Why don't anthropologists mention the AAT/H much?

One of the questions people often ask is why the anthropologists who deal with human evolution don't deal with the AAT/H in their writings. First of all, we have to note that they do sometimes (more about that below), but also that there are a couple of very good reasons why they don't spend more time on it. One can be seen by looking at the quality of the evidence used to support the AAT/H. The web site so far corrects only some of the bogus info and false "facts" used as support for the AAT/H. If the proponents can't come up with better information than false "facts" like "rhinos are predominately aquatic" or "only marine reptiles and birds have salt glands", "only humans and aquatic mammals have hymens", etc. etc., what hope should they have of having their theory taken seriously?

The style of argument used for the AAT/H typically boils down to: "I'm saying this without good evidence; accept it or prove me wrong". This leaves the critic with the task of proving a negative, and of assembling all the evidence, including the evidence that the proponents should've gotten together in the first place. This is an unattractive prospect. (I hate to tell you how many hours I had to spend digging out the real facts about the AAT/H.)

This problem can perhaps be most easily understood by looking at the history of Fred Hoyle's claims about Archaeopteryx.

Hoyle and Archaeopteryx

Fred Hoyle was (he died in August of 2001) an eminent British astronomer who took it upon himself to claim that the Archaeopteryx fossils which showed feather imprints along with skeletal details were either frauds or mistaken identity. These claims were widely publicized due to Hoyle's stature as a scientist. The fact that he's an astronomer with no training, study, or other experience in paleontology, ornithology, or indeed anything remotely connected to the subject didn't deter him from making this claim, nor did it deter the media from uncritically reporting it ("he's a 'scientist', right?").

To refute this claim, researchers were forced to spend several months going over old research, and repeating already-done research, in order to publish a scientific refutation of Hoyle's claims. This added no new information to science, it simply wasted time and money better spent elsewhere. Someone had to use up months of their research life just to refute an exceedingly poorly thought-out and completely bogus claim. (There's a link to a more detailed account of this affair on my links page.)

This example brings out the basic reason anthropologists don't spend time refuting the AAT/H, and Elaine Morgan in particular. The theory isn't worth their time and (generally meager) research money. Morgan's work entails writing up a strawman version of human evolution, then kicking it down while demanding that people defend that or accept her version. Meanwhile, her version of human evolution is chock full of false "facts".

The AAT/H theorists have also gone in for a classic technique among marginal theories, the shifting target. Specifically, the "aquatic apes" have become less and less aquatic over the years, from being fully acclimated to sea life, diving, etc., to seashore-dwelling waders, to denizens of the shores of streams and inland lakes. This change wipes out some of their arguments (which unfortunately weren't good to begin with) but even so these arguments continue to be made. For instance, the (false) claim that human sweating and tears are a marine adaptation to excrete salt doesn't work at all in a freshwater environment, yet even after moving their ape evolution scenario to fresh water, they often keep the salt argument. Another (false) claim is that bipedal locomotion could not have been successful without the support of water, yet even after the scenario moves to an ape wading along the shallows of the shoreline, the argument stays. The same goes for hair loss and hair alignment, fat, and other features.

There are other problems with the AAT/H that experienced researchers see immediately. The first is the remarkable lack of fossils for the time period involved. This is to be expected if the early hominids and proto-hominids were living in wet, forested areas, as these are not conducive to fossilization. If they lived on shorelines, however, as the AAT/H requires, the situation is far different. Shorelines are great places to get fossilized. Present-day shorelines are not often great places to find fossils, as water action breaks them up, grinds them down, and erodes them smooth. But present-day shorelines are generally not the shorelines of the past. Getting fossilized usually starts with getting covered, and you can hardly beat a shoreline for this. If our ancestors were indeed commonly wading along the shores, we would expect to find them fossilized right and left. We don't.

Another immediately apparent problem with this wading, diving, etc. business is that of predators. In open forest or savannah, upright hominids would have little problem spotting predators. Predators in the shallow shoreline waters, on the other hand, are even today a big problem. The biggest culprits are sharks (mostly in salt water but also in rivers) and crocodiles (which can be found in both fresh and salt water). Rather than being the protective medium that AAT/H proponents imagine, shallow water is, for humans, one of the most dangerous places in the natural world. The AAT/H prefers to sidestep this issue or pretend that it doesn't exist.

Why don't professionals spend their time refuting the AAT/H?

There are a few other points I want to make about the problems of scientists dealing with refuting poorly thought-out theories, which also relate to why anthropologists don't spend a lot of time critiquing poorly drawn theories supported by bogus information, such as the AAT/H.

Even among scientists, as we've seen with Hoyle, there are times when assertions are put forth which are poorly drawn, yet, because they strike a chord, often of wishful thinking, they catch on and are repeated. Yet refuting them can be an exercise in futility. A good scientific review and critique is a lot of work, and takes a lot of time. But it's far easier to pop off with a theory that's poorly researched than it is to accurately go over all the things that the original theorist should've, and to provide a point by point refutation.

Then, generally, you can count on several things happening.

First, the original writer can write several articles or papers in the time it takes the reviewer to write one good refutation, because the original writer isn't doing the work they should (which would've shown them the holes in their presentation if they'd done so). So that writer has many more publications to show for their time, and their work tends to be viewed as "original", while the refuter's work, arguably more important, is "review/critique" stuff, and hence "unoriginal". This publication imbalance affects their careers, and although it shouldn't be that way, the original writer gets more credit -- after all, they did "original" work, and more of it, too.

Second, by the time the refutation is done, the original writer often has several new articles out. The refuter can never catch up; in fact, they must inevitably fall further and further behind, as well as running the risk of seeming to have no career or original thoughts of their own, being perpetually on the coattails of the original writer.

Then, assuming that the refuter does eventually deal with all the original writer's various articles, that writer can simply say, "but that's old news; we're way beyond that."

The original writer can also, at any time, easily shift the essence of their claim (as in "less and less aquatic"), then claim that the refuters are misrepresenting the original writer's work.

This makes chasing such claims very unattractive, especially when the original writer is simply presenting their stuff in popular formats, without the rigor of pre-publication professional critique (as is done with articles via peer review, and books via sending them out to the pros and getting feedback).

Did scientists in fact examine the AAT/H?

Now that I've explained why anthropologists might not want to spend valuable and scarce time refuting the AAT/H, it needs pointing out that AAT/H of Hardy and Morgan actually was examined, which you can tell because it got plenty of cites, as many or more than most any work done in human evolution in popular venues -- books and popular science magazines rather than first rank journals. The idea that it wasn't examined is promulgated to mask the fact that anthropologists gave it attention; it just didn't get the acceptance it's proponents think is its due. This idea that it wasn't examined has become a myth -- one of several -- surrounding the AAT/H.

This mythology that has been built up around the AAT/H has been initiated by the idea's proponents, but often it's accepted and repeated by others without really looking at them to see if they're true. For instance there's the claim that Alister Hardy held back on the idea for 30 years because he feared making any controversial statement, usually said to be because he wanted to become a Fellow of the Royal Society. He's explicitly said this, on camera, and it's been repeated by many people afterward. But does it hold water? He said he came up with the idea in 1930, and we can grant the possibility that Hardy didn't want to do any controversial work before he got his FRS. He got that in 1940. What was his excuse for the next 20 years? He wrote "Telepathy and Evolutionary Theory" for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1950. That isn't controversial? In the 1950s he wrote other things about the paranormal and his belief that it influenced biology and our evolution; that wasn't controversial? Really? He even got a knighthood in 1957. The notion that fear of controversy made Hardy hold back his aquatic theory when he was writing on far more controversial ideas doesn't add up -- it just doesn't fit the facts.

So too the claim that the AAT/H was ignored when what actually happened was that it wasn't accepted. To see that it wasn't ignored we can look at citations of Hardy and Morgan and compare them to others' work. Not to work by the superstars -- people like Goodall, Leakey, and Geertz, to name one each from primatology, physical anthro, and cultural anthro; they have an enormous number of cites (over 38,000 for Geertz for instance) -- but to other people with interesting ideas, whether well supported or not. We can even get an example from someone who presented most of her cited work in a more popular book form (anthropologist Helen Fisher's books). These show that both Hardy and Morgan got plenty of attention in academic quarters, and that's just the attention that went as far as citing them. And of course many others read them but didn't cite them, as happens with much, probably most, work.

Using Publish or Perish we can look at citation records; when we do we get these results:

First, Alister Hardy's 1960 AAT paper:
103 cites

Compare this to Alister Hardy's acclaimed marine biology work:
16 papers, 496 cites

And Alister Hardy's academic paranormal work:
20 papers, 452 cites

Right away you see that he has more cites per piece, far more in fact, for his AAT article as he did for his other work. In fact that one article amounted to 10% of citations of his work, even though that other work brought him an FRS and a knighthood.

Now Elaine Morgan's books:
5 books, 457 cites

How does this compare to a professional anthropologist writing mostly in relatively popular books? to answer we look at:

Helen Fisher
5 books and papers, 487 cites

Very close. Now how about a typical researcher who's done consistently excellent work (IMO) for over 30 years:

Wenda Trevathan
83 papers, 793 cites

Obviously both Hardy and Morgan got plenty of attention, and even plenty of citations of their work. They just didn't find their work accepted, which is really where the claim in the AAT/H mythology is flawed. They didn't get their ideas accepted, but that's pretty normal for ideas really and doesn't rouse people, so they morph the claim into it not being examined. But the citations show that this is not true. Like the Hardy "origin story" that fear of making a controversial statement about evolution kept him from bringing up the AAT for 30 years, it doesn't fit with the facts, if you bother to look at the facts.

There's another aspect of this mostly regarding the newer researchers, including but not restricted to Verhaegen and Kuliukas. They also complain they aren't getting what they feel is their proper due when it comes to attention. But where do they publish? Verhaegen has done a lot in Medical Hypotheses, a pay to publish journal which "takes a deliberately different approach to peer review", that difference being that they don't do peer review (it's a "different approach", I'll give them that). But the new "premier" journal for this study of human evolution has become Nutrition and Health, and by choosing this venue the authors who do so virtually guarantee their work will be unexamined. To get an idea of how far out on the margins this journal is, we can look at how many citations the journal as a whole gets, how many for the papers on human evolution in that journal, and compare that to some more mainstream journals.

First, all citations of Nutrition and Health from its inception in 1986 to September of 2009:
173 papers, 376 cites
24 years, 7.21 cites/yr.

The same time period for only the papers on human evolution:
Nutrition and Health -- evolution (1986-2009)
10 papers, 32 cites
24 years, 1.33 cites/yr.

Compare this to the same time period for a well known, but not top tier anthropology journal:
Folia Primatologica (1986-2009)
445 papers, 2657 cites
24 years, 110.71 cites/yr.

And then to two top tier anthropology journals, this time for just the past 2 years:

Journal of Human Evolution (2008-2009)
268 papers, 380 cites
2 years, 190 cites/yr.

Current Anthropology (2008-2009)
205 papers, 106 cites
2 years, 53 cites/yr.

For those journals I had to use just the last two years (actually slightly less) because if you use the same time period that N&H has been out the you get far more than 1,000 results (number of papers cited) and Publish or Perish can't retrieve more than that. Clearly Folia Primatologica, Journal of Human Evolution, Current Anthropology have a far greater impact than the journal AAT/H proponents have decided to use. They're also far easier to find. For instance WorldCat shows Folia Primatologica available in 318 libraries worldwide versus 65 for Nutrition and Health. (381 have Journal of Human Evolution and 1158 have Current Anthropology.)

Did Morgan at least break new ground regarding the role of females during our evolution?

Last is an oft-stated claim that, whatever the flaws in her theorizing, Morgan at least was the first to emphasize the importance of women and children, and the roles of mothers and offspring, in human evolution. If this claim were true, it might be at least a point for her, despite the fact that her theory is all wet, but this claim is in fact also not true.

Morgan didn't break new ground in her treatment of women and children (and in fact her treatment seems rather a lot like Desmond Morris's own poorly drawn The Naked Ape, which she has stated was her source for her interest in the "aquatic ape" idea). That ground had already broken during the 60s by researchers such as Thelma Rowell and Jane Lancaster (and also in a great deal of the excellent work on Japanese macaques by many, mostly Japanese, researchers), and perhaps most directly by Sally Linton in a paper ("Woman the Gatherer") which drew on the work of Richard Lee among the !Kung. Linton's work provided much of the inspiration for the later influential work of Nancy Tanner and Adrienne Zihlman. It's a shame that Morgan's supporters ignore the incredibly important and influential work of these pioneering women.

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