Aquatic Apes? Well, Why Not!?

January 12, 2008

I came across the above video at one of my favorite new blogs, the romping ground of Seth Roberts (a psychologist that managed to lose a great deal of weight via eating oil and drinking sugar water… which deserves another post unto itself). This is something I’d touched upon before at Ruminations, but this time I have a whole documentary explaining it!

Of course, I know that the only reason I like this idea so much is because I have a tendency to fall in love with the wackiest of theories (therefore why I identify as a semi-Buddhist, eat vegetarian, imagine a transhumanist future, and can’t put down the book ChiRunning), regardless of their scientific accuracy.

In this case, though, you have to consider that the ideas about human origin are at most 100 years old (I mean, Darwin didn’t come out with The Descent of Man until 1871!). And for a large part, they’ve been pieced together in the most arbitrary ways ever (until we get a time machine, that may just be the way it has to stay…). So, as an outsider, I’m liable to think that they’re nowhere near as set in stone as some would say.

So, since it won’t matter much to my everyday life (other than the fact that I hope to learn how to swim at least semi-decently this semester), I think I’ll subscribe to the aquatic ape theory of human descent from an earlier primate. It’s a heck of a lot cooler. And seems to explain many more things than the savanna theory can.

Here are some highlights of the theory:

Only marine mammals, of all the mammals, are able to control their breath. Humans are able to control their breath.

Only marine mammals, of all the mammals, have blubber. Humans have blubber (see, all this fat is useful for something!).

The only other animals that have developed as complex brains as us are dolphins. Obviously, they’re marine mammals.

Babies, at birth, are perfectly capable of swimming, and their ‘baby fat’ allows them to float on the surface of water more readily.

The list goes on. But I highly recommend watching the full hour of the documentary to get a complete taste. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the adorable swimming babies in the beginning!

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4 Responses to “Aquatic Apes? Well, Why Not!?”

  1. maybe I’ll watch the documentary before I give my comment further. ^^

  2. If other mammals can’t control their breathing, how can your dog bark when he wants to? (And did you know that a study has shown that on average untrained dogs can hold their breath somewhat longer than can untrained humans?) We do have better concious control of our breathing than (probably) all terrestrial mammals, but this is because of a lucky side effect of bipedalism. Quadrupeds use the muscles around their diaphrams for locomotion and this restricts how much those muscles can be coopted for conscious breath control. We got lucky with bipedalism in this (really helped our speech several million years down the road).

    I’m afraid the other items on your list (and the long list of other claims made by AAT proponents) are similarly inaccurate. I know this because I’ve been looking at the evidence surrounding this idea for a long time now and have a site dedicated to it, a site that has been used as a source by folks as varied as The Straight Dope (22 Jan 2002) and The Fortean Times (Oct 2003), as well as the Talk Origins Archive and several college courses — plus of course just plain folks interested in facts. I’ve also recently written an entry about it in the Sage Encyclopedia of Anthropology (which is unfortunately so expensive I can’t buy one. :))

    The site is Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim?

    We don’t have blubber. Many humans do have a lot of fat, more than the average among mammals (although many humans do not). This is, as Caroline Pond — who is the foremost expert on the evolutionary significance of fat (andwho has a great book called The Fats of Life, btw) — the same as other primates when they are allowed to eat as much as they want. When any primate gets fat like that the fat spreads out from the internal deposits where it’s anchored and can spread beneath the skin. The reason we can get away with fat like that and most other mammals can’t is predation. This is explained on my site.

    Only the brains of one or two dolphin species are particularly large, and they aren’t that similar to ours (except for the similarities all mammals share of course). For one thing, a lot of their brain is taken up with sound detection for echolocation and other things they do that we can’t. And several non-human primate species have brains as relatively large or larger than most dolphin species. The one realtively large-brained dolphin species is something of an outlier, just as humans are another.

    The swimming babies claim is a pet peeve of mine, because it comes from a very good paper that’s been around since 1939, is widely available, and very short and clearly written, but AAT proponents continually misstate it. This bad info then catches folks like you who are simply curious and interested and you innocently repeat it. I have a short page on my site about this; bottom line is that it’s a trait found in every infant mammal tested, and is probably related to their having spent their previous existence in an underwater environment — the womb. Since it’s short, I’ll cut and paste that bit from my site:
    **
    They always seem to mention the human infants and how their movements are usually “rhythmical and organized” and are “ordinarily sufficiently forceful to propel the baby a short distance through the water”. So far so good. But they don’t seem to ever mention the fact that the same study looked at other mammalian infants (opossum, rat, kitten, rabbit, guinea pig, and rhesus monkey) and found that they behaved the same way: “these rhythmical movements of the human infant are quite similar to those of other young quadrupeds in water”.

    AAT/H proponents consistently report only the info about human infants, and state that they react in a unique manner, ignoring the contrary facts the study reports regarding non-human infants, even though the info about both human and non-human infants is reported on the same page. Coincidence?
    **
    If you have any questions, there’s a mailto feedback button on each page of my site; feel free to write me.

    I’m afraid the other items on your list (and the long list of other claims made by AAT proponents) are similarly inaccurate. I know this because I’ve been looking at the evidence surrounding this idea for a long time now and have a site dedicated to it, a site that has been used as a source by folks as varied as The Straight Dope (22 Jan 2002) and The Fortean Times (Oct 2003), as well as the Talk Origins Archive and several college courses — plus of course just plain folks interested in facts. I’ve also recently written an entry about it in the Sage Encyclopedia of Anthropology (which is unfortunately so expensive I can’t buy one. :))

    The site is Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim?

    We don’t have blubber. Many humans do have a lot of fat, more than the average among mammals (although many humans do not). This is, as Caroline Pond — who is the foremost expert on the evolutionary significance of fat (andwho has a great book called The Fats of Life, btw) — the same as other primates when they are allowed to eat as much as they want. When any primate gets fat like that the fat spreads out from the internal deposits where it’s anchored and can spread beneath the skin. The reason we can get away with fat like that and most other mammals can’t is predation. This is explained on my site.

    Only the brains of one or two dolphin species are particularly large, and they aren’t that similar to ours (except for the similarities all mammals share of course). For one thing, a lot of their brain is taken up with sound detection for echolocation and other things they do that we can’t. And several non-human primate species have brains as relatively large or larger than most dolphin species. The one realtively large-brained dolphin species is something of an outlier, just as humans are another.

  3. DDeden said

    I’ve noticed your 2nd guest sends out comments automatically whenever someone blogs about or even mentions the AAT, apparently a knee-jerk reflex.
    ===

    I’d just note that AAT doesn’t propose that our human ancestors were highly aquatic marine mammals, only that they were the most aquatic of their immediate kin, the apes, iow we are (derived from) the most aquatic apes.

  4. anthrosciguy said

    I do like to have accurate info about science out there instead of inaccurate info, and this is a subject I know a lot about. So I do post when I see someone write on it. It is certainly true that after Hardy (who did say we were pretty aquatic marine mammals) and Morgan’s first two decades (which did say we were marine mammals) the idea has changed to say we weren’t highly aquatic marine mammals… but that creates a further problem for them rather than solve one. Because you see they claim we have characteristics shared with certain “aquatics” which they typically refuse to name and the reason they refuse to name them is that they are whales, serenia, and seals. It is ridiculous to claim a mammal is going to undergo convergent evolution to share characteristics with whales, serenia, and seals without being pretty darned aquatic (they have been for several times longer than hominids have existed in any form).

    BTW, they also are wrong about those characteristics they claim we share with those unnamed “aquatics”, but that’s another problem for them, isn’t it…

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