Friday, May 31, 2013

Mermaids and Aquatic Apes

Image from Souvenir Press
     The recent hoopla over the cable channel Animal Planet's pseudo-documentaries Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence reminded me of The Aquatic Ape.
     Both Mermaids mockumentaries proclaim that mermaids are real and pretend to show evidence and actual film of the semi-fishy creatures. Although they have captured the public's fancy, the filmmakers don't really believe the claims made in the films.
     That doesn't seem to be the case with the author of The Aquatic Ape
     In 1982, while listening to National Public Radio's All Things Considered, I heard a story about Elaine Morgan's book The Aquatic Ape. Morgan was best known at the time for her debut book, The Descent of Woman (1972), a feminist rebuttal to the Savannah Theory of human evolution, but in it Morgan first broached the subject of the Aquatic Ape, which Morgan learned of from Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, who in turn attributed it to Alister Hardy. 
Souvenir Press
     Morgan, enamored of the idea, decided to write her own book explicitly about the hypothesis or theory after Hardy failed to write one himself. 
     In The Aquatic Ape, Morgan didn't proclaim that mermaids were real but rather that man has some peculiar physiological similarities with aquatic mammals, such as dolphins and whales, and even with aquatic birds such as penguins -- and corresponding dissimilarities with apes -- that suggest that the branch of primitive man from whom we evolved must have spent some time in a semi-aquatic environment. No, she doesn't claim that they grew fish tails or breathed underwater, but maybe their land became surrounded by water at some point so that they needed to begin adapting for an aquatic existence. They would have to spend more time in the water, losing hair, developing body fat and even walking upright on two legs.
     I was predisposed to like the idea of there being some connection between man and aquatic mammals. Around the time this book came out, dolphin intelligence was being touted by both researchers -- notably John C. Lilly -- and science fiction authors. In the Mike Nichols' film The Day of the Dolphin (1977) (based on a 1969 French novel), dolphins are taught to speak and understand English. In David Brin's Sundiver (1980) and its sequels, mankind has begun raising dolphins to human-level intelligence. Less seriously, in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978), dolphins are said to be already more intelligent than man.
     I bought the book, read and liked it, but still suspected it was hooey. As I said, I would have liked for it to be true. Once in awhile, when I encountered evolutionary biologists for stories, I asked what they thought of this "theory," but never encountered anyone who even admitted to having heard of it.
     So, when I heard about Animal Planet's first Mermaids film, I assumed it was an exploration of this "theory," and was dismayed to find it was more akin to Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, or perhaps the Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant. (I think there was a film about the Aquatic Ape on Discovery Channel years ago.)
     Then this morning (May 31, 2013), I saw a news report about the staggering success of the second Mermaids program, and I got curious about The Aquatic Ape again, did a web search and discovered that Elaine Morgan has written four more books about the Aquatic Ape: The Scars of Evolution (1990), The Descent of the Child (1995), The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997) -- all currently published by Souvenir Press -- and the out-of-print The Naked Darwinist (2008), which can be downloaded for free from the author's website.
     Many critics say that flaws in the theory and errors in her science have been pointed out to Morgan over and over, but she just ignores them and blames the lack of acceptance of the theory as a conspiracy by the scientific establishment.
     I admire her persistence, I guess, but the number of books she's written about the same topic make her seem more like a kook to me. Is she a true believer, obsessed with this subject? Is she a con artist, milking a subject to take advantage of a gullible public (like Erich von Daniken and his space alien gods)? Or is she a maverick, fighting an obstinate and conservative scientific old guard?
     Whatever the truth, I have more respect for her than I do for the programmers at Animal Planet.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Humans didn’t descend from "aquatic apes", of course, although our Pleistocene ancestors were too slow & heavy for regular running over open plains as some anthropologists still believe.
Instead, Homo populations during the Ice Ages (with sea-levels often 100 m lower than today!) simply followed the coasts & rivers in Africa & Eurasia (>800,000 years ago, they even reached Flores >18 km overseas).
Recent info on the littoral theory:
- google “econiche Homo”
- eBook “Was Man more aquatic in the past?” introd.Phillip Tobias
- guest post at Greg Laden’s blog
- Human Evolution conference London 8–10.5.13 (David Attenborough, Don Johanson...)

June 9, 2013 at 2:35 AM 

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