The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

February 25, 2010 | 1 Comment

Category: Biology, Neoteny, Society

“Forest-dwelling apes efficiently conserve their water reserves, which they obtain primarily from fruit and vegetation, such that they need only rarely to visit predator-frequented watering holes.  By contrast, humans active in hot desert can lose up to 28 liters of water and up to 10% of bodily salt reserves per day (Morgan, 1982).  This incredible profligacy with water and salt suggests that early hominids must have enjoyed no shortage of either: they probably dwelled fairly close to fresh and salt water when not foraging.  Rivers and lakes would have provided not only drinking water, but also allowed body-washing and food-washing, offered fish, aquatic crustaceans, and shellfish for eating, and, because the thermal conductivity of water is much higher than that of air, quick swims would have allowed for efficient cooling-off after a long, hot day of foraging.  Note that these conditions would make the aquatic ape hypothesis (Hardy, 1960; Morgan, 1982) a bit more plausible…”  (Geoffrey F. Miller, “Evolution of the Human Brain through Runaway Sexual Selection:  The Mind as a Protean Courtship Device,” unpublished thesis (1994), p. 164.)

The aquatic ape hypothesis overlaps in two ways with the theorizing I’ve been conducting the last few years.  What I’m now calling The Orchestral Theory of Evolution and the aquatic ape hypothesis both have strong feminist components.  Elaine Morgan presented her thesis, one where male survival of the fittest was not the focus, as an alternative theory to Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape.

Both Morgan’s hypothesis (Alister Hardy was the original creator of the theory) and my work feature an emphasis on neoteny.  The aquatic ape hypothesis states we lost our body hair to better spend our time in water, and that by evolving in a neotenous direction, access to hairlessness was encouraged.  An upright stature is also associated with neoteny, and estuary or river waders often acquire upright positions.  I’ve shown that lower testosterone levels can be associated with longer limbs.  Both low testosterone and long limbs are associated with maturational delay and neoteny.

Feminism and neoteny are closely tied to both our theories, and interestingly, Elaine Morgan and I are both nonscientists and artists who are thinking outside conventions in perhaps complementary fashions.  We are both in the origin myth business, working with similar material, constructing pasts that support an emerging zeitgeist.

“From Neolithic villages to organized state, from gardening to irrigation farming, from inconography to writing, from disorganized raids to institutionalized warfare, from custom to law, from matriarchal religious authority to patriarchal political power, from mystery to history; the transformation was so complete that the past itself was reinvented to create a new foundation for a radically altered present.  Now that we ourselves are moving into a radically altered present, it is small wonder that the patriarchal image of prehistory is disintegrating.  The movement into the future always involves the revisioning of the past.”  (William Thompson, The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1981), p. 208.)

One of the things Elaine Morgan was often criticized for was that though her conjectures explained a number of unique human features, there was no obvious way to prove the thesis.  Her subjects did not easily fossilize where they lived by shores.  Regarding human theories of evolution, we have such an astonishingly small amount of information to work with that it surprises me that proof would be the main criticism.  Barely grounded hypotheses are common among human evolution theorists.  I suspect she was more derided for her feminist positions.


This entry was posted on Thursday, February 25th, 2010 at 6:36 pm and is filed under Biology, Neoteny, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
1 Comment so far

  1. marc verhaegen on May 26, 2013 7:30 am

    Humans did not descend from aquatic apes, of course, although our ancestors were anatomically & physiologically not adapted to running over open plains as some anthropologists still believe. Instead, Pleistocene Homo populations simply followed the coasts & rivers in Africa & Eurasia (800,000 years ago, they even reached Flores more than 18 km overseas), google, eg, “econiche Homo”.
    –eBook “Was Man more aquatic in the past?” introd.Phillip Tobias
    –guest post at Greg Laden’s blog

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