I’m sorry to report that Sir David Attenborough done screwed up. He is using his mellifluous voice and awesome reputation to promote the Wet Ape Theory. The show features all the usual suspects: recordings of Elaine Morgan insisting that her story is reasonable, Marc Verhaegen’s pseudoscientific hairsplitting, cartoon versions of evolution by Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris, and that incessant nonsense of ignoring the whole organism and the existing evidence to argue that, well, this one little piece of our physiology could have evolved in the ocean, therefore we should claim that the whole beast was aquatic, because that is the only way they can now imagine it evolved.
The classic example is Alister Hardy’s initial hypothesis to explain why humans are hairless and have a layer of subcutaneous fat. What other animals have such a combination? Why, whales! They live in the ocean, and have lost most of their hair for better streamlining, and built up fat for insulation, therefore…humans lost their hair to better cut through the water, and evolved subcutaneous fat for heat retention. This is a bad hypothesis, because it ignores so much.
We don’t have any other streamlining adaptations, and are actually rather clumsy in the water.
Only aquatic mammals that live full time in the water show these adaptations; mammals that live part time in the water tend to have lots of hair.
Our “blubber” does a poor job of protecting us from that big heat sink, the ocean. We also lack the circulatory adaptations that make it useful in that function: countercurrent exchangers, arteriovenous anastomoses, that sort of thing.
Marine mammals have very little visceral fat; we’ve got loads of it. OK, I’ve got lots. Most of our fat is not distributed in a way to improve insulation.
And most annoyingly, the wet ape proponents simply pretend alternative explanations don’t exist. Hairlessness or reduced body hair, for instance, has evolved independently in several groups: cetaceans, naked mole rats, domesticated pigs, elephants, hippos, etc. So there are different strategies or environmental conditions that can lead to these features, and you can’t simply say all hairless mammals had to have gone through a dolphin-like evolutionary stage, because there are no other situations that can favor hairlessness.
But of course wet ape fanatics do — I’ve seen them seriously suggest that elephants had to have also gone through an aquatic phase.
Attenborough, I’m sorry to say, also takes this blinkered attitude. He closes episode 1 (there are two, I couldn’t bear to listen to the second) of his “waterside ape” series with what he proposes to be a “test” of the aquatic ape theory, which is no such thing. He claims to have new evidence: that there is a known feature of human infants which he predicts would be found in newborn cetaceans, and if confirmed, would both demonstrate the predictive power of the wet ape theory and provide an additional point of confirmation.
That feature is vernix, which is only known in humans. Vernix is the slimy, greasy coat that covers newborn humans, which he wants to claim is an aquatic adaptation, and therefore should be also found in other aquatic mammals. He is able to triumphantly announce that something similar has recently been reported in cetaceans.
But, again, the connection to an aquatic life has not been demonstrated. I don’t even see how vernix helps a mammal thrive in the water; it’s a fetal feature that is lost with the first bath, or is shed within a few days of birth. Vernix has many hypothesized functions for humans:
Vernix caseosa is a white, creamy, naturally occurring biofilm covering the skin of the fetus during the last trimester of pregnancy. Vernix coating on the neonatal skin protects the newborn skin and facilitates extra-uterine adaptation of skin in the first postnatal week if not washed away after birth. It consists of water-containing corneocytes embedded in a lipid matrix. The strategic location of the vernix on the fetal skin surface suggests participation in multiple overlapping functions required at birth, such as barrier to water loss, temperature regulation [the paper later shows a lack of support for this function –pzm], and innate immunity. Vernix seems to perform various integral roles during transition of the fetus from intra-uterine to extra-uterine life. It has also found various interesting diagnostic and prognostic implications in this arena. Thus, it continues to be an intriguing topic of interest among the medical fraternity to understand its detailed biology and function in the fetus and also to put its naturally endowed characteristics to use in the adult population.
Most of those multiple overlapping functions have nothing to do with adaptations for swimming — they are important for a mammal with no insulating layer of hair that is basically born prematurely with relatively few defenses. It is a logical error to imply that sharing a feature with many functions, like vernix, means that two species had to have had a similar ecological history. It makes no sense at all. I am very disappointed that David Attenborough has fallen for such crank nonsense.
I am not being peculiarly fussy, either. Very few people in the evolutionary/anthropological community think the Aquatic Ape is a credible hypothesis. Jim Moore has a very thorough compendium of rebuttals to the hodge-podge of contradictory details that make up the Aquatic Ape Theory; it’s a constant struggle to combat proponents who vomit up all kinds of odd scientific factlets that they claim are supportive of their cherished, much-loved, stupid theory. John Hawks explains why the AAT is pseudoscience. The Guardian has already posted a rejection of Attenborough’s “wishful thinking”. Alice Roberts quickly wrote an excellent response to Attenborough.
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.
Despite the evidence stacked up against the theory, it is strangely tenacious. It has become very elastic, and its proponents will seize hold of any mentions of water, fish or shellfish in human evolution, and any archaeological sites found near coasts, rivers and lakes as supporting evidence. But we must always build our hypotheses on, and test them against, the hard evidence: the fossils, comparative anatomy and physiology, and genetics. In that test, the aquatic ape has failed – again and again.
It is a great shame the BBC recently indulged this implausible theory as it distracts from the emerging story of human evolution that is both more complex and more interesting. Because at the end of the day science is about evidence, not wishful thinking.
Unfortunately, I’m sure this bad idea will emerge again and again. There’s something appealing to the human psyche about one simple explanation of everything, even if that explanation is completely wrong.
Carl Sagan concluded there are cows on Mars, after methane was discovered there. He looked at earth, and realized that most methane comes from cows, so….
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
I originally read this in “Descent of Woman” (in rebuttal to Ascent of Man) to explain human evolution.
Some sounded very plausible. One being the shape of the nose, which non human apes lack, who also strongly avoid swimming.
The concentration-of-hair-on-the-head explanation was a little “just so” to be fully plausible.
only slightly (NB) more plausible is the notice of the beginnings of webbing between fingers.
I know the nose can be explained by how our foreheads perspire could advocate shielding the nostrils from intrusion of perspiration. But the swimming aspect is intriguing.
While not an advocate of aquatic ape, it is an interesting hypothesis.
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
Not the soggy ape idea again. It’s been debunked ad nauseum, and still survives with True Believers™.
Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says
So… you’re saying that having a delicious voice and a talent for science communication doesn’t automatically make you right about everything? Shame.
I never realised the aquatic ape stuff was pseudoscience. In one way, I think this is a good thing – it shows that documentaries aren’t automatically sources of good information (not that I believe anyone here needed that lesson) – but it’s a shame to see that coming from David Attenborough; I much prefer it when the history channel puts out rubbish, presented by funny Americans.
I think one reason this persists is because there is, after all, a small grain of truth in it. Compared to other primates we are much more comfortable in the water. PZ may call us clumsy swimmers but we’re far better swimmers than any other terrestrial mammal I can of. And we aren’t afraid of the water, we’re drawn to it. Of course this doesn’t require any particular aquatic “phase,” other than the one we’re in right now. But there is plenty of evidence that we had ancestors who subsisted largely on shellfish. Our comfort with swimming, waving and diving has many advantages. Expansion of the food supply, escape from predators, removal of external parasites. Again, doesn’t mean we were even more aquatic in the past, but it’s worth noticing that we are more aquatic than any other ape today.
chigau (違う) says
I liked Descent of Woman when I read it in the early 1970’s because of it’s feminist perspective.
It had feminist just-so-stories to counter every just-so-story from the Robert Ardrey Lionel Tiger Robin Fox mob.
Brian Pansky says
I’ve also seen the word “mermaid” be used in a popular post on tumblr. And I saw someone who thinks mermaids are cool share it.
Eh, well, anybody can be wrong, most of us are wrong about something. Perhaps it’s a bit daft of Sir David to persuade the BBC to spend money on the shows, but if that’s the worst that results, he’s still way ahead of the Brain-Eater.
I wish the system here allowed people to edit comments — a couple of typos in my previous one. Just something for the suggestion box.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
re 5: yes
re 6: the reconsideration of evolution from the feminist perspective was strong bias for the weak aquatic ape hypothesis, to me. I appreciated the refocus on the female’s contribution to our evolution more than patriarchal Naked Ape.
I agree, that is only emotional reaction with no actual reasons.
I’ll listen now.
PZ Myers says
The Naked Ape and Elaine Morgan’s books are all piss-poor science.
chigau (違う) says
So are The Imperial Animal and The Territorial Imperative.
Aquatic ape has to be true or else my collection of Speedos is a farce!
congenital cynic says
If I’m not mistaken, humans are the only mammal that cannot, by nature, swim. We have to learn to swim. If we were aquatic apes, wouldn’t we have at least the same natural ability to swim as a dog, or a bear? In my experience we are pretty poorly adapted to life in the water for a host of reasons. Pity that BBC actually produced a show that pedals this malarky.
I can’t for the life of me find a single citation of that. Got a source on Sagan making those claims?
Pierce R. Butler says
Vernix coating on the neonatal skin protects the newborn skin and facilitates extra-uterine adaptation of skin in the first postnatal week if not washed away after birth.
So maybe newborns should not get a bath for the first hour? day? week?
We did a wet ape thread once. The visiting proponent kept ignoring everything, putting up quotes that contradicted his interpretation, and repeating the same silly stuff. PZ let it run a long, long time, going nowhere, never ending, and finally shut it down.
Rowan vet-tech says
@cervantes: we are *terrible* swimmers unless we go through a lot of training. Don’t think Olympian, think 5 year old. Dogs, cats, horses cattle, even bats are all at least as good as our children and often far superior plus *they* don’t have to be taught.
Silver Fox says
Lets not forget lips. They’re clearly designed as fluid restricting seals. No other animal has lips that I know of. They must have evolved to keep water out of our mouths when we are swimming. I think I’m onto something here. Time to contact the ID folks.
PZ Myers says
Point in support–the prominent lips of dolphins.
Marcus Ranum says
Attenborough appears to be able to learn; let’s see what happens.
If he doubles down and attacks the people who are critiquing him, then he belongs on the other side of the rift. If he studies the science and rejects aquatic ape, then he gets to keep his credibility intact.
I have hope for him. Seriously, I’ve never understood why some people just have to be right about everything. Just say, “wow, I fell for some pseudoscience” and pick yourself up, dust off, and move on. Don’t grab a shovel and start to dig!
We need a name for the tendency of well-respected science spokespersons to put their foot in their mouths. It would save time as we go about the business of swearing.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
I’ve heard infants naturally swim and hold breathe under water, then quickly unable as a toddler, then has to be retaught how to swim and hold breath.
so um; good point; if we were aquatic, there wouldn’t be that awkward period of inability to swim.
I vaguely remember that thread, where I briefly advocated that side, similar to my opening comment of this thread@2.
not defending the argument, just agreeing with your recall.
Also agreeing that it was justifiably shut down because the advocate refused to respond to counterarguments.
It seems the number of aspects of our current lifestyles lead one to believe it is plausible, and it takes very careful inclusion off all the evidence, for and against, to understand that plausible is not a valid basis for conclusion.
1. An entire family drowned in Hagg reservoir, near Portland Oregon. It was obvious one of them got into trouble and the rest drowned trying to save each other. And none of them could swim.
Something similar happened near me. A young adult jumped into the river, said he couldn’t swim, and drowned a few feet from shore. His friends just watched. They didn’t know how to swim either.
2. And the point is??? A PSA. Learn to swim!!! Teach your kids how to swim!!!
Regarding human swimming ability, the reason lots of people don’t know how to swim is because they’ve never tried. Babies can learn to swim very easily. We have to learn how to walk and talk, after all. Once we learn how to swim, or talk, we’re much better at it than any other terrestrial mammal and that certainly includes dogs. Polar bears are aquatic so of course they are good swimmers.
Sorry but it’s obviously true — we’re the most aquatically adept of the apes.
slithey tove @24:
Nope. An infant will instinctively thrash its limbs in water, but lacks the coordination and muscles to actually swim and will quickly drown.
Humans are less adapted for an aquatic lifestyle than jaguars.
Marcus Ranum says
we’re far better swimmers than any other terrestrial mammal I can of.
Fucking river otters are terrestrial but I hear they swim pretty well.
This isn’t Attenborough’s first time promoting the aquatic ape. He did another BBC Radio 4 show in 2005, which I have a critique of on my site (http://www.aquaticape.org/bbc4_notes.html). It was riddled with nonsense, including the vernix business (see below). He’s also done a bit of it in previous TV shows, and he was involved in that conference a few years ago in London that got a brief play in the press (I think that was what led to the previous incarnation of the long AAT comment threads here that some folks will remember for the LOLZ/headbanging factor).
I haven’t even listened to this new show, although I’ve kept a copy so I can critique it sometime. From the little I heard so far, there’s nothing new in this “new information”.
Re vernix, on my site’s page about Attenborough’s 2005 show, I pointed out that although you can find a great many people stating categorically that vernix is not present in non-human terrestrial animals, this is not so and has been written about for some time, as per this quote from 1937:
We tend to state that something doesn’t occur when what we actually know is that we haven’t seen it or don’t personally know about it. This was done, for instance, for decades regarding the descended larynx, until someone started actually looking at a number of species and found that the statements about it being restricted to humans and some aquatic animals was dead wrong – it turns out to be widespread (and rather obvious if, for instance, you look at a film of an elk bugling). What happens is that we have a lot of information about humans – they’re easy to study and we’re really interested in them for obvious reasons. Then we – some “we” that is – assume that we have that breadth of info about all sorts of species, so if feature X is not known in non-human species, feature X doesn’t occur in non-human species. Then someone gets interested in feature X and whadayaknow, it turns up all over the place. But you can still find people confidently stating that feature X doesn’t occur in non-human species.
I recall reading something about teaching babies to swim, from a few decades back (1960s California, probably). The babies had to be shown to hold their breath underwater, which was done by humming until the kids imitated the humming, then immersing them.
I’m saying that breath-holding is not instinctive, but can be learned. Not that the lack of an instinct deflates the aquatic idea – we don’t seem to be instinctive walkers, for instance.
You’ve obviously never had a Newfie. One of my former dogs was only half Newfie, and she could out swim people any old time. Also, your declaration is obviously bullshit. Otters, beavers, and others are much better swimmers than humans, and a hell of a lot more savvy in the water than humans also. FFS, try to be a bit less naval gazing, yeah?
Really? What about all the people who have a deathly fear of open water? Generalising this way does not help. Anytime you go to a beach, you can see thousands of people, most of whom are not in the water, or they are dinking about on the shore.
Generally speaking, most people are pretty damn cautious before flinging themselves into large bodies of water, whether ocean, lake, or river. A whole hell of a lot of people drown every day, lots of them in swimming pools, for eff’s sake. A lot of people don’t know very much at all when it comes to swimming in natural bodies of water, which is why they often end up dead.
I remember my cousin holding his mom’s Chihuahua over our pond and shrieking with laughter. The little dog’s feet would start flapping like paddles as soon as he saw he was over the water.
Speaking as a granny who’s been going along to baby’s ‘swimming’ lessons since she was 4 months old … not true.
Babies have many and varied responses to their introductions to water. Some love it. Some hate it. The ‘lessons’ are mainly about getting them accustomed, step by gentle step, to water on the face through to putting their face into the water. In fact, the main objective is getting them to do what’s needed to stay safe in a pool. Always go to the edge and hang on while you “walk” your hands along to get where you’re going.
Even more important – which had never occurred to me until the instructor explained – babies and toddlers are taught never to slide off any edge into the water. You must always, always, jump or spring. Just a bit, but enough that you don’t risk damaging/breaking your back or your neck.
Though I missed last week and haven’t seen what happens next. I can proudly announce to the world that our little girl has “graduated”, at the exciting age of not quite 11 months, to the next level of swimming class.
Adela Doiron says
Oh why can’t British celebrities stick to crackpot theories about Shakespeare instead.
I thought most truly aquatic mammals have their penis hidden up on the inside rather than swinging about externally like ours does. It’s just asking to be nipped off by passing fish hanging out there like a worm lure.
Anton Mates says
Nope, not even if we take a very strict definition of “terrestrial mammal.” Horses, and the larger ruminants like moose and elk, are better distance swimmers than us. So are elephants, who swim across the Ganges and between offshore islands in Southeast Asia. Feral pigs swim for much of the day in the Tokelau islands and the Bahamas, even though they don’t swim at all in most other parts of the world. Sloths move faster in the water than on land, and they can hold their breath for half an hour. Shit, lemmings are tiny and they can swim over a mile in calm water.
I have about thirty years of swimming experience. My dog refused to swim for the first seven years of her life; when I finally coaxed her into deep water, she became a better swimmer than me within a couple of weeks. She’s not a water breed, either. Or consider the pet cattle dog, raised in a house, who fell off a boat and swam across six miles of open ocean to reach an island.
Working dogs require very little practice to become better than the average trained human swimmer.
Most other apes live in crocodile country, so it would be suicidal for them to practice swimming. But given the chance to learn, they can be adept swimmers and divers as well.
Among anthropoid primates in general, proboscis monkeys can swim sixty feet underwater. Macaques are extremely good swimmers too—not just crab-eating macaques, but even the species that don’t forage in the water, like rhesus and Japanese.
Marcus Ranum says
any other terrestrial mammal
Spoken like one who has never tried to out-swim a polar bear.
BTW, on the natural, instinctive, swimming question, not only do dogs do quite well (and in fact it’s been shown that untrained dogs can hold their breath somewhat longer than can untrained humans), so do almost every mammal, including all non-ape primates. Orangs swim okay too, without training; I’ve read but not confirmed that siamangs do too. Monkeys do fine; macaques especially are terrific at swimming and diving, and can do so even when raised without the opportunity to do so. The holdouts in the instinctive swimming contest seem to be adult hippos (ironically), giraffes, humans, and African apes. These all seem to be due to biomechanics. Humans can overcome their innate difficulties more easily than chimps, bonobos, and gorillas (although there’s always the question of motivation) because our orientation in water while trying to swim with the instinctive stroke every mammal seems to use (the dog paddle*) leaves us pointing up. So while the dog paddle tends to drive us under water, at least our heads are closer to the surface than for apes with a lot of mass around the upper body.
*even kangaroos use the dog paddle even though their natural terrestrial movement is moving both feet in unison.
A. Noyd says
Humans, like rats, are omnivores, great swimmers, very social, and can adapt to many environments. Clearly, the aquatic ape theory is missing something. I propose that, also like rats, we were once commensal with another species. Many religions have legends of an ancient race of giants, after all. Given the supposed water-specific adaptations humans have over other apes, it seems reasonable that, for a period in our evolutionary history, we were the sewer rats to a civilization of giants.
I do not know about the aquatic ape theory I will take the word and evidence presented here to put a strong doubt on it.
I am not up on the current understanding of how humans spread around the world but am willing to guess that water and coast lines played no small part. It has been proposed that people spread across North America so fast by the aid of boats and the coast line if that is so evidence being hard to come by due to sea level changes and the highly perishable nature of boats in the water. I would think that that has happened in a similar way going east out of Africa as well all the way to Australia possibly. I would assume it was much later that the rest of the pacific was settled but settled it became. While not aquatic apes we sure have taken advantage of oceans and water ways and they are rather important even to this day..
John Morales says
Do capybaras not count because they’re considered to be semi-aquatic mammals, or did you merely not think of them?
When I first encountered the aquatic ape hypothesis I thought it was clever and neat, but the more I listened to the proponents the more I realised they were being extremely selective with their evidence, refused to consider alternatives, and were often devoted to the aquatic ape idea as a justification for some other agenda (e.g. water birthers). Now there’s nothing wrong with water births and the medical evidence is weak but supportive, but the idea that this is the *only correct* way to labour and that everyone who disagrees is evil and wrong is strong with these people.
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
Attenborough can have all the wacky beliefs he wants, as long as he has that VOICE! (So. Mellow.)
Marcus Ranum @38 — I don’t have to swim faster than the bear. I just have to swim faster than you…
RE: water-births — Eh, why not? It seems to me that soaking in the warm would help relax the pregnant person and ease the delivery a bit.
You do realize that you are exhibiting some of the signs of pseudo-scientific thinking, don’t you? You claim that humans are the best swimmers of any non-aquatic mammal, but immediately classify one clear exception, polar bears, as an aquatic mammal. I presume you would do the same for otters, beavers, etc. But this, of course, makes your hypothesis non-falsifiable, a strong indicator of pseudo-science.
Likewise, you’ve also claimed that humans are the best swimmers of any primates, but actually, as other have already pointed out, many apes swim in the wild as part of their foraging (http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=apes+swimming&qpvt=apes+swimming&qpvt=apes+swimming&qpvt=apes+swimming&FORM=IGRE) which refutes that claim, but you could argue that that only lends more support for the aquatic ape theory. Which would of course only be another sign of the non-falsifiability of the hypothesis.
Marcus Ranum says
Do capybaras not count because they’re considered to be semi-aquatic mammals
Are you referring to that capybaras are fish, if you’re catholic?
chigau (違う) says
In Japanese language, when talking about *the number of things*, you need a “counter” attached to the number.
hon 本 for long skinny things like pencils
mai 枚 for flat things like sheets of paper
ha 羽 for birds … and rabbits
Birds have hollow bones, so do rabbits.
John Morales says
Not in the slightest, but yeah.
Got to admit, Catholics have the weirdest rules and are in no way inferior to any other religion when it comes to hypocrisy. I know because I was one, once.
When I was a little kid, in order to take Communion, one could not eat any food after midnight before the next day’s Mass.
Later, it was but one hour before the Mass.
Best as I can tell, these days nobody gives a shit about that stuff.
(A bit Orwellian)
WMDKitty — I’ve got nothing against water births. There is some weak evidence that it’s more comfortable in early labour, reduces the rate of epidural/anaesthetic interventions in first stage by about 4%, and women are more satisfied after a water birth plus there’s no significant downside that I’m aware of. My objection is to the small but vocal group of water birth activists who insist that it is superior in every regard and instead of pointing to clinical research to support the object of their fervour, they point to the Aquatic Ape theory.
Homo aquaticus? Naaah, more like Homo Nauticus , the boat building ape. Swimming is good but floating above the water surface is a significantly more efficient way of getting about. Humans are tool users from waaay back.
It seems more plausible to me that our hairlessness is an adaptation to our use of fire.
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
chrislawson — I’m for anything that results in a healthy Parent and a healthy Baby. As long as it’s safe and Parent is reasonable about medical interventions if complications arise, go ahead.
I’m still gonna side-eye the hell out of people who go all-in with birthing-woo and insist that things must be done According to The Plan even if it damn near kills them and/or their baby.
MJP — Interesting idea! Would you care to expand on it?
I’d rather they didn’t, please. First, Shakespeare-isn’t-Shakespeare is mostly bigotry based on caste (class). Second, as so very little is known about the man, it’s almost-always evidence-free (or heavily cherry-picked); I’m inclined to suggest this soggy monkey silliness has more evidence for it than all Shakespeare-isn’t-Shakespeare hypotheses combined.
In other words, it’s just as exasperating.
(I admit I myself used to think there was something to soggy monkey, but as others have pointed out, it quickly becomes apparent — even without the detail poopyhead has gone into — the arguments / “evidence” is, at beast, selective.)
How about the Hermit-crab ape theory? Humans seem to be good at nicking the skins and fur off other animals and dressing up in them. No point growing fur if you can nick it off something else.
Crimson Clupeidae says
So if the predominant trait that ‘determines’ we evolved from aquatic creatures is that we don’t have hair, why don’t we just point to sea otters and then start laughing?
Lofty@49, ooh, that’s a good one. The boat builders. Are there any other animals that routinely build rafts?
The other day I was trying to figure out what makes humans unique. Is it our language? No, other animals can communicate advanced concepts, even across generations. Is it tool-use? Not even close. Is it our ability to build things? Nah, ants are (in some ways) better builders than we are.
Then I thought of one particular structure that (to my knowledge) no other animal builds: staircases! Ants may build ramps, but no other animal builds stairways.