?

He reminds us that convergent features in unrelated species only occur where there is a “similarity in function,” and alleges: “Mostly AAT/H proponents are coy on this point, declining to point to any such similarity.” Nobody is coyer on this point than Jim. He never tells us why he thinks we are naked. He never tells us why he thinks we are bipedal. His role is exclusively that of the great demolisher. He does finds some aquatic theorists who are willing to advance a hypothesis about nakedness, and he compliments them on their frankness before attempting to demolish them: “Those that are more honest in their reasoning can come up with only one reason: to swim faster.”

Only one reason? How can he say that? Another suggested reason has been kicking around for a long time – the idea propounded in the 1950s by P. F.Scholander and others, namely that the determining factor behind hair loss was the question of thermoregulation. For a land mammal a coat of fur is the ideal method of regulating body temperature. It retains a layer of air between the skin and the surrounding atmosphere, helping to protect the animal against cold, and (just as essentially) against the destructive influence of too much sun. For most mammals those advantages vanish as soon as they are immersed in water: the water gets under the hair and the insulating layer of air is instantly lost. Sea otters have got that problem licked, by acquiring an oily pelt that retains the air layer for longer, but they have to spend a lot of their time grooming the pelt and blowing air back into it. The larger aquatics have shed the fur coat, replacing it with a layer of subcutaneous fat. Most naked mammals are either aquatic or, like the elephant, are now believed to have had aquatic ancestors.

Jim fails even to mention this possibility. It is a perfectly tenable hypothesis. Some questions about it remain unanswered, such as the exact reason why there is a minimum size below which aquatic mammals do not shed their fur. If and when a non-aquatic explanation is advanced which leaves no questions unanswered, I will welcome it with open arms.


Jim takes virtually all of his evidence on this from Caroline Pond. She is a major scientist, a specialist in this field, and has added a great deal to our knowledge of the subject. Her latest book “The Fats of  Life”, published in 1988, is richly informative. . But there are some aspects of it that I think Jim may have misconstrued.

One is that unlike most or all other specialists who have written on the subject she avoids wherever possible using the term “subcutaneous fat”. In mammals, she reports, adipose tissue instead of being confined to the abdomen as in reptiles, is fragmented into depots, scattered around the body. She comments that terms like subcutaneous “refer only to the tissues’ anatomical positions” (p.39). That seems a very reasonable thing for them to refer to, but Caroline has learned so much about the ancestral depots from which the fragments originated that she apparently attaches less importance to where they have ended up.

Her other objection to the term subcutaneous is that it “implies, erroneously, that it is firmly attached to the skin.”(p. 38)  Yet it must have some degree of attachment, because many scientists quantify amounts of body fat by pinching the subjects’ skin with callipers to measure the thickness of the subcutaneous layer: you could not do that with a cat or a rabbit, however grossly it was overfed.

Jim quotes Pond’s arguments for believing that the fat does not serve the purpose of thermoregulation: he refers to, but neglects to quote from, any of the scientists who believe the contrary. He quotes her observation "that both quantity and amount of fat in humans is similar to that in captive monkeys if they are not kept on a strict diet.” This statement has been widely quoted, but I have not yet seen an actual photograph of any monkey with a silhouette like a Sumo wrestler, and I don’t expect to. “Quantity and amount” makes no reference to where the fat is deposited.

In the largest aquatic mammals, the fat in their bodies has all migrated outward from interior deposits surrounding the internal organs to relocate immediately beneath the skin. I get the impression that the first stages of such a migration may have taken place in humans. I would like to see an analysis of the ratio of fat inside and outside the body wall in humans, compared to that ratio in other primates. If there is no difference, I would accept that as proof that I am barking up the wrong tree.


Jim reveals: “So, contrary to the AAT/H claim, humans are not the only non-aquatic mammal which can hold its breath.” Contrary to what claim? I wrote in 1990: “Any mammal accidentally falling into the water automatically holds its breath.”

Jim insists: “Even minimal study of the theme by AAT/H proponents would have revealed to them that the diving reflex is actually a universal trait found in all vertebrates.” True. And even a minimal study of my books would have revealed that I have repeatedly said exactly the same thing: “The fact that the diving reflex is manifested in humans is not in itself either surprising or a proof that our ancestors went through a semi-aquatic phase after the ape/human spilt. It is an instance of a very general asphyxial defence mechanism  to all vertebrates.”(Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, p. 141.)

What I do find significant is that in diving mammals and man, the decision of whether or not to inhale, and/or how deeply to inhale, is a voluntary one. Jim tries to rubbish that, claiming that a paper by Yu-Chong Lin of Hawaii proves conclusively that this too is a common mammalian feature.

He is misleading you, or more probably has misled himself. The author of that paper made no attempt to investigate the issue of voluntary breath control. He merely made a brief reference to it in passing: “In humans there is little doubt that volition is one factor. A volitional factor in animals cannot be ruled out.”He doesn’t appear to regard it as probable, because he goes on: “However, large numbers of stimuli including cold, touch, pain, and even sudden loud noises can induce apnoea. Facial and upper airway receptors are particularly sensitive and receptors in the lungs, chest walls, and the heart itself, are also involved.”


In almost all mammals, the larynx (top end of the windpipe) is normally situated in the nasal passages just above the palate, in the right place for breathing through the nose.

When the animal vocalises, the larynx is pulled down through a little hole in the soft palate, so that the air and the sound go out through the mouth instead of the nose. When it stops vocalising, the larynx goes back up into its original place. The only other time it descends is, in some animals, to facilitate panting as a means of temperature control.

But in adult humans, the larynx has gone down so far – right down into the back of the neck, below the back of the tongue – that it can never go back up into the nasal passages. Jim gets terribly confused about this. At one point he announces with some excitement: “It turns out that a lot of mammals’ larynxes descend a lot when vocalising.” He names a few – dogs, pigs, and lions. He doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept that this is the norm for mammals. It’s one of the standard features that distinguish them from reptiles. In the malesof some species (including humans) it descends a stage further at puberty. Tecumseh Fitch has found some species of deer in which it goes down a very long way in adult males, helping them to make a very deep noise and sound bigger. But it can hardly be for that reason that in our species it has also descended in little girls.

Jim informs his readers that I’ve got another thing wrong. “Other terrestrial mammals” he proclaims, “ also mouth-breathe just as humans do when exerting themselves - common mammals like cats and dogs.” He is mistaken. Animals do not inhale through their mouths when they are exerting themselves - just look at the flaring nostrils of a race-horse. A dog only mouth-pants when it is too hot, often when lying down, to allow moisture to evaporate from its lolling tongue. Even then, it is breathing in through its nose and only out through its mouth.

He asserts that I have cited no advantage that would accrue to a diver through mouth-breathing. One advantage is that on resurfacing divers can gulp in a mouthful of air many times faster through the gaping hole that humans have at the back their throats than they could do through his nostrils. Ask any of them how they would feel about diving with their mouths taped.

Finally Jim brings in the experts. He refers to a paper by a Japanese team headed by Takeshi Nishimura, which announced in 2003 that in infant chimpanzees, the larynx descends as it does in humans. Does this mean the presumed difference between humans and chimps has been eradicated? No. In chimps it descends for two years. In humans it goes on descending for another six years and ends up in an entirely different place. Nishimura makes this clear and adds “By contrast, hyoid descent per se contributes to the descent of the larynx only in humans, and not in chimpanzees.”


Perhaps that is enough to be going on with. I should end with a vote of thanks to Jim Moore. I don't doubt that his motives are of the highest. He sincerely wishes to expose and to eradicate error. That’s what both of us wish to do. He has helped to persuade me of the importance of specifying my own sources - and also the advisability of checking up on his.