Vernon Reynolds' Conclusions from the Valkenburg conference and The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?

AAT/H proponent Algis Kuliukas can pat himself on the back for getting me to do this page for my site. He has repeatedly, for quite some time now, insisted that I am remiss in mentioning Vernon Reynolds' summarising chapter for The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction?, the volume which resulted from the 1987 Valkenburg conference which brought together AAT/H proponents and people with opposing views. After his latest (September 2009) I find myself inclined to agree with him; it's time.

Now there's one little difference here... okay, not so little. Algis has been insisting that Reynolds' last paragraph be mentioned, that it's basically an abstract and can stand in for the whole chapter. That's nonsense for several reasons. One is that it's not an abstract and shouldn't be used as one; another is that even if it were an abstract, abstracts vary a lot in how complete they are. Some do offer a virtual Reader's Digest condensed version of the paper, others are more like those teasers to that are designed to get you to watch the news: "What common activity may cause you to die tonight? Watch Channel 9 news at 11". So I'll mention Reynolds' final paragraph, but I'll also mention what Reynolds said about each of the claims made regarding the AAT/H at that conference. That only makes sense, to look at the whole of what he said (and what all four editors said in their Epilogue, for that matter, which I'll also do). Looking at only part would be as silly as looking at only the title of Alister Hardy's 1960 article and ignoring the body of the article, something Algis has also insisted should be done.

Here's the one paragraph Algis thinks should be mentioned:

A number of other arguments exist on either side, but I shall not discuss them all; in any case they are fully dealt with in the chapters of this book. All I have tried to do here is to pick out a number of key arguments, present them as fairly as possible, and then make a personal choice. Overall, it will be clear that I do not think it would be correct to designate our early hominid ancestors as ’aquatic’. But at the same time there does seem to be evidence that not only did they take to water from time to time but that the water (and by this I mean inland lakes and rivers) was a habitat that provided enough extra food to count as an agency for selection. As a result, we humans today have the ability to learn to swim without too much difficulty, to dive, and to enjoy occasional recourse to the water.

So Reynolds is saying here that we have "the ability to learn to swim without too much difficulty, to dive, and to enjoy occasional recourse to the water". If that were indeed all there was to the AAT/H there would be no controversy whatever over it; no one doubts these things. It's also not much different from a number of non-human primates, so it's yet another of those areas where we resemble our primate relatives, except that many of them, for instance macaques, swim quite naturally without the need for being taught, so our ability to learn to swim as mentioned by Reynolds is actually worse than the ability of monkeys which are terrestrial. So that level of selection, the amount which led to our having those abilities, is a given. But that isn't all the AAT/H says, and Reynolds has some things to say about those other parts as well, in the parts of the summarising chapter outside that last paragraph. Reynolds is quite clear about what he thinks about them after reviewing the evidence given for them as argued by AAT/H proponents at the conference. In almost every instance he is clear in rejecting the AAT/H case; no wonder Algis wants the last paragraph to stand in for the rest.

This can be seen by taking the headings Reynolds used for each claim and his conclusion about that claim. I'll list these, along with a couple which need notes from me to point out errors:

On balance, I would conclude that the arguments that bipedalism evolved on the savannah are stronger than those that it evolved in water.

Body hair
The arguments for seeing the one covering of hair on the human body as a savannah adaptation rather than an aquatic one seem convincing.

In such circumstances sweating can be readily understood as a primary adaptation to a savannah environment rather than an aquatic one.

Subcutaneous fat
Overall, the arguments for an aquatic origin for human body fat seem weak or untenable, while the savannah arguments seem more convincing.

The 'diving response’
All in all, however, the evidence here points to the presence of an aquatic element in the environment, and one which was important enough to bring about some selection for agility in the water. There are things here that the Savannah Theory cannot properly explain.

My note: Reynolds bases this on an major error, seen in this sentence from this section: "It is not known whether this occurs in other primates, but the evidence suggests that it does not." This not true, the reflex and its innervation is the same in non-human primates. In fact, it's shared by all mammals, as well as diving birds, but present in diving mammals to a far greater extent than in humans and other primates. But since it's found in all mammals no matter what their habits, it's virtually certain to be an ancient reflex, a holdover from an older period of evolution. Since it developed at a time before any hominids existed, indeed before any primates existed -- its development cannot be expected to be explained by any hypothesis which is specifically about human evolution. The only conclusion we can draw from it is that, since we don't exhibit this reflex to the degree seen in diving mammals we don't show signs of having a lot of diving in our past. This is of course the exact opposite of the common AAT/H claim Reynolds is addressing here.

And the swimming and cooling adaptations that we see indicate a greater degree of adaptability of the hominids than a marshland habitat alone would produce, so that marshes may well have been a contributing habitat, and one that we should remember, but are unlikely to be more than this.

But in the absence of any fossil pongid-hominid evidence from the Danakil area it has no real substance, and further evidence would be needed before it could be taken seriously.

My note: The above refers to Danakil Island idea, but doesn't get into the fact that there is no evidence that such an island actually existed, and the information talking about the Danakil alps during the period of sea level rise in question says it was a peninsula, with basalt floods connecting it to the rest of Africa. Even LaLumiere, whose work Reynolds is referring to here, knows and mentions this, but he apparently mistook this to mean a solid layer of rock many tens of miles wide (making an ecological barrier), while in reality basalt floods are commonly covered with vegetation. For instance the Columbia River Plateau area in northern Oregon is composed of basalt floods, as is the Massif Central in France. Reynolds also points out that there is no fossil evidence whatever supporting this claim. (By the way, in this chapter Reynolds accurately refers to LaLumiere as an acoustic physicist as opposed to Morgan's later inaccurate claim that he was a geologist.)
Clearly Reynolds came down hard on the AAT/H claims, rejecting virtually all of them. One he suggested had some merit only because he made the mistake of not looking critically at some AAT/H "data" -- about the diving reflex -- which was in fact false, and this also takes away the evidence he referred to when he said in his last paragraph that "there does seem to be evidence that not only did they take to water from time to time". This means there's actually less support than he suggests for even the limited amount of water use he sees likely. And what he accepts is merely that humans show "some agility in water" and may have used habitat near water at times, and occasionally utilised water resources, which is just like many non-human primates and of course has long been accepted by all paleoanthropologists. The AAT/H is much more than that, and the parts that are more than that are all rejected by Reynolds.

The four authors (Machteld Roede, Jan Wind, John M. Patrick, and Vernon Reynolds again) of the short Epilogue also come down against the AAT/H, which they refer to as a "somewhat far-fetched idea", despite the fact that two of the four authors were pro-AAT/H at the conference:

"Our general conclusion is that, while there are a number of arguments favouring the AAT, they are not sufficiently convincing to counteract the arguments against it."

Why AAT/H proponents would ever think Reynolds' conclusions were supportive of their idea is a mystery; it seems as if they simply don't read the whole thing, just those parts that fit their world view. Or perhaps they have a sort of "Morton's Demon" which keeps them from seeing things right before their eyes.

A Note about the term "Morton's Demon"

Over the many years I've been examining the aquatic ape idea I've often been asked whether I think the proponents are serious, whether they are honest, whether they are... well, you name it. I've tended to try not to state any firm conclusion because to do so definitively requires me to read minds, which I cannot do. But it does seem that many of them, perhaps not all but many, make mistakes and are resistant to data in ways that can only be explained by a sort of Morton's Demon. This is a term originated by Glenn Morton, a former young earth creationist (YEC) who, after working in the field of geology in the oil industry, found he couldn't hold his YEC views in the face of evidence. But he wondered that he did so for so long, even though evidence which proved his views false was all around him. He came up with the concept of the Morton's Demon, inspired by a famous thought experiment by the brilliant 19th century physicist James Maxwell, the Maxwell's Demon. There's a link to Glenn's short essay at the bottom of the page and in the references; let me post a few apropos excerpts here:
Maxwell suggested a famous demon which could violate the laws of thermodynamics. The demon, sitting between two rooms, controls a gate between the two rooms. When the demon sees a speedy molecule coming his way (from room A), he opens the gate and lets the speedy molecule leave the room and when he sees a slow molecule coming at the gate (from room A), he holds it closed. Oppositely, when he sees a speedy molecule coming at the gate from room B he closes the gate but when he sees a slow molecule from room B coming toward the gate he opens it. In this way, the demon segregates the fast moving molecules into one room from the slow ones in the other. Since temperature of a gas is related to the velocity of the molecules, the demon would increase the temperature of room B and cool room A without any expenditure of energy. And since a temperature difference can be used to create useful work, the demon would create a perpetual motion machine.

Maxwell's demon was shown to fail by Szilard who showed that the demon needed to use light (and expend energy) to determine a fast molecule from a slow one. This energy spent to collect information meant that the demon couldn't violate the 2nd law.

When I was a YEC, I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell's demon did for thermodynamics. Morton's demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn't looking.

However, my conversations have made me aware that each YEC is a victim of my demon. Morton's demon makes it possible for a person to have his own set of private facts which others are not privy to, allowing the YEC to construct a theory which is perfectly supported by the facts which the demon lets through the gate. And since these are the only facts known to the victim, he feels in his heart that he has explained everything. Indeed, the demon makes people feel morally superior and more knowledgeable than others.

The demon makes its victim feel very comfortable as there is no contradictory data in view. The demon is better than a set of rose colored glasses. The demon's victim does not understand why everyone else doesn't fall down and accept the victim's views. After all, the world is thought to be as the victim sees it and the demon doesn't let through the gate the knowledge that others don't see the same thing. Because of this, the victim assumes that everyone else is biased, or holding those views so that they can keep their job...

But one thing that those unaffected by this demon don't understand is that the victim is not lying about the data. The demon only lets his victim see what the demon wants him to see and thus the victim, whose sensory input is horribly askew, feels that he is totally honest about the data. The victim doesn't know that he is the host to an evil parasite and indeed many of their opponents don't know that as well since the demon is smart enough to be too small to be seen.


"Cold and Watery? Hot and Dusty? Our Ancestral Environment and Our Ancestors Themselves: An Overview", by Vernon Reynolds, pp. 331-341, in The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction? edited by Machteld Roede, Jan Wind, John M. Patrick and Vernon Reynolds, 1991, Souvenir Press: London

"Epilogue", by Machteld Roede, Jan Wind, John M. Patrick and Vernon Reynolds, pp. ___, in The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction? edited by Machteld Roede, Jan Wind, John M. Patrick and Vernon Reynolds, 1991, Souvenir Press: London

Original Morton's Demon essay.