Aquatic Ape

"False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutory pleasure in proving their falseness: and when this is done, one path toward error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."
Charles Darwin, 1871 The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Chapter 21, page 909.

The Aquatic Ape Theory (often referred to as the AAT or AAH -- I'll generally refer to it as the AAT/H on this site) says humans went through an aquatic or semi-aquatic stage in our evolution and that this accounts for many features seen in human anatomy and physiology. Using the principle of convergent evolution, it says that life in an aquatic environment explains these features, and that a transition from ape to hominid in a non-aquatic environment cannot.

This web page offers a critical examination of the Aquatic Ape Theory, treating it as a serious scientific theory. It is one of the few online sources that does so. There are many other web sites which deal with it, but they do not offer the critical examination which any theory needs to be given.

Why have I done this site?

Two reasons:

1) Because AAT/H proponents ask why don't people take their theory seriously as science, and the way you take a theory seriously as science is to examine it for accuracy and criticize it where it falls short, because...

2) "Valid criticism does you a favor" Carl Sagan, page 32 of The Demon-Haunted World (1995).

I am doing what many AAT/H proponents -- including its principal proponent, Elaine Morgan -- have repeatedly claimed they want done: treating the AAT/H as befits a serious scientific theory.

Accepting any new theory uncritically is foolish. When doing a critique of any theory of human evolution, you check the facts the authors use to support the theory.

All scientific theories need to be examined for accuracy; it's an essential component of the process of science. I'm afraid that when the Aquatic Ape Theory is examined, it does not fare well. The AAT/H is built on many supposed facts which, when examined, do not turn out to be true. Perhaps the kindest thing would be to ignore it, but I am not that kind.

Instead I've begun an ongoing response of pointing out errors of fact, errors in theoretical understanding (which, though critically important, is more problematic because a lot of people seem to think this is waffling), and urging the theory's proponents to respond to valid objections to their theory.

Examining the Facts: A necessary process of science

It shouldn't have to be pointed out that when someone produces a theory or hypothesis and calls it science, it is perfectly legitimate to look at the facts used to support it. While I've been doing this with the facts which are supposed to support the AAT/H, I've found some people don't think this is a legitimate thing to do. Well, it's not only legit, it's absolutely necessary. That's how science works; without this process, science is simply dueling beliefs, with no progress. The process of examining evidence and discarding inaccuracies is crucial to the ongoing process of science.

There are a number of claims made by AAT/H proponents, and tracking down the source material which supposedly supports these claims is not always easy. In a dramatic departure from the way science is supposed to work, references for specific AAT/H claims are not always available; many times the author(s) involved simply make a claim without any reference to a source of evidence for the claim. For instance, during the period I put together most of the evidence for this site, chief AAT/H theorizer Elaine Morgan was posting regularly in the sci.anthropology.paleo newsgroup, and claimed to be willing to supply references for her written AAT/H claims, but she proved to be reluctant to provide these references to people who have a past history of actually reading the source and reporting back what it really says. Others -- who didn't engage in this sort of "anti-social" behavior -- reported they have no problem getting references from Morgan.

Nevertheless, a number of the claims made by Elaine Morgan and other AAT/H proponents have been tracked down and examined. The results are not encouraging. Quite frankly, when I first read the work done on the AAT/H, I saw some big holes in the reasoning, but I did think that the evidence which was (sometimes) given was probably accurately and fully reported. When I started looking these things up, however, I found that I was wrong on that count -- the AAT/H has proven to be a hotbed of those "false facts" Darwin referred to.

What makes me think I know what I'm talking about here?

I don't have any formal credentials in evolutionary science, so how can I expect you to believe what I tell you instead of what AAT/H proponents say? Leaving aside the fact that all the major AAT/H proponents also lack such credentials, you simply look at whether or not what I say matches actual, known facts. On this site I try to provide references for my statements, and appropriate, unaltered quotes from relevant sources to back up my facts. The more curious or enterprising amongst you may wish to read further about some of these features, and you'll find that easy to do by simply going to a library and picking up one of the books or journals I mention. If you try to do the same with most pro-AAT/H accounts, you'll find one of several problems: they often don't give a reference for a statement or quote at all; when they do the reference is often incomplete (just a name with no clue as to what publication or year the info is supposedly from; sometimes even a wrong name). On this site, I've tried to tie as many of my statements to specific references as I can; at present this is still incomplete and will be rectified during my updates. Pro-AAT/H accounts also commonly use quotes which are altered to "say" something the quoted person didn't actually say; they leave out relevant material from the same source which contradicts the AAT/H position; or they simply claim the source says the opposite of what that source actually does say. You won't find those problems here. If you do find an error on my site, please contact me -- there's a feedback link on most pages.

I got started on this subject through reading and posting in various science newsgroups during the early days of the web. I've got a knack for library research and I like the detective work that's needed to find an appropriate source of information. I've also had an informal background in anthropological research, helping my late wife, Nancy Tanner, with her research on human origins, matriliny, and social organization. This entailed finding, reading, and learning to understand a lot of info that I didn't know, such as molecular studies. In the process, I've learned that my knack for research also includes an ability to translate some pretty heavy technical jargon into English, and explain some complicated subjects in relatively simple terms. This ability to ferret out information sources from often obscure clues came in handy when I started to examine the evidence offered for the AAT/H. The references for AAT/H statements, when they are given at all, are often maddeningly incomplete or misleading. For instance, it took some hunting to find the source for a quote when the quote supposedly came from a "famous authority during a television programme" (it was actually a 1929 book by Prof. Frederick Wood Jones). Another time the source of information for a claim was said to be a 1979 book, with an author mentioned. Finding the ref then started with finding that book, then finding the one page out of hundreds (which wasn't given) that referred to the actual reference which contained the info (a 1956 article), then finding the article which contained the info, which, it turned out, didn't actually say what the AAT/H proponent claimed it did. To complete the critique of that one AAT/H claim (about seal sweat) also required finding yet another article, and a total of perhaps 6-8 hours of actual research time. I'll guarantee you the original one paragraph AAT/H bogus claim didn't take that long to churn out... and people wonder why anthropologists don't spend their time and meager research grants chasing down AAT/H claims.

So I guess I'd say my qualifications for this work are 1) a knack for library detective work, 2) an ability to learn basic scientific precepts (anyone should be able to do this one), and 3) being just a little bit nutty, cause those examples I just gave show you've got to be a little crazy to do it.

As a note, let me state that I am not  the Jim Moore who is a primatologist at UCSD, nor am I the Jim Moore who wrote and cowrote several books on Darwin, nor the Jim Moore who's an anthropologist at CUNY. Although I'm not them, from what I've seen of their work, I wouldn't be insulted to be mistaken for any of them. I hope they feel the same.

I'd like to thank the posters in the old sci.anthropology.paleo newsgroup, in particular Phil Nicholls and Alex Duncan, for pointing out many false facts and methodological errors in the AAT/H's arguments. Their research was helpful to me many times. This site is a partial update and redo of a site I had up several years ago, and I will be continuing to update it whenever I have the chance. In surfing while rewriting and adding to this site, I've noticed several AAT/H boosters make the rather odd criticism that my previous site was old, as if that somehow made the facts therein wrong. Although many of the facts posted on this site were first posted on my old site in 1995, they are still valid. The facts have not changed. The diving reflex has been present in terrestrial mammals for centuries, it was in 1995, and it still is, despite the AAT/H claim to the contrary. Salt hunger has been present in humans for centuries, it was in 1995, and it still is, despite the AAT/H claim to the contrary. The infant swimming response has been present in terrestrial mammals for centuries, it was in 1995, and it still is, despite the AAT/H claim to the contrary. Hymens have been present in terrestrial mammals for centuries, they were in 1995, and they still are, despite the AAT/H claim to the contrary. I could go on, but you'll see all these facts as you go through the site. Suffice it to say that there have been valid objections to the AAT/H since its inception, and there still are. Established facts, as opposed to the AAT/H's many "false facts", do not change.

I've also noticed a criticism that I simply engage in ad hominem attacks on AAT/H proponents, in particular Elaine Morgan. This is a peculiarly funny sort of criticism, since it is in itself a variation of an ad hominem attack, that is, instead of attacking the accuracy of what I'm saying, it attacks how I say it. This is a classic logical fallacy, one of several that AAT/H proponents often engage in -- there's a link to a site on logical fallacies on my links page. The thing is, I go after the accuracy of what these people say, and, yes, I have an aggressive style. But pointing out that someone made an error, or altered a quote, or said that a scientist said one thing when they actually said the opposite, is not an ad hominem attack. Frankly, it's doing them an enormous favor, as Carl Sagan stated in that quote. (This does, of course, assume they're trying to do a good, accurate job at what they're saying.) It may not sit well with everyone, but quite frankly, I find it really annoying when good science is taken to task for not accepting a theory which is so full of holes and mistruths, and which is argued for so dishonestly. And, by the way, not only are honest scientists harder on each other than I am on Morgan, Verhaegen et al., any honest scientist is harder on their own work than I am on Morgan, Verhaegen et al.


Navigation note: You can navigate through this site's pages by simply following the "Next" button at the bottom of the pages, or you can use this table of contents to go directly to a page. I've made the assumption that some of these pages (the linked but indented pages below) will be reached from here or through the "AAT/H claims and the facts" page, since they contain info about questions raised there. Navigating back from those pages must be done with your browser's Back button. If you find this to be a problem, let me know. This is a wide-ranging site, and I want to make navigation through it as sensible as possible.

Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim? (this page)
     Why have I done this site?
     Examining the Facts: A necessary process of science
     What makes me think I know what I'm talking about here?
What is the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT/H)?
     Who thought up the Aquatic Ape Theory?
         Aquatic rhinos?
         Vernon Reynolds' Conclusions from the Valkenburg conference and The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?
     What about credentials -- do they matter?
General Problems with the AAT/H
     The method of the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT/H)
         Convergent evolution
     Problems with the idea itself
     Problems with the presentation and argumentation of the AAT/H:
     Logical fallacies
         Definition of savannah
     Sexual selection and the AAT/H
         Natural and Sexual Selection
     ZING!ability, the shifting target
     Perhaps the oddest problem with AAT/H proponents' methods
The AAT/H characteristics list
     The AAT/H leaflet list
     The AAT/H leaflet list...annotated
Relevant Questions for the Aquatic Ape Theory
     Actual ubiquitous convergent features of aquatic mammals
AAT/H claims and the facts
    Hair and "Hairlessness"
    Aldosterone, water, and bipedalism
    Fat and the AAT/H
    Breath-holding, the diving reflex, the larynx, and the AAT/H
    Tears and the AAT/H
    Salt glands
    Salt and the AAT/H
    Mating Postures and the AAT/H
    Body Temperature and the AAT/H
    The "Swimming Babies" reference
    What about predators?
    Skin, sweat, and glands
Can AAT/H proponents research be trusted?
Wegener, Continental Drift, and unaccepted theories
Why don't anthropologists mention the AAT/H much?
A brief critique of Morgan's 1997 book, The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
    How to misquote Darwin
Other AAT/H theorists
    Alister Hardy's original "Aquatic ape theory"
    Marc Verhaegen
    The Omega-3 gang
    Algis Kuliukas
    Internal inconsistency
    Why is the AAT/H so popular?
    The unpopular role of luck in evolution
    Parsimony and Occam's Razor
    Theory leading the data
Objections (to my critiques) and Answers
My response to Elaine Morgan's response to me
Notes on BBC Radio 4 program, "Scars of Evolution" by David Attenborough -- 12 and 19 April 2005
    Brain size and EQ (Encephalization Quotient)
Review/Critique of BBC/Discovery Channel documentary The Aquatic Ape
Review/Critique of Elaine Morgan's 2008 book The Naked Darwinist
Review/Critique of Elaine Morgan's 2009 TED Talk
List of Aquatic and Semiaquatic Mammals
Danakil Island and the Baboon Marker: two of the AAT/H's "false facts" which have indeed "endured long"
Excerpts from feedback
Links to other apropos sites

What's new on the site:

29 Jan 2004: Added new section to the "Skin, sweat, and glands" page examining Marc Verhaegen's claims about seals and sweating

02 Feb 2004: Minor edits to several pages, including "What is the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT)?", "Hair and 'Hairlessness'" and "Fat and the AAT".

04 Feb 2004: Added section on "Natural and sexual selection". Edited and added to pages on "What is the Aquatic Ape Theory" and "The AAT characteristics list".

05 Feb 2004: Added section on ear exostoses (new question 10) on the "Relevant Questions for the Aquatic Ape Theory" page and supporting refs on the "References" page.

10 Feb 2004: Added page with critique of Alister Hardy's original version of the AAT.

12 Feb 2004: Added quite a bit to the "Body Temperature and the AAT" page.

16 April 2005: Added considerable new information to "The Descended Larynx and the AAT" section on the "Breath-holding, the descended larynx, the diving reflex, and the AAT" page.

25 April 2005: Added new page on BBC Radio 4 Science program, "Scars of Evolution" by David Attenborough -- 2-parter broadcast 12 and 19 April 2005

10 June 2005: Minor edits to page on BBC Radio 4 show, added sub-page on brains and EQ.

27 June 2006: Cleaned up formatting commands on all pages; if this causes problems for anyone, please let me know -- including what browser you're using.

27 June 2006: Added pages on Marc Verhaegen; Omega-3 fats, Michael Crawford and Stephen Cunnane; and Algis Kuliukas. Changed "What is the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT/H)?" page and added "General Problems with the AAT/H" page, reorganizing some sections and adding material. Changed information on various pages concerning the larynx with info on more current research (pages now match the info I changed last year in the "The Descended Larynx and the AAT" section on the "Breath-holding, the descended larynx, the diving reflex, and the AAT/H" page). Major change on short page "Theories and hypotheses" to correct major misinformation on my part. Reorganized and added sections to "Summary". More minor edits on many pages, and relevant new refs added to the "References" page.

23 June 2007: Added page with excerpts from feedback I've received.

01 Apr 2008: Added entry on "AAT/H Leaflet List" page regarding sebaceous glands; for some reason I'd missed putting that one in all this time.

07 June 2009: Added pages with critiques of BBC 1998 TV documentary The Aquatic Ape and Elaine Morgan's 2008 book The Naked Darwinist. Minor edits regarding marine mammal kidneys on several pages. Slightly larger edit on "Aldosterone, water, and bipedalism" page.

06 July 2009: Small addition to "Hair and "Hairlessness" page regarding another study of hair removal and swimming speeds.

07 July 2009: Added page with list of all aquatic and semiaquatic mammals, plus how often aquaticism and semiaquaticism has evolved in extant mammals, also broken down by hairy/non-hairy and other points.

09 July 2009: Added explanations to "Hair and 'Hairlessness'" page.

11 July 2009: Added data about swimming speeds, and world records, on my "Hair and 'Hairlessness'" page.

29 Aug 2009: Added page on Elaine Morgan's 22 July 2009 TEDGlobal talk.

10 Sept 2009: Added page on Vernon Reynolds' Conclusions from the Valkenburg conference and The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?

15 Sept 2009: Added to the Algis Kuliukas page.

16 Sept 2009: Made changes to several pages with information about hymens, especially the "AAT/H claims and the facts" page.

13 Mar 2010: Added a section on academic citations of AAT/H books and articles ("Did scientists in fact examine the AAT/H?") to the "Why don't anthropologists mention the AAT/H much?" page. Added a section on the claim that humans have an instinctive knack for swimming on the "Swimming Babies" page.

15 Mar 2010: Edited "Aquatic and semiaquatic mammals" page to include a citation to the author of one of the tables I used whose name I'd omitted (sorry) and to add relevant information about the ancestry of American and European minks.

15 Mar 2010: Added info about the vernix caseosa to the page on David Attenborough's "Scars of Evolution" BBC Radio 4 show.

8 Oct 2011: Added info to the introductory section of the "Salt and the AAT/H" page. Added a section with examples of Elaine Morgan's inaccurate presentation of research to the "Can AAT/H proponents' research be trusted?" page.

2 Mar 2012: Added a page on Danakil Island and the Baboon Marker: two of the AAT/H's "false facts" which have indeed "endured long".

Feedback: E-mail me