Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Aquatic Apes

Another visit to Bath Guildhall, this time for part of their ‘Darwin’ strand of events. The event was a discussion between Elaine Morgan, proponent of the Aquatic Ape hypothesis, and Simon Conway-Morris, who is Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge . The discussion was chaired by Guardian journalist, and I understand that parts of it may be available as a podcast from the Guardian

I booked the ticket out of interest in Elaine Morgan’s hypothesis. Some years ago, I read a YA novella by Peter Dickinson, called ‘A Bone from a Dry Sea’ it is an SF novel in which the stories of a primitive tribe, and a modern girl, daughter of an archaeologist, intermingle – the book references the hypothesis and Elaine Morgan is specifically mentioned, which made me interested enough to seek out a copy of her book, “The Aquatic Ape”.

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis suggests that humans may have gone though an aquatic phase at some point in our evolution – and that this explains a number of differences between us and the other great apes, specifically:

• Like aquatic mammals such as whales and seal, but unlike other apes, humans have a layer of subcutaneous fat
• The fact that we are bipedal, which she suggests is an effective way to keep our heads above water
• Lack of hair, again similar to aquatic animals
• Voluntary breath control
• Babies ability to swim at birth

Ms Morgan is a feminist and part of her interest in the hypothesis arose from the fact that the received wisdom (that human ancestors became hairless because fur could have caused hunters to over heat, when bounding across the savannah, failed to take into account the fact that by the same received wisdom, females would be gathering roots and caring for children, so why would they also have become hairless?)

Prof. Conway-Morris is an expert on evolutionary biology and in particular convergent evolution – he gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures a few years ago, and was a key player in the excavation of the Burgess Shale.

I found the discussion interesting – it didn’t seem to be a direct conflict between the two speakers, although Prof. Conway-Morris did mention other potential reasons why human’s may have lost their fur, apart from aquatic living, and also mentioned other species which can control their breathing but which are not aquatic:- he also spoke about his own interest, of convergent evolution, and the possibility that evolution is ‘aiming’ for something, rather than necessarily being ‘pushed up’ from below – also the idea of convergent evolution on other planets, leading to other human-like intelligent entities!

I didn’t leave 100% convinced of either theory, but it was fascinating.


Arwenn said...

I think I remember reading that another benefit of the aquatic apes theory is that it would account for why many of the expected "missing link" fossils have not yet been found - they would have been left in places that are inaccessible/not conducive to fossils.

Marjorie said...

You may well be right - it's a little while since I read the book - it wasn't one of the points EM specifically mentioned in Bath.

Although I believe that finding *any* fossils is fantasticly unlikely given the conditions needed to create them, so the real surprise is not that we have so few fossils(of anything), but that we have so many.

I really need to get around to reading 'Wonderful Life' so i understand more about the burgess Shale, too. If only there were more hours in the day to catch up on all this reading ;-)

Cheryl said...

The aquatic ape idea is pretty old (almost as old as me, in fact). The main problem is, of course, evidence. But it does sound attractive. I found a couple of BBC radio programs about it which may be of interest:

Marcel F. Williams said...

A bipedal aquatic ape is already known in the fossil record. Its called Oreopithecus bambolii but is nick named-- the swamp ape.

Tan Morgan said...

Nice entry! I hadn't heard of Simon Conway-Morris.

Just to update you, the link for Elaine Morgan's website is broken because the url has changed to: http://www.elainemorgan.org/