My critique of Morgan’s Aquatic Ape TED talk

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This is a follow-up on the TED talk I just posed.

These are my reactions in real time as I watched the video:

We start off with a very inaccurate statement that we are not interested in the chimp-human differences. It is, in fact, all we palaeoanthropologists think about.

She overemphasizes the difference to say that they are total, but yes, there are differences.

She makes the error of implying that “something” happened (when it would well have been a lot of things that happened over time, or some other pattern of change)

She correctly identifies the “coming out of the trees” and bipedalism as an inadequate Theory of Everything (TOE).

She correctly identifies that the bipedalism hypotheses (as a TOE) unraveled.

She is wrong about her statements about the fossil bones and plant remains. The situation is much more complex than that. She is partly correct in reference to the over-powered paradigm of the Serengeti, but this is a bit of an overstatement.

Then the paradigm shift discussion is a red herring. I’m skipping past the whole discussion of Darwin, selective pressure, and paradigm shifts. It is muddled, unrelated to the question, and uninteresting.

Now, the claim that the “AAT” was dumped a long time ago as evidence that is should not be dumped is … interesting.

OK on to the evidence:

Naked skin. Valid point. But, aquatic sea-mammal skin is different from human skin in many ways. She is correct about elephants. I don’t know about the rhino. Anybody know about that claim?

Bipedality. She is correct that we can’t explain it easily. She is correct that monkeys wading through water walk on two legs but she ignores the fact that gorillas do not.

The fat distribution. She does not adequately explain this. Humans have fat in both places, and the sexual dimorphism does not make sense. The fact that humans are tropical primates living in part in non-tropical regions cannot be ignored. Generally speaking the existence and distribution of fat in humans is much better explained as a dietary adaptation rather than an adaptation for insulation in water.

Language (Speech). Breath control. She may have this backwards. It is a nice point, but conscious control of breath is thought to evolve as a requirement of having language and/or thermoregulation in relation to running and bipedalism. So, it is an interesting point but there are some pretty serious competing hypotheses.

Body shape. If we are streamlined and adapted for swimming around, how come we can’t swim for shit compared to any other swimming thing?

Now back to the socio-political context. The old “they’ve never taken it seriously therefore it is serious” canard.

OK, now we’re in the teabagger mode. The establishment is always wrong! Yay Yay Yay!!! The status quo is always wrong! Yay! Yay Yay! And so on.

So we have three options:

1) We just stop talking about the aquatic ape theory. That would be sad.

2) Some genius comes along and explains that the savanna theory and the AAT theory are both wrong. She does not see this happening.

3) Just like all other enlightenments in the past, an beautiful enlightenment happens, a new synthesis, blending the AAT with Darwin. I hope it happens soon because I’m so old… (funny old people jokes).

What is holding it up? Back to the bugaboo … Academia.

Now we have the long list of people ignoring and not liking the idea as evidence that the idea is something that should not be ignored and that should be liked.

Well, I’m glad the old girl is rocking the boat.

(see also: Musings on the Aquatic Ape Theory)

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44 thoughts on “My critique of Morgan’s Aquatic Ape TED talk

  1. I can’t believe Morgan is still peddling this stuff. It’s wrong for the same reason that most such ideas are wrong: they start with the conclusion they want to reach and then select the evidence they want that fits the scenario. This is just the same as creationism and has no place in respectable discourse.

  2. I appreciate that you take on the evidence directly, and skip the personal stuff. Academia as an institution certainly has problems, and the people caught up in it have transcending strengths and also problems of their own, but talking about them doesn’t tell us much about primate evolution.

    Biologists, as a rule, seem more mature about challenges to orthodoxy (howsoever lame they may be) than certain other branches of science.

  3. I’m just popping in and typing fast because we’re off on a trip for a couple weeks and leave in an hour, but wnated to mention that I have a review/critique of Elaine’s 2008 book on my site (as well as the old BBC TV doc; I did them on a spring trip when I had extra time). And I did a post at the Richard Dawkins Forum specifically about Elaine’s TED talk. Since it’s hard to find in what is an extremely long thread, let me post/paste it here:

    Apologies if there are formatting errors; I changed the forum formatting to html and hope I got it all.

    (the bits in italics are Morgan’s words):

    [0:40] “Cause there’s one aspect of this story which they have thrown no light on and they seem anxious to skirt around and step over it and talk about something else. So I’m going to talk about it. It’s the question of why are we so different from the chimpanzees?”.

    Yes indeed, paleoanthropology and primatology have done virtually nothing whatever in the last half century. All those thousands of researchers, all those expeditions, all those hours in zoos and the wild, at fossil sites, in the lab, and poring over books and journals; all that never happened. What can you really say about someone who says something like that? Does she actually believe it, or is she just trying to snow a gullible audience? Either way, it’s not a good start.

    “Naked biped. Why?”

    Could someone in the AAT/H camp do some minimal research to get this right… I don’t know, watch The Fisher King or something where Robin Williams takes off his shirt? Have none of these people ever been to a beach? Do none of them notice that shaving with razors is a $2 billion dollar a year business, and that electric shavers generate billions more each year? Why is does The Boston Globe report that “In Reading and at other sites, P&G is devoting more resources to emerging hair removal technologies for women, which is an estimated $10 billion industry worldwide.” Why do people without hair buy these things?

    [1:48] “Now 50 years ago that was a laughably simple question. Everybody knew the answer, they knew what happened. The answer [unclear] the apes stayed in the trees, our ancestors went out onto the plains. That explained everything. We had to get up on our two legs to peer over the tall grass or to chase after animals or to free our hands for weapons and we got so overheated in the chase we had to take off that fur coat and throw it away. Everybody knew that for generations, but then, in the 90s something began to unravel. The paleontologists themselves looked a bit more closely at the accompanying [sp] microfauna that lived in the same time and place as the hominids and they weren’t savanna species. [does “puzzled” frown] And they looked at the herbivores and they weren’t savanna herbivores. And then they were so clever they found a way to analyse fossilized pollen. Shock horror. The fossilized pollen was not of savanna vegetation. Some of it even came from lianas, those things that dangle in the middle of the jungle. So we’re left with a situation where we know that our earliest ancestors were running around on four legs in the trees before the savanna ecosystem even came into existence. This is not something I’ve made up, this is not a minority theory, everybody agrees with it.

    Perhaps by “then in the 90s”, she means “1890s”, because it was before that when pollen was studied in the fossil record. And certainly both microfaunal assemblages and pollen were extensively studied and used to reconstruct ancient nenvironments decades before Morgan claims. I mean really, what does she think Noel Boaz did with the grant money he got from the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation in 1979 to study “Microfaunal Sampling at the Upper Neogene Site of Sahabi”? Since he couldn’t, in Morgan’s world, actually been doing that study, maybe he went to Vegas? Maybe he bought a new Porsche? Someone from the Leakey Foundation should really look into that one. What was J.C. Ondrias doing really doing when he claimed to be studying microfauna in Greece in the mid-1960s? When they started excavating at Sterkfontein in 1966, collecting microfauna in their work, what were they doing with it — since according to Morgan they could not have been studying it. How could Estella Leopold write about paleo pollen analysis in China in 1977 in the book, Paleoanthropology in the People’s Republic of China What was Bonnefille doing writing “Implications for pollen assemblages from the Koobi Fora Formation” in 1976 if Morgan is right that such work didn’t happen until 25 years later? (BTW, I pointed out in my review of her 2008 book that lianas grow in other than jungle, in fact they’re more abundant in drier conditions, and some are savanna plants. And that took me less than 5 or 10 minutes to find out, online. We’re talking about someone who makes claims that she won’t even spend 5 or 10 minutes researching from her office chair.)

    Now she does the paradigm thing. It’s a paradigm shift folks, it’s all over. Run for your lives. quickly, quick, quic…. zzzzzzzzzz

    Whaa?! fell asleep there. Onward.

    [7:27] “But by now everybody agrees that the elephant had an aquatic ancestor. They’ve come round to agree that all those naked pachyderms have aquatic ancestors. The last stopper was the rhinoceros; last year in Florida they found extinct ancestors of the rhinoceros and said seems to have spent most of its time in the water.

    The ancient members of the rhino family she’s talking about, almost certainly Teleoceras, known actually been known — it’s pretty common and widespread — for decades and was semiaquatic but was not ancestral to modern forms. Like the common claim that the semiaqautic Moeritherium is ancestral to modern elephants, this claim is false.

    [8:32] “But you can say this: all the apes and all the monkeys are capable of walking on two legs if they want to for a short time. There’s only one circumstance in which they always, all of them, walk on two legs and that is when they’re wading through water.”

    Simple nonsense, and I’m afraid I have to point out nonsense that she knows is not true.

    [8:56] “Look at the fat layer. We have got under our skin a layer of fat all over nothing in the least like that in any other primate. Why should it be there? Well they do know that if you look at other aquatic mammals that fat that in normal land animals is deposited inside the body wall, around the kidneys and the intestines and so on has started to migrate to the outside and spread out in a layer inside the skin. In the whale it’s complete; no fat inside at all. All in blubber outside. We cannot avoid the suspicion that in our case it’s started to happen; we have got skin lined with this layer. It’s the only possible explanation of why humans, if they’re very unlucky, can become grossly obese, in a way that would be totally impossible for any other primate. Physically impossible. Something very odd about our fat layer; never explained.”

    We’ll put the whale thing down to exaggeration; the rest isn’t so easy to let go since she knows the facts from Caroline Pond as well as other people, including me, pointing them out — so much for her claim that it’s “never explained”. Non-human primates which get fat do so in the same way humans do; they’re fat spreads out just as ours does. Yet Morgan calls this fact, which she has been informed of many times, as totally impossible, physcially impossible.

    [12:32] “And if you’ve got a scientific problem like that, you can’t solve it by holding a head count and say more of us say yes than say no. Apart from that, some of the heads count more than others. Some of them have come over. [gets ready to count on fingers] There was Professor Tobias; he’s come over. Daniel Dennett; he’s come over. Sir David Attenborough; he’s come over. Anybody else out there, come on in, the water’s lovely. And now we’ve got to look to the future. Ultimately, one of three things is going to happen. Either they will go on for the next 40 years, 50 years, 60 years saying yeah, well we don’t talk about that; let’s talk about something interesting. That’ll be very sad. The second thing that could happen is that some young genius will arrive and say I’ve solved it, it was not the savanna, it was not the water, it was this. No sign of that happening either. I don’t think there’s a third option. So the third thing that might happen is a very beautiful thing. If you look back at the early years of the last century there was a standoff and a lot of bickering and bad feeling between the believers in Mendel and the believers in Darwin. It ended with a new synthesis. Darwin’s ideas and Mendel’s ideas blending together and I think the same thing will happen here. You get a new synthesis; Hardy’s ideas and Darwin’s ideas will be blended together and we can go forward from there and really get somewhere. That will be a beautiful thing. It would be very nice for me if it happened soon.” [audience laughter and applause]

    Tobias’ “coming over” statement: “Nowhere have I stated, either in print or on a public platform, or on the media, that I support the AAH!” and “I have also said “I am not yet convinced that the AAH is correctly applied to all of the morphological and functional traits that its proponent have proposed as “acquatic traits” of the hominids”. Dennett’s “support” isn’t terribly clearcut either. Attenborough’s is, but how accurate he is when he gets into it is shown in my review of his BBC Radio 4 show on the subject — not very.

    [14:55] “So if it’s going to come and it’s going to happen what’s holding it up? I can tell you that in three words: academia says no. They decided in 1960 that belongs with the UFOs and the yetis and it’s not easy to change their minds. The professional journals won’t touch it with a barge pole, the textbooks don’t mention it, the syllabus doesn’t even the fact that we’re naked let alone look for a reason to it. Horizon, which takes it cue from the academics, won’t touch it with a barge pole. So we never hear the case put for it, except in jocular references to people on the lunatic fringe. I don’t know quite where this diktat comes from. [holds hand up and brushes down, indicating it’s from on high] [looking up] Somebody up there is issuing the commandment Thou shalt not believe in the aquatic theory, and if you hope to make progress in this profession and you do believe it you’d better keep it to yourself cause it will get in your way.

    This is talk that can only come from someone who has not the slightest notion of science, scientists, the history of science. Her claim, longstanding but here made probably more explicit than she has ever has, that academia works by diktat and edicts, or even that it could, is beyond nonsensical.

  4. Two other points. Gorialls do sometimes walk bipedally when in water, usually when they are feeding, just like they do when not in water. Is it the water or is it the feeding? Food getting and carrying is the time one is most likely to see monkeys and apes exhibit bipedalism. Also, my points in the above post.

    Other mammals do have some conscious control of breathing, but ours is much better. It’s appraently an accident because it happens because our forelimbs aren’t used much in locomotion (very often); the muscles around the upper thorax in quadrupedal mammals are used eflexively in locomotion while ours aren’t (except for that relatively minor arm swinging). This leaves them free to be used more effectively for breath control. So a good part of the reason we can have such effective speech is a lucky accident due to our much earlier becoming bipedal.

    Now I’m off on a trip and have to stop replying to things, so if anyone has any questions they’d like to ask me please email me at the mailto feedback link at my site. Nice to see reasonable discussion of this idea online, BTW.

  5. Actually, I swim much better than my dog, or the moles, rabbits, chipmunks, and various critters that used to fall in our swimming pool. The wildlife mostly drowned; I managed to fall into a pool in winter wearing heavy clothes and survive.

    But yeah, the rest of it is bullcrap.

  6. Jim- admirable, but you needn’t have worked as hard as that, deconstructing the AAH bit by bit. It fails right at the start for the reason I stated above. Unfortunately it seems the case that any larmchair amateur thinks they have a right to dream up any teleological nonsense they like about human evolution (whereas they wouldn’t about many other things) and send it to respectable journals, and because they don’t understand how science works, they cry foul when their papers are rejected. Creationists are just the same.

  7. Omphaloskepsis, the point isn’t that humans, had they been aquatic apes, couldn’t out-swim non-aquatic, terrestrial mammals like dogs or chipmunks. If humans were once aquatic, shouldn’t they swim as well as other aquatic or, at least, semi-aquatic mammals like otters or beavers?

  8. Regarding gorillas and monkeys in the swamp and rats vs. humans in the pool: I’ve seen film of the Asian monkeys (Morgan send this film out to everyone back about 16 years ago or so) and I’ve seen the film of the gorillas, and I’ve observed gorillas in water, and I’ve observed humans in water as well as rodents in water, deer in water, and antelopes in water. Oh, and hippos and elephans.

    Standing up on hind limbs vs. not, how long you can swim before you go under, etc. etc. is mostly a matter of size of animal vs. size of water (depth, mainly).

    The gorillas knuckle walk, sit, and paddle a round in the water, and yes, they do go upright. Monkeys also do a variety of things in the water. The films of I think proboscus (colibines) in Asia are of females walking bipedally through chest deep water holding their babies up out of the water. If monkeys were cute to begin with it would be very cute film.

    Thanks for all the comments, Jim, have a great trip!!!

  9. If humans were once aquatic, shouldn’t they swim as well as other aquatic or, at least, semi-aquatic mammals like otters or beavers?

    Which are, of course, noted for their hairlessness.

  10. Right, not yet mentioned in this thread are all the furry aquatic creatures.

    Of course, they are very much out numbered by the fish, who very rarely have fur!

  11. I thought my fish had fur. And then I realized my cat was sitting on it. My dog is a golden retriever. Very furry. And a great swimmer.

  12. And when Steven Pinker did his egregious TED Talk where he said anyone who didn’t agree with his right-wing crank theories, based on the work of his one, pet anthropologist, Keeler, who based his work in turn on ONE tribe, that ALL indigenous people were endlessly violent and usually died of murder was quote “spouting treacle” unquote, no one cared.

    The idea that TED talks are founts of brilliance is simply wrong. I would say the majority of them are simply paens to whatever conventional wisdom is able to muscle its way into the media in a given year, really.

    The only thing the Edge and TED talks has going for it is Thomas Dolby.

  13. Sorry, it’s been a long time – the person who SHOULD have given the TED talk, since it was actually HIS “work” on display, was not linguist and pop sociobiology groupie Steven Pinker, but rather Lawrence Keeley, author of “The Myth of the Noble Savage.”

    Obviously, you’re in a position to correct the presenter’s picture of the status of her Aquatic Ape theory.

    I am simply adding that just as much well-connected, establishment- and military-industrial-complex-friendly nonsense gets spouted there, and it’s rare or nonexistent for it to be challenged. The Edge has a definite and obvious bias in a Thomas Friedman direction.

  14. Your misspelling of BREATH CONTROL (as “breadth control”, as in “conscious control of”) is particularly amusing when read after Jessica’s post on weight.

    Haven’t watched the video yet. Later today.

  15. Actually, I swim much better than my dog, or the moles, rabbits, chipmunks, and various critters that used to fall in our swimming pool. The wildlife mostly drowned; I managed to fall into a pool in winter wearing heavy clothes and survive.

    I don’t think the problem here is so much that these critter’s can’t swim well, it’s more the fact that they can’t scramble out of the pool once they’re in and it’s too deep for them to put their feet down on the bottom to rest when they get tired. As a result they eventually drown due to being too exhausted to continue swimming rather than being bad swimmers per se. You’d probably drown too if you were stuck for an extended period of time in water out of your depth that you couldn’t pull yourself out of!

    Other mammals do have some conscious control of breathing, but ours is much better.

    IIRC however our breath holding ability (and thus the amount of time we can spend underwater in one go) is not particularly impressive in humans – in fact it’s less that that of dogs, which certainly never underwent an aquatic phase. Also the much mooted diving reflex and swimming motions in baby humans are found in all mammals that have been studied, whether terrestrial or not – somewhat undermining their value as evidence of some special aquatic phase in humans alone.

  16. Doesn’t the skin go funny if you are in water too long.

    What are the long term effects of being contantly in water? In other words can we even stay in water for long periods?

  17. I have been looking for a scientific comparison between the savannah theory and the aquatic theory with an evaluation of the timing, the environment, and the physical changes associated with both and how they could have developed. Most of the blogs and commentary on both sides spend a lot of vitriol on “who said what and was wrong” and not enough on a real evaluation of the issue. I am a trained biologist and in a scientific discussion I expect to see an argument based on data.

  18. Parkinson’s disease is caused by deterioration or death of certain neurons in a brain area known as substance nigra. These neurons produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting the signals between the substance nigra and the corpus striatum, upon a good muscle activity.
    The decrease in dopamine production in patients causes an inability to direct or control their movements as normal, due to lack of nerve cells in the striatum. Studies that findrxonline has shown that Parkinson’s patients have a loss of 80% or more of dopamine-producing cells in the substance nigra. The cause of this cell death or damage is unknown.

  19. I don’t know if you’re right about this. But it’s hard to take an argument seriously when the proponent misspells a key term, such as “breath control”. It does your argument a disservice, shows lack of rigour and implies that the entire piece was sloppily thrown together. Which perhaps it was. This is only a blog, I suppose. But a simple spell-check would give you so much more credibility. Think about it.

  20. Zach, thanks for the correction, I appreciate it. I have a disorder like dyslexia and this this sort of thing happens a lot for me.

    Yes, this is as you point out a blog post, and most (but not all) of my posts are fairly quickly put together. I put together over 200 posts a month, and a few a month are carefully constructed essays, the rest are rapid fire communications back and forth between me and my eight or nine readers.

    As far as me not being right about this, it is possible that I’m not, but very very unlikely. Your comment, while appreciated, would have been more useful if it was a remark or question about the substance of the post. Think about that, Zach.

  21. You forgot to add that “breadth” is an actual word, so spell-check would be useless. I think it means “donkey”, or something like that.

  22. José: Right. I have a PhD in the difference between breadth and breath. Surely, I typed something like breadh (a typo) and selected the spell checker choice that was wrong.

    My choice of editor is ideally based on how the spell checker works in relation to my particular preferences, including my particular limitations. The firefox in the box editor that is the default way of posting a blog post on this blog is NOT my preference, but it is the one I end up using a lot.

  23. “This is SCIENCE, so misspellings are not allowed! But sentence fragments show you know what you are talking about.” Which is what Zach obviously believes and is trying to convey.

    @The Science Pundit, I simply love your comment #28.

  24. The establishment is always wrong! Yay Yay Yay!!! The status quo is always wrong! Yay! Yay Yay! And so on.

    Can anyone explain to me why the teabaggers so consistently behave like (the Spiro Agnew stereotype of) ’60s SDS protesters?

  25. Hi,
    “how come we can’t swim for shit compared to any other swimming thing”
    That we can’t must interest this guy who swam from England to France in under 7 hours:
    Or this guy who breath-hold dove to 88 m, without fins:
    Maybe most people can’t swim for shit as a consequence of their industrialized sedentary life-style?

    I am not convinced that we had an amphibian stage in our evolution. I do however think that this is interesting scientific speculation, and I think it is unfair to group it with crackpotisms like creationism or global warming denial, as many people here seem to do.


  26. Hi, sorry for the necromancy, but could one of you explain why my fingers are mildly webbed?

    Actually I noticed none of you rebutted her comments about salt excretion or sex organs. Is it a coincidence that both elephants and humans artificially supplement salt? Isn’t sex unusually awkward for humans unless we hop in a jacuzzi? What happens if a primate gives birth in water?

    As a layperson, I inferred a short period in a small area. Why are most of you referring to the idea of a long period of ocean-swimming apes? Couldn’t the location have been an area like a primitive Dead Sea? Are rain-forest natives who dive for fish in pools not aquatic?

  27. Greg: Thanks for your review! I think it’s thoughtful and balanced.
    Just one thing — AAT is already blended with Darwin, or say it’s based on evolution (natural selection, convergent evolution, environmental adaptation) from the very beginning.

    cromercrox: All your dog and other land mammals can do is doggy paddle. But humans can also do breast stroke, front crawl, apnea free-diving… you name it. That’s the big difference.
    If you say it’s nothing special, try teach a chimpanzee (or your dog) to do a front crawl. Its parallel shoulder blades, short legs, and poor breath control will make sure a total failure.


  28. She lies about Dennett, who wrote in DDI “My point in raising the aquatic-ape theory is not to defend it against the establishment view”, and goes on to say that the latter is “every bit as speculative” and “no better confirmed” than the former.

    I think he would be appalled to hear her grossly dishonest anti-scientific polemic.

  29. There are some recent publications on the Littoral Theory (commonly known as AAT) that Pleistocene Homo populations colonised different continents & island (even Flores >19 km oversea >800 ka) along the coasts & from there inland along the rivers, where they collected aquatic & waterside foods, including shellfish, seaweeds, ungulates drowned or caught in mud or shallow water, stranded whales, cattails, cane etc., eg,
    – M Vaneechoutte, A Kuliukas, M Verhaegen eds 2011 ebook Bentham Sci Publ (with contributions of prof.Tobias, Elaine Morgan, Chak above, myself etc.) “Was Man More Aquatic in the Past? Fifty Years after Alister Hardy: Waterside Hypotheses of Human Evolution”
    – M Verhaegen & S Munro 2011 HOMO, J compar hum Biol 62:237-247 “Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foods”
    For more info, please google “econiche homo” “aquarboreal” “pachyosteosclerosis” or send me an email.

  30. I find this article/comment section to be an echo chamber of pompous nay-sayers who are using every fallacy in the book to poo-poo a theory which rings true when you follow natural intuition and aren’t bogged down by bias. I would address each point you’ve made, along with some of the inane points listed by others, which they’ve brought over from other forums. The amount of contempt and ridicule present in your reactions says it all.
    If any single person here had made a sound valid point countering on of Morgan’s, I’d be willing to rethink my position. But I can dismantle every single thing you pseudo-intellects have said, and I’m not impressed in the least in your reasoning abilities. Shame on all of you.

    1. The vast majority of hominin fossils are found nowhere near a body of water more than a few inches deep.

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