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How the Aquatic Ape Theory Keeps Floating On

While it's never been accepted by the scientific community, the theory that humans evolved from water-dwelling apes lingers in the public's mind's eye. Even science's allies, like Sir David Attenborough, are seduced by its charms.
Ben Richmond
Κείμενο Ben Richmond
Image via Flickr/tristanf

To many, Sir David Attenborough’s soothing, oaken British voice represents the pinnacle of broadcasting the natural world. The naturalist/broadcaster’s half-century career at the BBC has run the gamut from the massive—like the awe-inspiring, hi-def Planet Earth—to the miniscule—daily, 90-second podcasts on bird songs, that launched this week. He’s beloved, he’s in the public eye and he’s sharp as a tack. So where Sir David goes, the public eye follows, which explains why the event’s planners were so proud to hear that Attenborough wanted to attend both days of the “Human Evolution Past, Present & Future” symposium in London this week, and why evolutionary biologists and biological anthropologists collectively face-palmed at the announcement. That’s because, in spite of the symposium’s generic-sounding title, Attenborough—deliberately or not—is lending his name and considerable credibility to a 50-year-old fringe theory of human evolution that just won’t go away. It isn’t the first time that Sir David has hung out with the aquatic ape crowd, either.

If you haven’t heard of the aquatic ape theory, it’s either because of a vast, academic conspiracy, or just because you have better things to do than explore unproven, fringe pseudoscience. For the uninitiated, the aquatic apes theory or hypothesis states that “at some stage during the last few million years, our human ancestors were exposed to a period of semiaquatic evolution which led to the acquisition of unique and primordial human characteristics.” This explanation makes it sound simple enough, even innocuous, and it belies the fact that the theory doesn’t really have two upright legs to stand on.
While the aquatic ape theory was first popularized in the English-speaking world by the British marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy in 1960, it was eventually taken up by Elaine Morgan, who is enough of a face of the movement to get her own TED talk and requisite standing ovation.

The gist of the argument is that we humans look so different from our chimpanzee relatives that we couldn’t have emerged from the same environment in Africa all those years ago. How does one explain that people are hairless bi-peds, who have the sufficient breath control to speak, who eat seafood and who can dive well enough to earn Olympic gold medals? It’s easy: we came out of the trees and into the water. A livid-sounding Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature, took to the Guardian to give a succinct and amusing take down of the theory that basically boils down to this: the fossil and archeological record doesn’t support it and the “support” offered by proponents of the theory is total bunk. In less than 900 words, Gee made the notion of humans descending from wading apes seem ridiculous. So how has this theory carried on for 50 years? And what is David Attenborough up to?

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