Wikipedia and the scientific community
AAT, Wikipedia and the scientific community
If the Aquatic Ape Theory is really so obvious, why aren't we hearing about it more often or learning about it in school? Below I have included some answers as written by Richard Ellis, American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA, Marc Verhaegen and Elaine Morgan.
In a 2000 article published in BBC Wildlife, Simon Bearder, a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and a member of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, wrote a comprehensive summary of the AAH that began with the question: “How do you upset a gathering of biological anthropologists?”, and answered it: “Just mention the words ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’.” . Bearder believes that Morgan’s suggestions are worthy of consideration, and concludes his article thus: “So, is it really true that the ancient causes of our unique way of life are still a mystery? Or is it more of a mystery why the ideas of Elaine Morgan and others have often been systematically ignored by professional anthropologists? Why are the possibilities of an amphibious origin not subjected to rational debate, scrutiny and research? These questions are hard to answer without concluding that prejudice and dogma have reigned far too long… It is a challenge for future generations of anthropologists to expose these ideas to research and analysis to see if they survive close scrutiny, rather than continuing the denial of their predecessors and pretending there is no case to answer.”
Despite Morgan’s willingness to subject her hypothesis to any test that anyone might suggest, mainstream anthropologists, with a couple of exceptions (see Chapter 15*), have ignored her. It may be, as Daniel Dennett  wrote, “that she is not only a woman, but a science writer, an amateur without proper official credentials … But in this case, I wonder, many of the counterarguments seem awfully thin and ad hoc. During the last few years, when I have found myself in the company of distinguished biologists, evolutionary theorists, palaeo-anthropologists, and other experts, I have often asked them to tell me, please, exactly why Elaine Morgan must be wrong about the aquatic ape theory. I haven’t yet had a reply worth mentioning, aside from those who admit, with a twinkle in their eyes, that they have often wondered the same thing. There seems to be nothing
In The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis , Morgan included numbered references, because, she said, “After disputing for 25 years with professional scientists, I have learned to respect the high standards they set themselves, and expect from others, in identifying their sources.” She also wrote: “The questions posed by the Aquatic Ape Theory are important and valid. The answers it offers are speculative, but no more so than any other available model. It is now generally agreed that the last common ancestor of apes and men lived in Africa in a landscape that was a mosaic, a mixture of trees and grassland. One subgroup of these animals – for some reason – began to change. First they stood up on their hind legs and began to walk bipedally; at some point the hair on their bodies changed direction and ultimately they became functionally naked; the larynx descended and was relocated below the tongue; they became fatter; forgot how to pant; lost their apocrine glands and much of their sense of smell; their sebaceous glands proliferated; their nostrils pointed in a new direction; finally, they evolved larger brains, gave birth to more immature babies, and learned to speak. There may be sound reasons why the aquatic model, like the savannah one, will in the end after careful scrutiny have to be abandoned. But there is no case for rejecting it out of hand. Over the past decades it has been adjusted and modified to meet valid objections and to accommodate new data. For those who have assumed that there is something inherently untenable about it, it is time to think again.”
Obviously, the fact that Elaine Morgan is a woman does not automatically validate (or negate) her hypothesis, and, given the nature of The Descent of Woman  – and its publication at the height of the burgeoning women’s movement – those who refuse to acknowledge her theories are doing exactly what she says has happened throughout discussions of human evolutionary history: relegating women to the kitchen and nursery.
Elaine Morgan deserves to be taken seriously. The AAH is too important to be dismissed as a joke or as a hypothesis developed only in support of the women’s movement, and the supporters of the hypothesis ask enough questions to make offhand dismissal impossible. Examining the history of Homo sapiens, we are categorically unable to explain the considerable differences between humans and other primates: upright, bipedal stance, hairlessness of the body, subcutaneous fat layers, larger brains and the power of speech. Accepted evolutionary theory suggests that these
*Fifty Years after Alister Hardy Waterside Hypotheses of Human Evolution, Mario Vaneechoutte, Algis Kuliukas and Marc Verhaegen (Eds), 2011 Bentham Science Publishers. Ellis, Richard. Chapter 13: Aquagenesis: Alister Hardy, Elaine Morgan and the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, p.196-197
The Aquatic Ape evolves: Common Misconceptions and Unproven Assumptions about the so-called Aquatc Ape Hypothesis
by Marc Verhaegen
Human Evolution 28: 237-266, 2013
The term aquatic ape gives an incorrect impression of our semi-aquatic ancestors. Better terms are in my opinion the coastal dispersal model (Munro 2010) or the littoral theory of human evolution, but although littoral seems to be a more appropriate biological term here than aquatic, throughout this paper I will use the well-known and commonly used term AAH (Aquatic Ape Hypotheses) as shorthand for all sorts of waterside and semi-aquatic hypotheses (note paleoanthropologists sometimes use AAH for African-Ape-Human clade).
Popular and semi-scientific websites about AAH (e.g. Wikipedia) and even some supposedly scientific papers (e.g. Langdon 1997) appear to contain several biased or outdated views on AAH, giving lay-people and new students of AAH wrong impressions of our ancestors’ likely waterside past. Many of these unproven prejudices are widespread, not only among AAH opponents, but also among proponents. Some of these misconceptions find their origin in the original writings of the ‘father of AAH’ Sir Alister Hardy (e.g. on the timing of our aquatic past, and on the transition towards it), in the books of Elaine Morgan (who has done most to promote AAH) or in common interpretations of AAH proponents (e.g. on bipedalism, and on laryngeal descent). Others derive from wide-spread interpretations and unproven assumptions in popular writings on human evolution, or even in more scientific papers, for instance, on savanna adaptations, on running, hunting and meat-eating, and on australopiths being human ancestors.
Wikipedia: a reliable source?
While Wikipedia is generally a fantastic instrument, usually providing recent and reliable information to lay-people, this is perhaps not always the case in highly controversial topics like human evolution. In spite of the efforts of AAH enthusiasts to update the Wikipedia website Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, the editors of the website appear to take a conservative approach (which in other instances might be a safe strategy). As a result, the AAH website is considerably biased and outdated, relying chiefly on the 1987 Valkenburg conference (Roede et al. 1991), while overlooking most recent literature on AAH.
For example in the first paragraph, instead of referring to a few dozen recent peer-reviewed and detailed publications on different aspects of AAH, Wikipedia refers solely to the only anti-AAH peer-reviewed paper, now sixteen years old: “An extensive criticism appeared in a peer reviewed paper by John H. Langdon in 1997. Langdon states that the AAH is one of many hypotheses attempting to explain human evolution through a single causal mechanism, and that the evolutionary fossil record does not support such a proposal; that the hypothesis is internally inconsistent, has less explanatory power than its proponents claim, and that alternative terrestrial hypotheses are much better supported. AAH is popular among laypeople and has continued support by a minority of scholars. Langdon attributes this to the attraction of simplistic single-cause theories over the much more complex, but better-supported models with multiple causality.”
However, the article fails to mention that Langdon’s paper has been thoroughly answered in peer-reviewed publications not mentioned by the Wikipedia article. Suffice it to say that Langdon merely gives his personal thoughts without scientific argumentation. AAH is no simplistic, single-cause theory. On the contrary, waterside hypotheses provide an extra viewpoint to human evolution, not discussed by conventional anthropologists: AAH not only considers forest- and open plain dwelling, but also the possibility that human ancestors at some time lived along coasts, rivers, swamps etc. AAH is internally consistent, and, compared to purely terrestrial hypotheses (forests vs. plains, tropical vs. cold, scavenging vs. hunting, etc.), it offers incomparably greater explanatory power, as shown below as well as in the many recent publications not consulted by Langdon.
The Wikipedia AAH article bluntly declares: “There is no fossil evidence to support the AAH”, but fails to refer to relevant publications (e.g. Walter et al. 2000, Gutierrez et al. 2001, Joordens et al. 2009, Munro 2010). In fact, our extensive reviews of the literature as well as the malacological (mollusc) and other paleo-environmental evidence suggest that virtually all archaic Homo sites are connected with abundant edible shellfish (Verhaegen et al. 2007, Munro 2010, Table 5 in Munro & Verhaegen 2011).
The Wikipedia article also states without argument: “Several theoretical problems have been found with the AAH.” In our opinion, the littoral theory instead offers theoretical as well as practical solutions to several problems in conventional paleo-anthropology, as shown below.
The Wikipedia article claims that human traits such as bipedalism and laryngeal descent have been considered by proponents to be pro AAH arguments. However, this is not the general AAH opinion, currently. According to Hardy’s method (comparative biology), neither bipedalism nor laryngeal descent can be considered as pro AAH arguments. There are no bipedal (semi)aquatic animals apart from (wading) birds, and even the semi-aquatic penguins are only bipedal when outside the water. The same holds for laryngeal descent. For instance, Cetacea have ascended (intra-narial) larynges, not descended. These matters have been discussed (see also below) in several publications not mentioned in the Wikipedia article (e.g. Verhaegen 1993, Verhaegen & Munro 2007).
The article is also biased in citing anti-AAH comments, while failing to mention the obvious responses. One opponent claims that AAH “explains all of these features … twice. Every one of the features encompassed by the theory still requires a reason for it to be maintained after hominids left the aquatic environment”, yet seems to be unaware of the existence of phylogenetic inertia as well as of rudiments in evolution, and has apparently not heard of the title of Elaine Morgan’s book The Scars of Evolution: as Morgan explained repeatedly, AAH is based on embryological, anatomical, physiological etc. remnant traits of our past that are not typically seen in terrestrial mammals. She quoted Stephen Gould: “the remnants of the past that don’t make sense in present terms—the useless, the odd, the peculiar, the incongruous—are the signs of history.”
Equally selective is the Wikipedia article’s mentioning Greg Laden’s anti-AAH comments in 2009, yet omitting Laden’s more recent and positive blog on AAH (Laden 2013). The Wikipedia article mentions the recent eBook on AAH (Vaneechoutte et al. eds 2011), but then cites from Langdon’s review of that book, instead of discussing the fifteen actual contributions in the eBook. The site verbosely writes about Langdon’s opinion (outdated and no longer relevant, see above), yet not about recent peer-reviewed critiques of Langdon’s publications (Kuliukas 2011, Vaneechoutte et al. 2012). It also does not mention many intriguing contributions in the eBook on different aspects of AAH, and it misrepresents or omits our own chapters on Miocene ape and australopith evolution, on Pleistocene Homo, and on speech origins.
These are only a few examples, but they support the idea that the Wikipedia article is prejudiced toward outdated and ill-informed opinions on what AAH is as defined and misunderstood by its critics rather than on the recent publications exploring the theory itself. Of course, the same can be said about some similarly unscientific blogs and websites on the Internet mentioning AAH. 
In her book, The Naked Darwinist (2008), Elaine Morgan sets out to answer some of the main objections to the Aquatic Ape Theory.
OBJECTIONS AND REPLIES
The aim of this section is to outline the AAT response to some of the stock questions about the physiology of Homo sapiens. In it I hope at least to convince you that the mental activity involved is in no way different from, inferior to, or wackier than the orthodox scientific method. It is exactly the same method. It merely starts from a different premise: that a watery habitat may have played a part in shaping us. I know that some readers will be pre-disposed to regard that proposition with scepticism. So before getting down to specifics, it might be worth recapping some of the non-specific reasons for rejecting it that I have heard voiced from time to time.
1. “The palaeontologists have found no confirmation of it.”
2. “The hominids could not have lived by the water because of crocodiles.”
3. “If our ancestors had been aquatic we would be more stream-lined.”
4. “Morgan keeps changing her story. In the beginning she said one thing, now she is saying another.”
5. “The people best qualified to judge are against it.”
7 “I know some people who believe in it and also believe in astrology and ESP and all that stuff.”
8. “Some of them have this Eureka moment when they hear of it and don’t look for any evidence. That’s no way to do science.”
9. “The picture she gives has got vaguer as time goes on, instead of clearer.”
 Bearder SK. Flood brothers: The origin of bipedalism. BBC Wildlife 2000; 18: 64-8.
|Website: F. Mansfield, 2015|
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