Review/Critique of BBC/Discovery Channel documentary The Aquatic Ape

In 1998 the BBC did a television documentary on the aquatic ape theory, which was also broadcast in North America on the Discovery Channel with the script narrated by Betsy Ames instead of the BBC's Andrew Sachs. The script was changed only slightly, a phrases here and there, and several short sections dropped to cut about 6 minutes from the North American version. This critique uses the fuller BBC version. The show is available online in various places that host videos; since the BBC could complain about that I won't post any links, but it should be easy to find with a simple search. The BBC version is generally available chopped into five segments, which is what I refer to here when I mention specific times in the broadcast; the North American Discovery Channel version I've seen online in one large file.

Other than the narrator, both versions have exactly the same credits, producer, editors, etc. Apparently no one wanted to be associated with the creation of the script itself as no writer is mentioned in the credits. It's supposedly a balanced view -- it has (very short) sound bites from four critics of the idea -- but watching it one is struck not only by the fact that no serious challenge is made to most of Elaine Morgan's very challengeable claims, but by the way the editing and the visuals are done to further undermine this supposed balance. Since so much of a documentary film or video is the visuals this is critical; for instance the script for this 50 minute program is less than 7,000 words, only about the length of a longish magazine article. This critique is slightly longer, in fact. So the visuals are a huge component of what you take away from a documentary, and because of the nature of visual information what they add is often not processed as critically as words are. This is something you see to a certain extent in almost every documentary, so this one becomes a good lesson in what to look for when you watch one, since this one is so obvious about it.

Overall remarks -- things to watch out for.

Early on the program's theme is set: "a housewife" confronting "the scientific establishment". Various times throughout the program Morgan is referred to as a housewife (4 times) or grandmother (once) or in one case reference made to her then "advanced" age. Also notice how the interviewees are photographed: When Elaine Morgan is interviewed she's shot full face while almost everybody else (except Lee Berger, who moves a lot) is shot at three quarter front angle; Morgan often seems to be looking slightly to one side at the interviewer but her face is fully facing the camera. Also, everybody who is critical of Morgan's ideas seems to have been photographed either at a distance and outside and their eyes are squinting and in shadow (Leslie Aiello also has sunglasses on) Morgan is the only person whose eyes can be clearly seen. This technique makes it seem that she is being honest and forthright with you, the audience, while the others, who aren't facing you or making eye contact (their eyes are hidden) are not.

Throughout the program check out the contrasting visuals used when talking about aquaticism and when savanna is mentioned. Aquaticism is matched with many contemplative shots of cute "swimming" babies (actually floating underwater), while "savanna" or "hot savanna" is often matched with shots of stalking and attacking lions. So when the word "savanna" is used, it's almost always matched either with those lions, with the words "hot" or "dry" or "arid" or "open" or "plains", or with predators or some form of the phrase "savanna theory" or "savanna theorists", or some combination of those.

On to the show:

The narrator sets the central premise of the Happy Cute Wet Baby Theory:

"Human babies underwater. Instinctively they swim. they know how to hold their breath. They're perfectly relaxed. Body fat keeps them afloat. They seem to be at home in the water. None of the great apes at this age can swim, float, and hold their breath. How can humans, why can they, where did this natural intimacy with water come from?"

Sorry to be a downer right on top of all those opening shots of cute wet babies, but did you know that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA reports that "Fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years"? That children ages 4 and under drown at a rate several times higher than other children? That according to the USA's National Safety Council, "Of all preschoolers who drown, 70 percent are in the care of one or both parents at the time of the drowning and 75 percent are missing from sight for five minutes or less"? That (back to the CDC), "It is estimated that for each drowning death, there are 1 to 4 nonfatal submersions serious enough to result in hospitalization. Children who still require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) at the time they arrive at the emergency department have a poor prognosis, with at least half of survivors suffering significant neurologic impairment."?

Maybe those babies shouldn't be so "completely relaxed", especially since, you might note, at no time does any baby show himself capable of raising his head above the water level for the purpose of breathing, to paraphrase the finding of the study I mention below. In the shots used in this program, notice how you have to look carefully to see that infants are being helped a great deal by adults, especially when their heads appear above water. Most of the shots used disguise this.

As my short page on the "swimming babies" reference mentions, this ability the show suggests is unique to humans was found in every mammalian infant tested; the researchers found the breathholding and "rhythmical movements of the human infant are quite similar to those of other young quadrupeds in water". It is apparently an ancient reflex shared with all mammals, and not surprising in mammals which after all have at that point spent most of their lives floating underwater in the womb. The study also found that "at no time did any baby show himself capable of raising his head above the water level for the purpose of breathing".

Rant alert: After the opening titles, the shots of heat waves and attacking lions that accompany mentions of "savanna" on this program, the narrator does one of these: "This search for our origins has been a long and bloody battle. Careers and reputations have been built and demolished with each new discovery, and each one redrawing the controversial path from ape to human."

I'm really not a fan of this overdone "demolished", "redrawn" etc. style of science presentation, but it's virtually always done in popular writing, presentations, and of course radio and TV. A more truthful way of stating it is that paleoanthropology, like every other field of science, is always being edited to become more accurate. That doesn't capture attention as well as the notion that all previous knowledge has been overthrown, so it's common to suggest the latter. This is so even for press releases about scientific work, and I think it does science a great disservice. For one thing, it suggests that science really doesn't know anything, ever really find anything out, because each new discovery just throws the old stuff out the window. That's not true, but can you blame people for thinking that since that's how new information, studies and discoveries are presented to the public. For most people this just breeds confusion, but in the most extreme cases it helps allow pseudosciences like creationism to sell their view of science as hopelessly broken, to which they offer their snake oil alternative. Sorry about the rant; it's a bit off topic, but really, keep this in mind whenever you're faced with a popular account of science, whether in books, TV, radio, or news.

More on topic, note the techniques in this opening, the things I mentioned right at the top: the "hot dry and waterless", punctuated with blowing dust and waves of heat, the film of attacking lions, all contrasting starkly with lovely, cute wet little babies. Which theory do you like better so far, the "Wet Happy Peaceful Babies Theory" or the "Hot Dry Waterless Theory with Attacking Lions"?

After that you need a transition, so they dutifully stick in about 10 peaceful seconds of chimps in a forest before introducing Elaine Morgan; wouldn't want her entrance to be too closely associated with those lions.

These clips introducing Elaine Morgan set the stage for the premise of the show: "a housewife" confronting "the scientific establishment"; this basic setup will be repeated to hammer it home throughout the show. (By contrast, only once more will they refer to her being a successful career BBC television fiction writer.) Note too that as soon as she mentioned savanna again they went right off to some shots of a treeless arid area of savanna even though these shots, featuring modern day savanna herdsmen, don't have any reasonable connection to the period of human evolution in question. They're just there to cement in your mind early that when you think "savanna" you should think "hot" dry" "arid" "treeless", and not, for instance, savanna woodland as has been talked about in human evolution for decades.

Morgan furthers this strawman when she says that human characteristics "cannot all be accounted for by saying they crossed open spaces of grass between the trees". That's a correct statement and would be a good point if that was actually what scientists say. It isn't. The hypotheses that paleoanthropology has used (even the old and long-discredited "killer ape" idea) dealt and deal mostly with food, food-getting, and social interaction. Naturally they mention the environments we used and expanded into, as any theory should, but they were not the sort of environmentally deterministic idea that the AAT/H is, or the "savanna theory" as promoted by Elaine Morgan to be her strawman opposition.

And when Morgan says "Most of these features have parallels among aquatic animals" she's wrong; she says this often, and in fact this is the central premise of her work. But when you look at these features, what they're actually like in both physiology and life history, they are not the same and so are not parallels. Of course without these supposed parallels her work already falls completely apart. Notice that nowhere in this program -- although it's supposedly a balanced look -- do they present anyone seriously countering this mistaken central claim.

Also notice that when they mention these features with supposed parallels among aquatic mammals just which aquatic mammals they're talking about is -- pointedly -- not mentioned. This is something Morgan has been doing for decades, and it's a tactic which has been largely followed by the idea's other proponents. They prefer to coyly intimate that "aquatics" have these features, or that they're found among "aquatic mammals" as was done here, and this leaves the impression that we're talking about most aquatic or semi-aquatic mammals, or at least a great number of them, presumably a majority. But they're not; the features they're talking about appear only in whales, sirenia (manatees and dugongs), and seals (and for hair only in whales and sirenia), all of which are fully aquatic mammals which have been fully aquatic for tens of millions of years, far longer than hominids of any kind have existed. Their descriptions of these features is wrong, so they aren't even correct when it comes to the supposed similarities, but by not mentioning the mammals they're talking about they keep people from thinking the obvious question: how much like a manatee, seal, or whale am I really?

At the 4 minute mark, after the map of Africa shot, note the jump from "the cause" 15-20 million years ago to "the result": hominids at 5 million years ago; and note too the line "Between 15 and 20 million years ago there existed an ape that was the ancestor of all todays African apes and humans". This is one of several times during this documentary the script obscures what was thought to be the date of the transition from last common ancestor to hominid. I'll bring this up with a bit more detail later when this pops up again later in the program.

Also note the way Dart's 1960s era interview is setup to suggest that the decades since the 1960s have been dominated by Dart's views even though this is not true ("in the years that followed, many scientists then built on Dart's theory"). Dart's idea gained currency in the 1930s and peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s with the heavy promotion of a popular book by a dramatist, Hollywood scriptwriter Robert Ardrey. By the late 1960s and early 1970s (when Morgan came on the scene) the work of people like Thelma Rowell, Richard Lee, and Sally Linton had already cut the then somewhat wobbly legs out from under Dart's and Ardrey's killer ape idea; the interview by Dart shown here was, along with Ardrey's later books, by then pretty much a rearguard action for a near dead idea. Interesting that Ardrey isn't mentioned (in this program or anywhere in Morgan's writings, as far as I know) despite his importance in popularizing the killer ape idea; perhaps the fact of a popular book by a dramatist pushing a thinly supported idea was uncomfortably close to Morgan's own situation.

Between 0:08:27-0:08:51 on the first program segment we see again the appearance of attacking lions in conjunction with the words "on the savanna".

As the second program segment opens Morgan gives wading a little twist when she says "all primates if they're in a situation where they need to cross water will stand up on their hind legs and not only stand on them but walk on two legs". This is true if they do really want to cross deep water and have to stand upright; Morgan puts a little spin on it to suggest that they always do, which is not true. And I mean really not true, as in far from the truth.

Morgan offers a couple other twists when she says "If our ancestors had taken to walking on two legs how did they cope with the burden of more than one child, especially if they were a naked ape?" Last things first; it has always seemed likely that our body hair characteristics arose not at the transition from ape to human -- which is the period Morgan has always suggested for her aquatic period -- but later, probably around the time of Homo erectus, with its taller, rangier body and limbs showing signs of better adaptation for very hot and dry living, and this has lately been given strong support from genetic studies. This would mean that australopithecines were very likely to be hairy, probably not unlike chimpanzees, giving infants something easy to cling to. In addition, in terms of relative helplessness and therefore degree of early grasping strength, australopithecine infants were extremely likely to be more like chimpanzee infants than modern human infants; the change was very likely at the time we see the massive change in brain size, which is around the time of early Homo millions of years after the time of Morgan's purported aquatic period. So an australopithecine mother would almost certainly be able to do just what's shown in the shot they use when Morgan makes her claim: a chimp walking bipedally with a child clinging as a child could cling to an australopithecine. These facts don't help the AAT/H case, so Morgan ignores them and slides these changes back about 4 million years to try to make her case. But really, even with Morgan's unlikely 4 million year fudging, what exactly was this burden for australopithecines? More than one early hominid child would almost always be, like both chimps and human gatherer-hunters, spaced out births, so you'd have a baby and a walking child. And of course a habitual biped could easily help support an infant with one arm and still have an arm completely free. So where was this insurmountable problem? Not said; just implied there must be, because Elaine Morgan says so.

Just after 3 minutes into the second segment Desmond Morris gives the account of how Hardy first thought of the aquatic ape theory. Hardy was struck by the notion that human fat was like marine mammals' fat. The narrator says "it was a revolutionary thought, one that at the time had no chance of being accepted"... which of course it shouldn't be, because it's wrong, human fat isn't like the blubber of marine animals either in shape or life history. At 0:03:55 Alister Hardy himself appears to provide the standard reason why he didn't pursue this idea at all for the next 30 years.

Alister Hardy: "Well, that was nearly 60 years ago. It seemed so preposterous though. I kept it dark. I looked to become a fellow of the Royal Society. And, I couldn't do that holding the aquatic ape theory. And so, quite candidly, I kept it swallowed up."

This is the story which has been repeated a great many times, but after thinking about it to me Hardy seems a bit like evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and her classic "that's my story and I'm sticking to it", because when you look at Hardy's life, his work, and some of his other wild ideas -- about which he had no problem being forthcoming -- the story doesn't add up. Hardy says he got his aquatic ape idea in 1930 (he didn't present it anywhere until 1960 when he did so in a talk to a local SCUBA club). Let's grant the possibility that Hardy didn't want to do any controversial work before he got his FRS (Fellowship in the Royal Society, a high scientific honor). 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 stuff about the paranormal and his belief that it influenced biology and our evolution; that wasn't controversial? Really? 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. So what was his excuse for the 1950s? Hey, he even got a knighthood in 1957. What was his excuse after that? With all that far-out, far-fetched work he was presenting for decades when he supposedly was fearing for his career, where exactly was the problem with his reputation?

At 0:07:12 in the second segment the narrator says of hominid babies, "and if they let go, that was no problem; they could hold their breath underwater, or float on the surface". Keep in mind those statistics on drowning I mentioned at the start and the fact that those "swimming" babies are unable to raise their heads to breath; the program is not just wrong but getting close to advocating something dangerous. Also keep in mind that we don't know for sure when hominid babies started being born with lots of fat, but it's not likely to have been the transitional period Morgan is talking about. Since it is tied up with postnatal brain energy use during infancy (as I'll get into further along in this critique) it was extremely likely to have been when that brain size increased dramatically, probably either at the rise of Homo 1.5-2 million years ago or possibly even at the rise of Homo sapiens over a million years later than that.

Another problem; the program, describing Morgan's first book, says "Like sea mammals, but unlike all land mammals we developed an insulating fat layer and lost most of our hair". The problem here is that both of these statements regarding sea mammals are false. First, the fat they have is not, repeat not, an adaptation for insulation, as shown by Caroline Pond -- I mention this later again, because it comes up repeatedly, and I also talk about it on my page about fat on this site. It plays a minor role, but since even in very fat cold weather animals some areas of the body are very thinly covered, it simply can't have been adapted for insulation. Also, if it were adapted for insulation we'd surely see the fat near the skin used up last in cold weather, but it's the opposite. Then there's the hair business, and this runs into the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) problem that the AAT/H virtually always runs straight into every time they talk about hair. First, the vast majority of aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals have lots of hair, including sea mammals. The exceptions are whales and sirenia (manatees and dugongs). Humans are not hairless; compared to apes what we have is shorter and finer body hair but just about as much, longer head hair, tufts of hair around the genitalia and armpits, and for that matter a great many humans have quite a lot of body hair overall. Humans' hair characteristics do not resemble the hairlessness of whales and sirenia at all, and that's even before you take into account life history; when you do that you see that humans also -- unlike whales and sirenia -- undergo massive changes in hair characteristics right at puberty. Proponents of the AAT/H, including this program, always ask why humans' hair characteristics are different from apes and from savanna mammals; they never ask why humans' hair characteristics are also different from every aquatic and semi-aquatic mammal on earth.

0:07:50: Elaine Morgan here says "one objection to the aquatic ape theory is that people say primates are afraid of water"; she claims it was an objection by critics that primates stayed away from water when actually that was a claim by AAT/H proponents which was used as support for the AAT/H, until a critic (me) pointed out the facts. The false "fact" of non-human primates, apes especially, staying well away from water was used heavily as evidence FOR the AAT/H by its proponents until I pointed out the articles and studies showing that it wasn't true, at which point the actual facts became evidence FOR, even though they were 180 degrees opposite from what had been previously considered evidence FOR. There's a fuller explanation of this problem (it's a version of the ad hoc fallacy) in the "Theory leading the data" section on my Summary page.

Narrator: "In the 1960s few primates were known to live in association with water, but in the flooded forests of mangrove swamps of Borneo lives the proboscis monkey. This primate not only wades from tree to tree but is also a strong swimmer and can even swim underwater."

Crab-eating macaques are also strong swimmers and can swim underwater. Interesting question: how can they do this if -- as AAT/H proponents and the program state -- conscious breath control is required for doing so and non-human primates don't have it. (Dogs can hold their breath too, in fact untrained dogs can do so somewhat longer than can untrained humans.) In fact all macaques apparently swim well, even though most don't live in environments where they swim. Like proboscis monkeys they are hairy and quadrupedal; and all macaques, no matter their diet, are similar in brain size; proboscis monkeys' brains are on the lower end of the monkey scale. Where's the hairlessness, the uprightness, the huge brains, etc. that the AAT/H says come as an outcome of this contact with water?

At 3 minutes into the third segment the program, and Elaine Morgan, bring up the old Danakil Alps notion again, which has a couple of huge problems. One is that this puts the purported aquatic ancestor in salt water, and this doesn't fit our physiology at all; in fact it's directly and forcefully contradicted by our physiology, although Morgan spent many years claiming that this was not so. Also the notion of highly effective semi-aquatic mammals being stuck for millions of years on a near offshore island has always amused me. Perplexed me a bit too.

0:03:40: The narrator says about the mid-1970s DNA studies "with this new source of evidence scientists were able to pinpoint the split from apes, not from bone fragments but from DNA. What they found was that the split happened about 5 million years ago, shortly before the time of Lucy, and of the fossil footprints."

The program here is claiming that the date of the transition from last common ancestor with apes to hominid was unexpectedly changed by the use of DNA studies. This is a smallish point in my critique, but what they're trying to do here, I feel, is discredit the actual paleoanthropology that was being done at the time -- make it look so bad that anything, even a leaky theory, looks good by comparison -- plus change history to support Morgan's view of paleoanthropological science as a close-minded establishment that moves in lockstep. Early on the program had given the date of the transition as 15-20 millions years ago, and already when talking about Lucy they suggested that had changed the date, but apparently forgot they'd done so by the time they got to this DNA section less than 4 minutes later. The notion that the split between apes and humans was very old was current in the early 1970s in the UK and somewhat on the east coast of the USA, but for years before the DNA work was done the "west coast school" in the USA -- particularly Sherwood Washburn and his colleagues and students -- had held that the split was much more recent. This in fact this is what sparked the DNA research in question -- it's no accident that the research was done at the west coast schools largely with Washburn's colleagues and students -- and that research supported Washburn's and colleagues' date for the transition, a date that they had deduced based on the fossil evidence. (In fact Washburn's students were instrumental in other aspects of changing what paleoanthropology thought, for instance the active role of females in evolution, of female-child interaction, the important role of gathering in our past, etc.) Some scientists certainly did have their ideas changed by the DNA evidence, particularly those in Europe and some on the east coast of the USA, like David Pilbeam, but Washburn et al. had their ideas confirmed rather than overturned. The program here is doing a small thing to obscure the facts, because the facts point out how well paleoanthropology was doing, how much disagreement there is in the field (as there is in any field of science), and how science is perfectly willing to entertain, and actually demands, challenges to its ideas. And that just doesn't fit with the notion of a closed-minded establishment which spurns new ideas, which is what this documentary, following Morgan, has set as its theme.

At 0:07:43 in the third segment Morgan says: "The kind of questions that the savanna theory was completely failing to answer were particularly questions to do with the soft tissue like the skin the fat and flesh. They're unable to explain why we're the only savanna animal to have lost its fur and why we're the only savanna animal to have got layers of fat under the skin."

Couple of points, about both facts and tactics: humans indeed have no fur, but this is just like apes, what they mean is much shorter body hair but "no fur" sounds more dramatic and more of a change. Also note that when you don't say "no hair" or "hairless" and instead look at just exactly what our body and head hair characteristics are you find there's another group of mammals which have no member whatever sharing those characteristics -- aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals. This is why AAT/H proponents, and this program among them, makes a point of mischaracterizing those characteristics again and again and again; stating them accurately shows their claim that aquatic mammals share them is bogus. None of them do. Not one, anywhere. Looking accurately at those hair characteristics and comparing them to our near relatives what you find is that among primates there is a progression in number of body hairs, with apes and humans having fewer than monkeys, and the difference between humans and chimpanzees is not so much number of body hairs, but length and thickness, a difference caused by relatively minor genetic change, so minor we see almost as much variation among people today as between chimps and humans.

And our layers of fat are just like other primates which are allowed to get fat. Caroline Pond, as I explain on my page about fat, has pointed out these facts about fat and the evolutionary significance of these facts. And the combination of sexual selection, Peter Wheeler's Radiator Hypothesis, and the recent genetic evidence regarding the likely timing of hominid body hair change explain that feature very well too. Bottom line here is that Morgan's theory, on the other hand, fails to answer these questions, and is doomed to fail because the idea's proponents state the questions incorrectly right at the outset. This is the GIGO problem (garbage in, garbage out); if you base your questions on false claims it's guaranteed you will fail to find the solution to the problem you're trying to answer.

There's a few interesting things when Marc Verhaegen pops up at 0:08:08 in the third segment. First is the description of him as a "Medical Scientist". He's a medical doctor, a general practitioner, which is also in the label they give him, but given that he's ludicrously wrong about so many facts -- even facts about human medicine -- it seems absurd to hang "Medical Scientist" on him. My page on him has various examples, and they're just a few of a great many; I don't think any AAT/H proponent says as many wrong things per word as Verhaegen does, whether it's "rhinos are predominantly aquatic" or that ear exostoses "occur exclusively as a direct result of long-term exposure to relatively cold water". That last, and several other decidedly odd things he's said online, are things which should conceivably fall within the area of expertise of even a general practitioner, but Verhaegen either doesn't know they're false or for whatever reason just says them anyway. That's not the sign of a very knowledgeable medical doctor, much less a "Medical Scientist". Considering only what he says in this program, Verhaegen saying "the anthropologists have a quite different view on this, they see only their bones and they find them in dry environments" suggests that paleoanthropology looks only at present-day environment of fossil deposits and assigns it to the past, which is ludicrous. His segment also helps the program ignore (and therefore hide from the viewer) the fact that paleoanthropology does look at comparative anatomy of modern humans and other primates, as well as other animals (and of course primate behavior) -- not just fossils as they're suggesting here. He claims he finds more support for his ideas among medical doctors than among anthropologists, and this I find believable. Medical doctors are generally unfamiliar with the details concerning human evolution and subjects like the characteristics of sea mammals (the topic of seal sweat rarely comes up during a blood pressure check), so they're far more likely than anthropologists to be supportive of a theory based on false analogies with these characteristics and misunderstandings and falsehoods concerning human evolution.

An interesting example on the media critique front is the visuals of ambulances, emergency rooms, and intent surgeons that appear when they bring in Verhaegen; they also cut to several shots of the intent surgeons during Verhaegen's interview. This is almost as ham-handed whack-you-over-the-head as the rampaging lions business: get it? This guy will save your life! You have to trust him! So overdone it's funny really.

At 0:09:04 in the third segment of the program there's yet another appearance of rampaging lions right when "hot savanna" is mentioned -- I'm sure it's just a coincidence. This gets downright funny -- okay, I have an odd sense of humor, I admit -- when the narrator gets to talking about waterholes and rivers. The lions are pictured there too -- the only time any type of predators are shown in any connection with narration about aquatic environments -- but now they're just peacefully sitting by the river's edge having a drink. You see how peaceful water is? Even lions switch from ferocious beasts to tame tabbies in casual contact with it. Which theory will you believe now, the documentarians are asking you, the "Tame Tabby and Cute Wet Babies Theory" or the "Fierce Lions and Hot Arid Waterless Treeless Plains Theory"?

That narration talking about waterholes and rivers also presents a falsehood. This is the claim about hippos being particularly fatty. They're roundish, that's for sure, but they're also actually quite lean. Their relative hairlessness, which the program claims as an aquatic trait, seems to be for the same reason we see it in elephants and rhinos -- thermoregulation. As large animals with a lot of volume to surface area (because of that roundish body and relatively short legs) they have trouble ridding themselves of heat. This is simple physics -- more surface area to volume gets rid of more heat, less surface area to volume (the elephant, rhino, and hippo problem) holds in more heat. You can also see this idea tested and confirmed in the fact that the cold weather ice age versions of both rhinos and elephants were hairy. In fact this thermoregulation problem may be why whales and sirenia are hairless too; among mammals they have the highest volume to surface area ratio of all. Back to the "hippos are very fatty" claim -- the fact that this claim was false was pointed out to Elaine Morgan before the summer of 1995, some 3 years before this documentary was released (and 3 years before at least some parts of it were filmed). Yet this false fact, as Darwin referred to such bits of misinformation, has endured long, as Darwin pointed out such things do.

Also, as described on my page about fat, Caroline Pond has explained why we can tell that fat has not been primarily adapted for insulation during evolution, counter to the program's claims at this point. Not just our fat, everything's fat. It plays a minor role, but since even in very fat cold weather animals some areas of the body are very thinly covered, it simply can't have been adapted for insulation. Also, if it were adapted for insulation we'd surely see the fat near the skin used up last in cold weather, but it's the opposite. No wonder Adrienne Zihlman thinks, in the words of the narrator, "the aquatic ape theory makes too much of this". She thinks that because the AAT/H claim just doesn't fit the facts.

So trying the approach of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks, Morgan and the show try to switch the talk to only human babies. Okay, go ahead, throw out the adults, throw out the children, who if not overfed typically go through the leanest period of human life, just talk about babies. This fatty baby thing is unique to humans, which means it's also unlike aquatic mammals; why are they not mentioned? Answer? Because the obvious reason for this baby fat is not environment, not aquaticism, but the large amount of postnatal brain energy use during infancy, which is also unique to humans. ("Humans are unsurpassed among mammals for which data are available in the size and energetic cost of their brain, and this feature is pronounced during infancy, when the brain consumes an estimated 50–60% of the body’s available energy." pp. 202-203, Christopher W. Kuzawa, "Adipose Tissue in Human Infancy and Childhood: An Evolutionary Perspective" in Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 41:177–209, 1998)

Two unique-to-humans things, one (lots of baby fat) required for the other (the brain's extremely heavy energy requirements during infancy); why do AAT/H proponents not see this obvious linkage?

Interestingly, the energy requirements of the brain in human infants is not due to brain growth per se, as is often thought -- I thought so, and first wrote this section with that in mind before I checked it -- it's just a big organ, relative to body size, and it's inflexible in its energy requirements. The Kuzawa paper I reference above concludes that the fat stores of human infants built up just before and continued after birth have evolved to deal with periods of relative malnutrition, both in the transition from placental to breastfeeding and later during periods when the mother may be malnourished (which shouldn't happen in well-off modern societies but of course was common in the more nutritionally stressed prehistoric societies). The energy from these fat stores also helps stave off illness during infancy and these times of relative malnutrition.

Besides the fact that it pointedly ignores the obvious and well-supported answer, notice how the program's AAT/H argument was fat as insulation, then suddenly switches to fat as buoyancy when the insulation claim is shot down. Notice too how fast the program moved to throw out all humans except babies when talking about fat. These are an example of the ad hoc logical fallacy in action, as the AAT/H supporter flails about looking for a way to ignore valid criticism. This also puts the critic on the run checking out yet another new claim; the proponent can come up with new claims far quicker than anyone can counter them, since countering them takes research time and energy. Each time the critic provides the actual facts about a claim, the proponent simply changes the claim while ignoring the criticism; often the proponent will then bring up the old claim later as if it hadn't been shot down. In this program you see only a snapshot of this tactic, but it does illustrate the method.

Fourth segment, 0:01:22: They now get into conscious breath control. Monkeys and dogs, at least, are able to swim underwater without this conscious breath control ability, or much of it (do they have it at all?); therefore why think it's necessarily aquatic? Just because Elaine Morgan says so, it seems. Actually, it's pretty clearly due to fairly simple mechanical reasons -- the uncoupling of locomotion from the front limbs (our arms) due to bipedalism. It's a side effect that turned to to be very handy for other reasons. As for baby fat for buoyancy, the aquatic ape then needs to be mighty non-aquatic for childhood when humans who aren't overfed typically go through the leanest period of their lives (after that huge spurt of postnatal brain growth is finished). This is one of those claims on which the AAT/H is internally inconsistent, as I point out on my Summary page.

The next two clips (fourth segment, 0:02:27), of opponents, are interesting especially in what the sound bites the producers use don't say. Leslie Aiello says it's "a bizarre idea" and that "there isn't any evidence to my mind in the fossil record"; now certainly this short clip isn't all she said, but from this we get no sense of why she says it's a bizarre idea and why we might expect to find fossil evidence that we don't find. Either the producers got someone who couldn't explain that or they cut out anything she said that did explain it. It's somewhat similar with Lee Berger, nothing really said in his clip except opposition; it makes it seem a) as if he's being nitpicky about "the way it's argued" as if it were just a formatting problem or something (her margins aren't wide enough!) and b) as if he's being whiny about AAT/H proponents' reactions (when he's being very accurate). This leaves the impression that Aiello's and Berger's opposition is based on personalities or whims or stubborn closed-mindedness. That, of course, is the theme the show is presenting, and the one that Morgan has long promoted. So view the clips of opponents with that in mind.

[NOTE: Owen Lovejoy is presented (fourth segment 0:04:01) from an old interview saying how awful bipedalism is in virtually every way. This is so incredibly overstated I have to wonder just what was the context. I haven't been able to find the original interview anywhere so far so I don't know what else Lovejoy said; what's presented here does seem a lot like a Darwin-style devil's advocate leadup to an explanation of why bipedalism is useful, but without the context I just don't know.]

At 0:05:06 the statement "But it's still much faster to run on four legs" simply ignores how hominids probably dealt with predators, which is how chimpanzees typically deal with predators. Bottom line: not often by running away, but by bluff and aggression coupled with noticing them first. In fact, although chimps can be killed by leopards, tracking studies of leopards wearing radio collars show they tend to go out of their way to avoid chimpanzee groups, something also noticed by researchers who study chimps. More details in the "How chimpanzees react to predators" section on my Predators page.

Also -- and this is a trivia note really, since running away isn't likely to have been our ancestors' main predator avoidance strategy -- I've often seen it claimed that apes are faster runners than humans, but I've never ever seen it backed up with any data whatsoever. I wouldn't be surprised if it were true, but also wouldn't be surprised to find it just seems that way because those four legs moving about just seems so much busier. If anyone out there has any actual data about the relative running speeds of, say, chimpanzees and humans I would really like to hear about it. Please contact me with the feedback mailto link if you find any.

Now Peter Wheeler is presented giving a very good and easy to understand reason why bipedalism helps a great deal in a hot open environment -- simple physics. Since the ground heats up from the sun, it gets cooler the further up you get from the ground -- it's some 20 degrees centigrade cooler at head level than ground level for an upright hominid. But this gives only a small part of Wheeler's hypothesis, which covers lots of interesting ground and answers several of the questions the AAT/H claims to be asking in good faith -- for instance about body hair, head hair, and sweat. That doesn't rate a mention here though.

On the general tactics front, when they mention Wheeler's hypothesis they do so as part of a section suggesting that each of these ideas is not part of a long list of good reasons for bipedality in hominids, but must instead replace any idea that came before ("one early idea was" as if it was ever dropped, then "or maybe..." followed by "Or even better..." which is in turn followed by "a more recent explanation..." and yet again "and there's another way..."). By doing this, they make it seem that there's only a single explanation, or competing suggestions, at any time, when there's a long list of good reasons that compliment and reinforce rather than compete with each other. This follows Morgan's long-standing tradition of apparently thinking that having only one single reason is better than having a bunch of reasons for doing something, which doesn't make sense. It also seems to be an attempt to forestall the obvious way that wading should be incorporated into possible reasons for bipedality, as part of a longish list; this is anathema to Morgan and her followers. For them it must be the only thing; all or nothing.

On the media critique/tactics front, notice how Peter Wheeler is introduced as "savanna physiologist Peter Wheeler" instead of just noting that he's an anthropologist who studies a range of topics in a range of areas. For instance he's co-written with Leslie Aiello a well-known and oft-cited paper on what they term "the expensive tissue hypothesis: the brain and the digestive system in human and primate evolution". They've also (since this documentary) studied Neanderthal climate adaptations, which is hardly the purview of someone stuck on the savanna. No one else is labeled in this narrow and misleading manner; is it a coincidence that he is also the only critic allowed to demonstrate any part of their own ideas, indeed anything but the vaguest of negative reactions? I don't think it's a coincidence. Wheeler's demonstration is clear and easy to understand, even though it's just a small part of his overall "Radiator Hypothesis". By labeling Wheeler in the way they do, the program compartmentalizes him as some sort of booster of only savanna-related ideas instead of someone who follows data where it takes him. Since the latter would be counter to the program's theme (in their scenario it's Morgan, and only Morgan and her supporters, who follow data where it goes) the accurate ways of labeling him are thrown out the window and a restrictive and inaccurate label is used instead.

Now the program starts in on summing up.

Phillip Tobias shows up demonstrating he hasn't actually looked at the stuff he's talking about in this program (sweat glands in this case). When he says "all these things" (he actually is talking only about sweating, but names sweat glands and perspiration as if they were two completely unrelated things) "could indeed be valuable pointers to a kind of aquatic component to human evolution", it shows Tobias hasn't actually looked at those things, just heard Morgan's side. She, unfortunately for Tobias, doesn't report it accurately, and certainly not fully. When you look at them they don't point to "a kind of aquatic component".

The next section lists a few things and says "all these qualities contrast strongly with every other savanna animal". And yet we did indeed live there, even with those contrasts, even before we had modern technology. Doesn't that fact count at all? Not even the teeniest little bit? Not to AAT/H proponents, apparently, or to the producers of this documentary.

Besides, is their statement true? First, you really should include savanna primates, don't you think? They have much the same characteristics as we do, although since we have a more effective sweating apparatus I bet we do drink more water than they do -- although unlike the program, which takes its cues from Morgan, I don't pretend to know for sure, since I don't have the data. Some dry-adapted animals certainly produce very concentrated urine, unlike us, and at least some of the ungulates among them can shut down some of the blood flow to their brains via specialized arteries in their necks (they still die if they overheat; exploiting their overheating is how persistence hunting works), but unlike Morgan I am not shocked that we aren't like distantly related animals and instead resemble other primates, such as savanna-dwellers like baboons and patas monkeys, not to mention savanna-dwelling populations of chimpanzees (each time this comes up I am newly amazed, as if for the first time, at how AAT/H proponents and Morgan in particular are apparently shocked that we resemble our close relatives instead of distantly related animals like Morgan favorites "the wild ass and the camel"). And as I pointed out -- apparently this does need repeating -- we do and did live there, and even hotter, drier places, at a time when our species didn't use any of our present-day "high tech". So it's perverse to suggest that we couldn't do what we did in fact do for hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of years. Yet that's what Morgan and the documentarians are suggesting here.

To correct another falsehood from this section of the program, before the 1990s australopithecines were known to have lived in wooded and forest habitat as well as more open savanna, plus this section again offers the strawman version of savanna as treeless.

Here's a good bit, the narrator says "the main counterargument to the aquatic ape theory, that humankind was born in the savanna, was losing support". First, this presents once again the strawman environmentally deterministic savanna theory rather than the theories actually used in paleoanthropology for over a quarter century. An environmentally deterministic savanna theory was not "the main counterargument" to the AAT/H. In fact even the actual paleoanthropological theories used were not "the main counterargument" to the AAT/H. "The main counterargument" to the AAT/H was that the "facts" it used as evidence were mostly false, that it depended on misunderstandings of evolutionary theory, strawmen and a host of other logical fallacies.

This leads into Morgan demonstrating the use of a logical fallacy (false dichotomy) as she claims that "this was a tremendous boost for the aquatic theory because there is nothing else really taking its [savanna theory] place". Lee Berger then correctly points out that even if one scientific hypothesis is shown to be definitely false, it doesn't lend support to any other theory. This is something that people often don't seem to get, and Morgan has long used this non-understanding to her advantage (assuming she understands it herself). If you have two competing theories about what 2 plus 2 adds up to, and one says 7 and the other 9, proving that 2 plus 2 does not equal 7 does not lend the slightest weight to the claim that 2 plus 2 equals 9. It really wouldn't matter if Morgan was right when she says "the aquatic ape theory is the only game in town" (and she's not right); even if every other theory in the history of the world was shown to be wrong, it doesn't lend support to any theory still standing; each must stand on its own, and the AAT/H falls down rather badly even without comparing it to any other idea.

As the fifth segment of the program starts, they bring up the Internet with the statement that "the Internet put scientists all over the world into instant touch with each other, and the aquatic ape was one subject that could be relied upon to produce fierce debate". This is one of those true but false things; yes, it put scientists in touch with each other, but at that time newsgroups, which is what's being referred to in the second part of that sentence, had virtually no scientists posting in them. Even now newsgroups are generally a very poor place to try to run into a scientist. This is especially true of those dealing with anthropology and/or evolution, since they tend to be overrun with various forms of science-deniers and fringe and pseudoscience promoters.

At the time Elaine Morgan first went online there were very few scientists online in public forums; the group she mentions had one, anthropologist Ralph Holloway, several grad students, and amateurs like me and others. I love Morgan's mocking tone with her dismissive "all the little objections they had" statement and the claim that these were being "raised behind closed doors" and she was previously denied access to them.

As the TV crew follows Morgan to the Dual Congress in 1998, here's a wonderful passage at 0:02:00 promoting Morgan; with the narrator's tone and the visuals, it's like she's being beatified:

Narrator: "After all Elaine Morgan had written about Africa and its fossil sites, this was her first visit to either. She went on a conference day trip to see first hand the labors of the fossil hunters. She touched the bones of our past, and discovered how much the rest of the world knew of her ideas."

Unidentified guy at site: "I think there is, ah, a lady who insists that the ancestry of humans was in water."

Elaine: "Yes, that's me"

Unidentified guy at site: "You!"

Love that awe-filled "she touched the bones of our past". And notice how the editing answers the question of "how much the rest of the world knew of her ideas". Not much, apparently. No wonder people don't accept her ideas; just look at this guy they show! Ah, the beauty of film editing.

Narrator: "And then, after 30 years of studying the evidence from afar, Elaine Morgan now walked in the footsteps of the celebrated fossil hunters."

The awe-filled tone again. Beatification complete!

The program now gets into the nutrition and brain brigade:

Narrator: "The only other mammals [visuals: clip of bottlenose dolphin] with brains as large and sophisticated as ours are marine mammals. What does that say about the marine mammals' diet? Do you need a large brain to exploit sea food? Or does sea food give you a large brain?"

Good question... which has been answered. First, on the tactics front, notice that they've offered a false dichotomy of only two choices as to why we see the patterns of brain size we do. Neither is correct. A look at marine mammals' brain sizes shows a range that fits not a "marine" diet vs. terrestrial diet, but whether they are social or not, and whether they are predators or not. Just like terrestrial animals. Some species of dolphins, like the bottlenose dolphins pictured, have pretty large brains, others don't (those which do are social predators). And other marine mammals which have that same marine diet that supposedly "give[s] you a large brain" -- such as seals -- don't have particularly large brains except when compared to non-predators and non-primates (most primates have relatively large brains).

Look at that passage again as a study in tactics. The first sentence suggests that all or some large number of marine mammals have brains as large and sophisticated as ours, when the truth is that only one or two species approach (but don't match) ours. Most are just about where we would expect them to be from studies of brain size of predators versus prey and social mammals versus non-social. There's more about this on my short page on EQ (Encephalization Quotient) which I did when critiquing the BBC Radio 4 aquatic ape show.

Now note that in all this discussion of brain size the time period has shifted radically, without mentioning it, from the ape-human transition to millions of years later and the transition from australopithecines to Homo. With this all the Morgan arguments about bipedality fly out the window, yet this is not even hinted at in the documentary. Her other supposedly (but not actually) "aquatic" features also no longer fit the time period discussed. In fact with this time shift her entire theory -- dependent on the time period of the transition -- is thrown bodily right out the window, but this defenestration receives no notice whatever in this documentary.

Also, even gathering mussels and catching fish, how does it give us the features of seals and whales? When Leigh Broadhurst mentions the easy to catch fish at the end of the rainy season, when they're stranded -- much as almost every animal in the northern part of the northern hemisphere eats salmon during and after their run -- how aquatic are you being when you walk onto a mud flat and pick up a fish? The program answers that one:

Narrator: "So early humans were somehow intimate with water. They either used the life in it or were part of the life in it."

Could they be any more vague? This incredible vagueness about what exactly they're talking about (eating a shrimp cocktail apparently makes you aquatic to them) is a long-standing part of the AAT/H.

This may be my favorite part of the program:

Narrator: "As time has passed, Elaine Morgan has been vindicated. She hasn't been proved right. She isn't even supported by a majority of anthropologists. But she's recognized, and her ideas are sparking other ideas."

Recognition itself as vindication is a modern thing all right. Being a celebrity, apparently, is what "vindication" now means. Not being right, not being supported by science, just mere recognition. And of course, her ideas are sparking ideas that contradict hers, ideas that are poorly supported, etc. Spare me from that kind of "vindication".

Phillip Tobias shows up again: "I see Elaine Morgan, through her series of superbly written books, presenting a challenge to the scientists. To take an interest in this thing, to look at the evidence dispassionately, not to avert your gaze as though it were something that you hadn't ought to hear about or hadn't ought to see. And those who are honest with themselves are going to dispassionately examine the evidence. We've got to if we are going to be true to our calling as scientists. "

Very noble. Of course Tobias here incorrectly assumes this wasn't done. What exactly are you supposed to do if you look at an idea and immediately see it's full of huge holes? Spend lots of time, energy, and money pursuing it? Is not spending that time, energy, and money on a badly thought out and presented and supported idea really not being "dispassionate"?

Desmond Morris tells us that while "Elaine Morgan and certain others have sought for every scrap of evidence they can find to support the aquatic theory", "some of the more conservative anthropologists have searched for every scrap of information they can find to destroy that theory". Name one. Come on, the producers can't even be consistent; one second anthropologists are "ignoring" it and "averting their gaze" and literally two seconds later anthropologists are hard at work searching diligently for any scrap of contrary info. Make up your minds, guys.

Morris says that "instead of having a balanced judgment, what you have is a counsel of the defense and a counsel of the prosecution" but in fact it's just Morgan who, as she has admitted, argues like a lawyer rather than a scientist, for instance burying any contrary information she finds. This method has become so ingrained to the AAT/H that when I looked for data on hair and swimming speeds, found conflicting data, and therefore wrote up and posted the data both for and against the idea that reducing body hair would improve swimming speed, at least one prominent AAT/H supporter thought I must have done so by mistake (see my Algis Kuliukas page for details).

The program closes with the statement "did humanity rise out of water? It has to be considered."

Done; just because Elaine Morgan doesn't like the inevitable answer you get when you consider it doesn't mean it hasn't been done.

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