Alister Hardy


Alister Hardy's original "Aquatic ape theory"

I hadn't actually intended to do more than a passing critique of Alister Hardy's original theory. But lately online there's been a fair bit of parrying valid arguments by falsely claiming that the critic's point can only be made by stretching the AAT into some parody of itself; and this parrying is often being specifically done by holding up Hardy's original version as being a "mild", "modest", "boringly obvious" version of the AAT and that "no serious objection to it at all" could be made. The claim is made that Hardy did no more than argue "that they were semiaquatic as is seen in many other extant human populations." and that Hardy's theory was merely a description of "how a sea-side life (beach-combing, wading, swimming, collecting coconuts, shellfish, turtles & turtle eggs, bird eggs, crabs, seaweeds etc.) explains many human traits".  They say that the arguments against the AAT are only possible because the critics "amplify it to such an extreme point that it becomes absurd. If they take it as it was originally intended it is simply irrefutable."

Well, I like a challenge, so let's see if that's so. These folks get away with this because they assume that the critics haven't read Hardy's original articles and they're generally right about that. (Since those critics aren't critiquing Hardy's work, but the later versions by other proponents, there's actually no need for them to be reading Hardy.)  I have read Hardy's work, and as I said, I like a challenge, so let's dive into Hardy's "irrefutable" version of the AAT.

Alister Hardy

Sir Alister Hardy was a marine biologist who specialized in the study of plankton -- and don't even think of laughing; he got knighted for it. Plankton is one of the basic components of the marine food chain, and his work was very important to the British fishing industry, not to mention everybody else's. Among his more important work, he invented a device in 1925 to better record plankton levels and map out the distribution of different varieties. This was called the Continuous Plankton Recorder, which was towed behind ships, and in 1929 he designed a somewhat smaller version of the CPR which could be towed behind merchant ships, getting more and better information from a much wider area than ever before. This device, in essentially the same form, is still used in ocean research today, over 75 years later. Pretty cool.

He had a long-time interest in spirituality, which was boosted by his experiences in World War I, which certainly affected a lot of people who saw, and survived, the carnage of that war. He was interested in the idea of trying to study spirituality with eye toward reconciling it with a scientific point of view. His idea of spirituality included not only his Christian (Unitarian) religion, but also telepathy and thought transference, and in 1969 he started the Alister Hardy Trust as "a focal point for people interested in the nature and study of spiritual, religious and psychic experiences". He suggested that telepathy had likely influenced evolution, including human evolution. He was also a president of the Society for Physical Research, which has had a long and unfortunate history of testing "psychic" frauds and pronouncing them to be genuine. These things don't mean that his aquatic ape theory couldn't be a good theory -- he certainly had done lots of very good work as a scientist -- but it does indicate that he wasn't adverse to tripping over the fuzzier edges that mark the border between science and pseudoscience. And I'm not trying to tar his AAT version by association; just providing some information on the man, although it's interesting that when AAT proponents provide a bio of Sir Alister, they generally skip his spirituality work, even though it was a lifelong interest for him and consumed much of his retirement years. There's a long list of scientists who've done terrific work in one field while being pretty nutty in others, especially in retirement when they can indulge their non-work related passions (William Shockley is a classic example, as is, on a more benign note, John Lilly). Hardy was an interesting guy, to say the least.

Critique of Hardy's version of the AAT

So back to 1960, when he gave a talk at the British Sub-Aqua Club (a scuba diving club) and a month later published in New Scientist a short article on that talk called "Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?"  He subsequently appeared on a radio show whose transcript was then published (1960 again) and wrote another short article on the idea in 1977. The first article is reprinted in Elaine Morgan's 1982 book, The Aquatic Ape, along with excerpts of the other two articles showing those bits that differ from the original or add more information. It's an easy to find source so you can check out what he said as well as checking up on me to see if I'm accurate about what he said.

There are some things that Hardy definitely did better than his successors; his science background didn't desert him completely. He gave a fairly specific timespan for the suggested aquatic period, as well as giving some idea of how many hours he thought these hominids would be in the water, and he recognized that they would have to be in neck-deep water much of the time for his theory to work as well as recognizing that aquatic predators exist. These not so insignificant details were largely overlooked or glossed over by later proponents of the theory. But he made a series of whopping mistakes in his statements, seemingly because he didn't do much, if any, actual research at the library.

These statements of Hardy's are taken from the 3 sources Morgan has in her 1982 book, pages 137-153.

Hardy: "The extent to which sponge and pearl divers can hold their breath under water is perhaps another outcome of such past adaptation." 

The fact that certain people can, with a lot of training, do amazing things doesn't tell us too much about the run of the mill, untrained population. As a counterexample, experiments have found that untrained dogs can hold their breath longer than untrained humans, and untrained individuals are of course more representative of a population. Consider too that humans can run incredibly long distances at pretty rapid speeds (several times faster than the fastest swimmers), yet this is not evidence of lots of high speed distance running in our past. Humans can do a lot of things that aren't directly connected to our ancient past -- withstand high G forces, catch and hit balls thrown at us at 100 mph or more, live in the zero G environment of space. It's just something that highly trained humans can do.

"It may be objected that children have to be taught to swim; but the same is true of young otters, and I should regard them as more aquatic than Man has been. Further, I have been told that babies put into water before they have learnt to walk will, in fact, go through the motions of swimming at once, but not after they have walked." 

In excusing the fact that humans need to learn to swim, Hardy points out that otters also need to teach their young to swim, and then suggests that in his view, otters are "more aquatic than Man has been". Yet otters don't show the features supposedly seen in humans due, according to Hardy, to being in some degree aquatic. And this problem is not limited to otters; it's true of most aquatic mammals.

Hardy also brings up the "swimming babies" feature, without mentioning that this behavior was seen in all mammals tested, aquatic and terrestrial, and that this was mentioned in the same paper as the swimming babies info, and actually on the same page. But then he apparently didn't bother actually researching this point at all, as indicated by the phrase "I have been told that..." in his statement. And he never looked at it further, apparently, which is typical of his statements throughout. Not the way to put forward a scientific theory, but nevertheless a precedent for many later AAT efforts. Unfortunately.

Hardy starts an AAT perennial with this statement: "Does the idea perhaps explain the satisfaction that so many people feel in going to the seaside, in bathing, and in indulging in various forms of aquatic sport? Does not the vogue of the aqua-lung indicate a latent urge in Man to swim below the surface?" 

This is the "race memory" idea, a common theme running through AAT writings. There is no reason to believe that it has any validity whatever. There was a guy, a psychologist I believe, back about 30 or so years ago, who tried to show that humans had lived on savannahs by pointing out how much people liked lawns. That was a stupid idea, and it was sensibly dismissed just as the AAT version should be. To see the absurdity of this sort of statement, try this version: "Does not the vogue of the hang-glider indicate a latent urge in Man to fly above the surface?"  Yes, it does, there is no doubt that it does; we do have a desire to fly above the earth -- so does this provide even an iota of support for the idea that we went through a flying phase during our evolution? No, obviously not. Yet it's as sensible a statement as Hardy's statement about scuba diving, as well as the other "race memory" ideas he put forth, and just as meaningless as evidence of some phase in our past. Humans have desires to do a great many things that don't indicate anything about our past except for our sense of wonder -- we want to swim beneath the surface for long periods, we want to fly, we want to travel faster than we, or any other animal, can run, fly, or swim, we even want to travel to other planets. We don't have "race memories".

"Whilst not invariably so, the loss of hair is a characteristic of a number of aquatic mammals, for example, the whales, the Sirenia (that is, the dugongs and manatees) and the hippopotamus. Aquatic animals which come out of the water in cold and temperate climates have retained their fur for warmth on land, as have the seals, otters, beavers, etc. Man has lost his hair all except on the head, that part of him sticking out of the water as he swims; such hair is possibly retained as a guard against the rays of the tropical sun, and its loss from the face of the female is, of course, the result of sexual selection." 

"Whilst not invariably so" is right, although a bit coy about the reality of the situation; in fact loss of hair is highly unusual for aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals. Hardy tries to deal with this fact, or more correctly he tries to sidestep around it, but because he didn't face it honestly (or just didn't know the facts and didn't bother to look at a basic encyclopedia or something) he gets this all wrong too, with this statement: "Aquatic animals which come out of the water in cold and temperate climates have retained their fur for warmth on land, as have the seals, otters, beavers, etc."  But the fact is that retaining their hair isn't just something restricted to those mammals in cold and temperate climates; actually almost all aquatic mammals in warm areas also retain all their hair.

"Man has lost his hair all except on the head" (sic) even though in the rest of the paragraph (not quoted here) he contradicts himself by pointing out a bit of reality and describes how the hairlessness of humans is more "apparent" than real. And at least he recognizes the likelihood of sexual selection in human hair patterns, as well as seeing the possible effect of neoteny.

Hardy goes on to mention hair tracts as, in his view, reducing drag -- but if the body hair is curly, as it often is in hairy people, does the direction of the hair tract actually reduce drag, since the hair is not lying flat along the body anyway? And then of course there's head hair and beards, which don't seem to fit this theory. Hardy suggests, as most AAT/H proponents have since, that head hair was retained to guard against sun. That in turn suggests that most of the day found these hominids in water up to their necks, yet he wants them in the water only part time. Also, when thinking about body hair and reducing drag in the water, consider the erector pili muscles in humans, which are what causes our hair, and that of many animals, to be able to "stand on end"; note that this feature is absent in seals and sea otters, so their hair can lie flat along the body to reduce drag. When AAT proponents are confronted about this sort of thing, they usually say there wasn't time for that change (although we'll see that Hardy's scenario offered plenty of time) yet they also say there was plenty of time for other changes (sebaceous glands, for instance) to seal-like features. Why not this other incredibly useful change?

The graceful shape of Man-or woman! -- is most striking when compared with the clumsy form of the ape. All the curves of the human body have the beauty of a well-designed boat Man is indeed streamlined." 

"Man is indeed streamlined."  Oft said by AAT/H proponents since, but never any evidence, from Hardy or anyone else. And a casual look shows it isn't so. (I ask the reader to go into their bathroom or bedroom, someplace with a full length mirror, take off all your clothes and look at yourself from the front and the side. Do any of you have the sleek curves of a "well-designed boat"?)  Morgan has offered as evidence a picture of a human in bathing suit and cap diving with her arms held before her versus a picture of a sitting chimpanzee. But a more direct comparison, of similar poses, shows two animals with shoulders which jut out, rather spoiling the streamlining. The motions we use when swimming upset this streamlining even more, as opposed to the very different types of motions seen in aquatic animals. And while whales and seals are actually streamlined via their fat deposits, those of humans stick out in the most inconvenient way when it comes to being streamlined. Breasts, buttocks, all that fat just makes our shapes a bit too lumpy to be streamlined. Hardy at least mentions fat in this regard, as a shaper, which puts him well ahead of the thinking of later AAT/H proponents, but the fat deposits of humans don't add to their "streamlining", but detract from it.

At least he sees that these hominids would have to be wading in deep rather than shallow water for it to support their weight, etc., which puts him far ahead of many AAT proponents now, who seem to want their hominid to be in shallow water at the edge, water which will somehow support them and somehow cause them to lose their body hair (well, some of it, in some people but not others, at some ages, but not other ages).

It seems likely that Man learnt his tool-making on the shore."

He sees hominids learning tool use "at the shore" not knowing that chimpanzees use tools in the wild; why wouldn't we be like our near relatives? He has a reasonable excuse for this mistake, because this wasn't often described at the time as wild chimp behavior (although there actually were reports of wild chimps using tools for 100 years before he wrote this), but then he goes on and has his hominids making sharpened stone tools, making fire, and then they're ready to be off to hunt "grazing game". Then, once ashore again, these hominids apparently simply forgot all this profoundly useful stuff for millions of years. But of course this particular idea of his was simply a wild speculation without any foundation and with more than a few points against it, in that modified stone tools and fire weren't known until much much later than the period he proposes. Millions of years later.

My thesis is, of course, only a speculation-an hypothesis to be discussed and tested against further lines of evidence. Such ideas are useful only if they stimulate fresh inquiries which may bring us nearer to the truth." 

At least he recognizes the difference between a speculative hypothesis and a theory, and knows that such things are not useful if the evidence is against it. You have to give him points for that. Unfortunately, he didn't really examine the evidence closely before he put forth his idea. He was, after all, originally just talking to a bunch of scuba divers, not intending to put this into print. But when the newspapers wrote about his talk and he wasn't happy with their characterizations, he wrote this up. Sadly, he never did examine the evidence very carefully, even some 17 years later when he wrote another article on it.

In another publication, this a transcript of a radio talk he gave later in 1960:

Several people have asked me why, if Man has had a long enough evolution in the water to produce such characters as loss of hair and subcutaneous fat, he has not also got webbed hands and feet. Regarding the development of hands, I am sure that selection would not favor such mutations, for his separated fingers would be of greater value in finding and dealing with marine food. But regarding the feet, the truth is that some people have their toes webbed but they do not like to talk about it!"

Hardy offers an answer to people who asked him why, if we were so acclimated to water for so many years, aren't our feet webbed. Actually, I don't see people necessarily having webbed toes if they were aquatic, but then look at the timespan he's suggesting (20 plus million years, as we'll see later). Some humans do have partial webbing between digits. This is due to a small change in development timing, because early in development the digits are fused together; when this persists after birth the technical name is syndactyly. Some fairly recent papers I've seen (really in passing; it's not an intense interest of mine) shows that this timing change is how bats' wings and ducks' feet got the way they are; it turns out to be a fairly simple genetic change rather than the huge change it was often thought to be. Because it is so simple a change it would be likely enough to have turned up fairly quickly in an semiaquatic environment.

But Hardy will have none of this; he also handwaves away the fact of its rarity and suggests that the real answer is that "some people have their toes webbed but just they do not like to talk about it". It may be that people with even the minor amount of webbing he's talking about don't like to talk about it, but the fact is that it's not very common in humans, although it's not incredibly rare (Wikipedia says "approximately one in 2,000 to 2,500 live births"). More importantly, far from being something unique to humans among primates, it's also found in many non-human primates, like gorillas, siamangs, gibbons, catarrhine monkeys (macaques, for instance), and some lemurs. In fact the the second part of the siamang's scientific name ([i]Symphalangus syndactylus[/i]) specifically refers to this because it's a defining characteristic of that ape.

The following statements are from his 1977 article in Zenith, which Elaine Morgan describes as "the magazine of the Oxford University Scientific Society, which is mainly an undergraduate concern" (and which AAT/H proponent Algis Kuliukas inexplicably insults and derides as a "student rag").

Hardy jumps in with the wild overstatement "Man alone became a carnivore" (among primates) -- overstatement in the extreme, but let's treat it as hyperbole and ignore it.

A mammal that has remarkable human-like fingers on its fore-limbs is the American raccoon which habitually sits by the edge of a stream with its hands in the water feeling about for crayfish or other prey on the bottom." 

He compares our hands to raccoons, without apparently even thinking of comparing them to, say, the dozens of species of other primates.

Next he talks about predators, and at least in this article he recognizes that aquatic predators do exist (while other AAT accounts ignored the possibility) but assumes that humans were like herd animals that lived in extremely large groups like some seals or penguins, and that they would see predators -- sharks in this case -- before they struck; both ideas are contrary to reality.

"Now look at the remarkable stream-line shape of the human form in fig. B; how different from any other of the primates are the beautiful curves of the body helped incidentally by the layers of subcutaneous fat-they are like the curves of a boat, so loved by many men. The rounding of the human jaw, fig. C, unique among the primates, has always been a puzzle to anatomists: it is shaped like the jaws of a frog." 

Again with the absurd idea that humans are "streamlined". And a new one; the human jaw shaped like that of a frog? Not at all. The frog jaw is quite wide and shallow, with typically a slight V to its shape. The human jaw is pretty close to being a nice semi-circle. The side view is even more different -- I really don't know what he was thinking, as this idea really seems to be grasping at straws. And the shape of the human jaw compared to apes, rather than being a great puzzle to anatomists, is an obvious result of the flattening of the face in humans when compared to apes.

"So after some twenty million years or more of living a semi-aquatic life -- I must make it clear that I do not suppose man spent more than perhaps five or six hours in the water at a time -- Homo aquaticus left the sea (or lake) a very different creature from when he first entered it. Now with a hairless body, subcutaneous fat giving him a shapely form, a knowledge of making and using tools, and, above all, the erect posture, he might well be called a new species of man: indeed the ancestor of Homo erectus. His feet have always been a compromise between swimming organs and those adapted for running. About this time, I imagine, in fashioning flints he saw the sparks fly which led him to make fires of dried seaweed and driftwood along the beach; he was now equipped to cook the fish he caught." 

Again he has our earliest ancestors making fire and advanced tools, including now not only knives but spears, and now they're hunting porpoises, an amazingly swift creature adept at diving, after which we're ready to be off hunting "deer and antelope". Except that of course we didn't for millions of years, having apparently simply forgotten our advanced tool-making, hunting, and fire-making skills once we got out of the water.

And here he offers both a timespan and number of hours in water: 20 plus million years and 5-6 hours in the water at any time ("no more than half" his time in water). Note that this article was 1977, when it was accepted by all but the die-hards that hominids had split off less than 10 million years ago, and even the die-hards took it back only to 12-18 million years. So his "mild", "modest", "boringly obvious" version of the theory states that hominids were aquatic for several times longer than they have existed, and longer than even the most die-hard holdouts against the fossil and molecular evidence suggested at the time he said this. That sounds to me neither "mild" nor "modest". Nor, for that matter, like someone who had even so much as cracked a book to peer at the facts therein.

"Perhaps it was not only a shortage of food that sent man to the water in the first place, but also a means of escaping from powerful predators: possibly Homo aquaticus was only able to survive and evolve with the help of a number of small sandy or rocky islands stretching up the tropical coasts or margins of lakes where he could live in large colonies, like those of seals or penguins, and where his only enemies were sharks and killer whales in the sea or crocodiles in lakes and rivers." 

Hardy started a long history of AAT proponents suggesting water as a safe harbor, an escape from predators, yet at least he, unlike most others, realizes that there are aquatic predators, although he seems unaware that bull sharks inhabit fresh as well as salt water (and he's a marine biologist) and that Indo-Pacific crocodiles (and others) inhabit salt water.

"For thirty years I kept the idea to myself, always waiting for the fossil evidence which I felt must surely come." 

And later he says, "I am still waiting for the fossil evidence" -- and 37 years later we're still waiting for it, apparently, despite the accumulation of much additional, and earlier, hominid fossil evidence in the intervening years.

"This would really clinch the matter, but now there has come another discovery which is almost as conclusive as the fossil evidence, or so I believe. It has been found experimentally that man has the remarkable adaptation which is found only among mammals and birds that dive under water. It is called the diving reflex and now solves the puzzle of how sponge and pearl divers can remain below so long." 

So finally, in what he thinks is a clincher to his long-held theory, Hardy offers the diving reflex, but for something which he feels is a powerful vindication of his theory, he seems to have done astonishingly little research about it. He incorrectly says is only found in humans and aquatic animals, even though it had been known for decades (since the late 1930s, I believe) that it was found in terrestrial animals as well. Frankly I'd think a marine biologist might be expected to know better, and that someone, especially a respected academic who is offering this as an ultimate vindication of his pet theory might have perhaps, say, cracked open a book and looked up this basic info about it.

"All this, of course, is only an hypothesis and valueless till put to the test. Speculation is the fuel of scientific progress; it drives forward to discovery only if it is continually being burnt in a fire of constructive criticism." 

Would that those who followed him had taken this route instead of the methods they have used to "support" the AAT. Unfortunately, the "aquatic ape" turns out to be exceedingly flammable for a water-dweller, and even the slightest criticism burns it beyond hope of recovery.

So much for Hardy's original "mild", "modest", "irrefutable" version of the theory. It turns not to be very mild or modest at all, what with it claiming that we were semi-aquatic for 20 plus million years when hominids have existed for somewhat less than half that time, and the claim it makes that during this 20 plus million year period we learned to make advanced stone tools (including knives and spears) and fire, hunt big game, including large (and very swift) porpoises, then promptly forgot all that as soon as our feet hit the shore. Not to mention it using completely phony "evidence" such as the claim that the diving reflex is found only in humans and aquatic animals -- known to be false for decades before Hardy made the claim -- and the "swimming babies" evidence -- not bothering to mention that this characteristic of very young human infants is also characteristic of all the mammalian infants tested, including terrestrial infants.

Etc., etc., etc., as the King says in "The King and I". Hardy's version of the theory turns out not to be "mild", and not to be "modest", and especially, not to be "irrefutable".


Here's the online statements of AAT proponents I referred to as characterizing Hardy's theory as somehow "modest" and "irrefutable".

Algis Kuliukas

"It just shows me that the only argument they have against the AAH is to amplify it to such an extreme point that it becomes absurd. If they take it as it was originally intended it is simply irrefutable."

"the question Hardy posed was merely 'was man more aquatic in the past?' It is people like you who refuse to consider it in the modest, boringly obvious, sense - because then you'd have to concede that there can be no serious objection to it at all."

"If you take the theory (sorry, hypothesis) to be what Hardy had in mind originally, it becomes so mild that all the objections raised to it so far disappear."

Marcel Williams

"Apparently, you’ve never read the original AAT paper, Alister Hardy’s (April 1960) New Scientist article ‘Was Man more Aquatic in the Past?’. He argued simply that a primitive stock of apes was somehow forced to feed on some shallow tropical seashore for shell fish and other marine invertebrates and that they did so by wading-- bipedally-- in shallow water and by diving for benthic invertebrates in deeper waters."

"Hardy never argued that human ancestors were ‘mermaids’, he argued that they were semiaquatic as is seen in many other extant human populations."

Marc Verhaegen

"how a sea-side life - wading, swimming, collecting coconuts, shellfish, turtles & turtle eggs, bird eggs, crabs, seaweeds etc."

"A biased & irrelevant website; not 1 argument against Hardy's theory that a sea-side life (beach-combing, wading, swimming, collecting coconuts, shellfish, turtles & turtle eggs, bird eggs, crabs, seaweeds etc.) explains many human traits"

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