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Space Ape Parody Shows Why Aquatic Ape Theory Is All Wet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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chimp astronaut

Street art chimp astronaut. Image: chiptape via Flickr

This past weekend the misguided aquatic ape theory surfaced for air, only to get sunk in the most entertaining way.  The theory holds that many traits of humans—including our naked skin, upright posture and large brains–evolved as adaptations to living in an aquatic environment. But fossil and archaeological evidence simply does not support this scenario, so whenever the aquatic ape theory makes the media rounds, scientists grumble. This time, however, they responded with parody.

On April 27 the Guardian ran a story on the aquatic ape theory, highlighting a symposium that will be held in London May 8 – 9 to “explore new research and evidence which suggests 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.“ That story and other media coverage of the aquatic ape idea inspired anthropologist Brenna Hassett to propose a satirical alternative to the watery fringe theory in her blog the following day. Thus the space ape theory was born.

“Basic Arguments of the Space Ape Theory:

1. we have evolved big brains relative to our bodies because we don’t need our bodies to move around in space.

2. we don’t have much body hair because what would be the point of a few more follicles worth in 2.73 Kelvin (-270 Celsius)?

3. sinuses, far from being evolutionary spandrels, are little miniature internal space helmets.

4. our outsize eyes clearly show our relation to other species in space.

Follow-on arguments include the theory that language must have evolved once we re-terrestrialised, because as we all know, in space, no one can hear you scream.”

This, of course, led to the coining of a Twitter hashtag, #spaceape, whereupon more hilarity ensued. A sampling:

 

 

Now I don’t mean to suggest that aquatic environments were not important in human evolution. They were. Indeed the #spaceape antics prompted archaeologist Becky Wragg Sykes to blog about legit research into the connection between prehistoric humans and water. But there is no substantive evidence to support the idea that the anatomical characteristics that distinguish us from our ape kin arose as adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle.

About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sault 5:18 pm 04/30/2013

    The loss of body hair and upright posture that occurred on the savannahs probably helped in eventually making short-term forays into the surf more productive. While chimps and other great apes can wade and paddle, having a light frame, smooth skin and a relatively streamlined shape makes Homo Sapiens the best swimmer in the primate family. In other words, being adapted for one environment allowed our ancestors to be coincidently well-adapted to take advantage of another one. Since a lot of the migration routes out of Africa and areas beyond tend to follow coastlines, this seems to be the case. Presently, we are now one of the most widespread invasive species on the planet!

    Link to this
  2. 2. syzygyygyzys 5:50 pm 04/30/2013

    They left out one bit of the most compelling evidence; dreams. Almost everyone reports dreams in which they can fly. What better explains that common genetic memory than our space ape origin? I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.

    Funny stuff. Thanks.

    Link to this
  3. 3. LarryW 8:09 pm 04/30/2013

    Similarly, our frequent dreams of trying to walk and run and only being able to move in slow motion against seemingly back current is proof that our brain remembers fondly swimming with ease; we become angered because we are now unable to.

    I knew there was a reason.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jimmybo 8:34 pm 04/30/2013

    10,000 years from now this idea might be believed, that is if we get to other star systems. Now on the water ape idea, how about a different twist on it, water human stage, around the time of our gene bottle neck, this maybe why eating fish is so good for us, also some people tend to have a form of webbing between the toes est.

    Link to this
  5. 5. syzygyygyzys 8:53 pm 04/30/2013

    The rocks and pool
    Is nice and cool
    So juicy sweet

    Our only wish
    To catch a fish
    So juicy sweet

    Gollum from LOTR

    Link to this
  6. 6. newpapyrus 10:34 pm 04/30/2013

    Actually, its the current new theory a month paradigms that are from outer space.

    There is nothing unusual about primates exploiting aquatic resources for food. Wading bipedally in shallow water and even diving underwater for aquatic plants or shellfish in freshwater and in marine environments has been observed in many monkeys and apes and, of course, is common in primitive human populations. So its certainly not a question as to whether such bipedal aquatic feeding behavior in humans and other primates is possible.

    The question is, is there any evidence that a primate species actually became– specialized– in such aquatic feeding behavior for an extensive period of evolutionary time and whether its possible humans could be descended from such primates.

    The aquatic ape hypothesis was first conceived by Oxford marine biologist, Sir Alister Hardy, back in the 1920s. But he didn’t reveal his hypothesis to the public until 1960 during a lecture and then in an article in the journal, New Scientist.

    Elaine Morgan first encountered the hypothesis after she read a synopsis of it in the Desmond Morris book, the Naked Ape. Then she wrote about it in her own book, the Descent of Woman in the early 1970s.

    Basically, Hardy’s argument was that humans became bipeds and developed a thick subcutaneous fat because they needed to wade into shallow water in order to get access to shellfish.

    I should note that aquatic wading is also one of the leading hypotheses for the origin of bipedalism in archosaurs (dinosaurs, birds, and crocodilians)

    I think its pretty obvious that Oreopithecus evolved its bipedalism as a wading adaptation for exploiting aquatic plants during its 2 million years of isolation on the ancient Mediterranean island of Tuscany-Sardinia.

    The lobulated medulla of the human kidney strongly suggest that humans were once specialized in consuming foods with an extremely high salt content. Since the African continent tends to be deficient in food resources with high levels of salt, human ancestors obviously evolved such kidneys along a marine coastline– probably an island, IMO.

    Marcel F. Williams

    Link to this
  7. 7. rossm 11:07 pm 04/30/2013

    Further evidence of our former aquatic ancestry is provided in the unstoppable determination of most humans, wherever they can afford it, to eat food in quantities that tend to make us spherical in shape, to reduce heat losses in the relatively cold sea waters. This makes humans look more like our ex-aquatic cousins the elephant, and presently aquatic cousins, the hippopotamus (and of course the whale).

    Our dextrous fingers evolved, of course, to better comb the tresses of mermaids, now sadly extinct.

    Link to this
  8. 8. syzygyygyzys 12:16 am 05/1/2013

    Oreopithecus developed bipedalism because it took both hands to properly get at the creamy filling.

    Link to this
  9. 9. MrToad 1:39 pm 05/1/2013

    “Wading .. in shallow water .. for .. shellfish in freshwater .. environments has been observed in many monkeys and apes and, of course, is common in primitive human populations.”

    My God! We’re descended from Raccoons! No wonder so many of us turn to crime.

    Link to this
  10. 10. jimmybo 9:50 pm 05/1/2013

    love it

    Link to this
  11. 11. CSpalding 2:45 am 05/2/2013

    A whole article dedicated to the ridicule of a scientific hypothesis. Not very scientific.

    Link to this
  12. 12. rossm 1:20 am 05/4/2013

    For aquatic apes, teenage boys’ wet dreams are nothing to comment on.

    Link to this
  13. 13. David Marjanović 10:54 am 05/5/2013

    Hi, newpapyrus. I forgot to send you that e-mail; I’ll do it later today.

    I should note that aquatic wading is also one of the leading hypotheses for the origin of bipedalism in archosaurs (dinosaurs, birds, and crocodilians)

    …Where did you get that from? It’s not. I’ve never even seen it mentioned, and I follow the paleontology of that group quite closely!

    I think its pretty obvious that Oreopithecus evolved its bipedalism as a wading adaptation for exploiting aquatic plants during its 2 million years of isolation on the ancient Mediterranean island of Tuscany-Sardinia.

    Oreopithecus was a leaf-eater, as shown by both the shape of its teeth and their microwear. It stood under trees and reached for leaves like a ground sloth or chalicothere or homalodothere or giant kangaroo (Procoptodon). There’s no evidence that O. has anything to do with our ancestry.

    The lobulated medulla of the human kidney strongly suggest that humans were once specialized in consuming foods with an extremely high salt content.

    If it were extreme, we’d have separate reniculi. We don’t. It’s important to remember that too much salt and too little water are the same thing as far as kidneys are concerned, and we live in drier environments than pretty much any other primate; no wonder our kidneys are the most cattle-like and rhino-like of apparently any primate.

    A whole article dedicated to the ridicule of a scientific hypothesis. Not very scientific.

    It’s not a scientific hypothesis. To keep repeating arguments that were disproved decades ago, to cherry-pick the evidence, to make up elaborate excuses why the fossil record doesn’t fit the hypothesis – that’s pseudoscience. It’s as much a cargo cult as Melba Ketchum’s very own journal.

    Link to this
  14. 14. David Marjanović 10:58 am 05/5/2013

    Crocodile-style swimming has been suggested to explain why archosaurs generally have longer, stronger hind- than forelimbs; but wading? Never. Look at Proterosuchus and tell me how it could have done that. o_O Besides, there’s no point in mentioning birds separately; they’re maniraptoran coelurosaurian tetanuran theropod saurischian dinosaurs.

    Oreopithecus developed bipedalism because it took both hands to properly get at the creamy filling.

    Thread won.

    Link to this
  15. 15. newpapyrus 5:57 pm 05/5/2013

    @David Marjanović

    References to the aquatic origin of bipedalism in archosaurs can be found in:

    Romer, A.S. (1966) Paleontology, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Neill, W.T. (1971) The Last of the Ruling Reptiles, New York: Columbia University Press.

    Desmond, A.J. (1976) The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs, New York: The Dial Press/James Wade.

    Halstead, L.B. and Halstead, J. (1981) Dinosaurs, Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press.

    Williams MF. The adaptive significance of endothermy and salt excretion amongst the earliest archosaurs. Speculat Sci Technol 1997; 20:237–47.

    Oreopithecus swamp habitat:

    Harrison & Rook, Function, Phylogeny, and Fossils: Miocence Hominoid Evolution and Adaptations. 1997

    “The remains of Oreopithecus bambolii are extremely abundant in VI, and this species represents one of the commonest mammals at the site…..Evidence for a primarily aquatic setting and a humid forested environment is provided by the extensive lignite accumulations, the common occurrence of skeletal remains in anatomical connection, the abundance of fossil crocodiles, chelonians, and freshwater mollusks, and the occurrence of otters…..The area was evidently poorly drained, and the forested areas were interspersed with numerous freshwater pools and shallow lakes. pg 335

    “Interestingly, there is also a corresponding decline in the abundance of Oreopithecus in V2, which might simply imply a relatively narrow ecological preference by this taxon for swampy, forested habitats.” pg. 336

    “Another possibility is that Oreopithecus was exploiting aquatic or wetland plants, such as water lilies, reeds, sedges, cattail, pond weeds, horsetails, and stoneworts, all of which are abundantly represented in the pollen spectrum from Baccinello.” pg. 341,

    “If it were extreme, we’d have separate reniculi…If it were extreme, we’d have separate reniculi. ”

    The external appearance of the kidney is not what matters when trying to rapidly rid the body of salt. Its the number of medullary pyramids that matters. The purpose of medullary lobulation is to increase the surface area between the medulla and the cortex in order to enhance the rate of excretion of hypertonic fluids. Humans can have up to 20 medullary pyramids in their kidneys. Old world monkeys and apes have– none!

    Camels have lobulated kidneys, not because they live in the desert but because they consume plants and drink water from brine pools with a salt content that’s higher than seawater. There were plenty of freshwater resources for hominin ancestors in sub-Saharan Africa during the Pliocene and Pleistocene.

    Humans have lobulated kidneys probably because a common ancestor use to specialize in eating shellfish. This probably happened on an isolated island off the African coast during the Pliocene which is probably why humans lost a dramatic amount of their genetic variation relative to other hominoids and why they they managed to avoid a baboon retrovirus than substantially contaminated all other hominoids and other primates in sub-Saharan Africa– except humans.

    But there’s nothing unusual about the exploitation of marine shellfish in humans and in other primates. In fact, it is a common behavior in coastal marine human populations both in the present and in the past.

    Marcel F. Williams

    Link to this
  16. 16. CSpalding 7:07 am 05/6/2013

    @David Marjanović I agree with you, but nothing in this article is about the science. It’s sole purpose is to make painfully non-funny ‘jokes’ about something which isn’t completely stupid. There are lots of interesting points to the idea and whereas I don’t think we did have an aquatic past, the questions raised by the theory are very interesting, such as why we lost our hair, have subcutaneous fat etc, etc… An example being what you said about kidneys. I found that very interesting that high salt and low water cause similar effects to the kidneys. I may have missed that interesting snippit if it weren’t for the questions raised by the theory!

    Link to this
  17. 17. AlgisKuliukas 4:00 am 05/8/2013

    Again, very disappointing to read something by someone you thought you respected that is just ignorant sneering. As I said elsewhere today, a bit like finding out Sam Harris keeps “several” guns.

    The “aquatic ape theory” is a misnomer. It is not one idea, but several. The term “aquatic” is loaded and invokes images of primate seals and mermaids. It is not only to do with precursors to humans (“apes”) but to the genus Homo too.

    People should refer to them (plural) as waterside hypotheses of human evolution as the latest scholarly book on the subject suggests. It’s a shame Kate has not kept herself up to date on the subject.

    The material point is that humans are very different from our ape cousins, despite being closer genetically to chimps than they are to any other species. There are a remarkable cluster of traits that distinguish us from the rest of the ape clade and all of them are consistent with some, rather radical, shift in habitat. It’s simply a Darwinian thing to do to consider what evolutionary scenario that might have been.

    Of the three conceivable substrates on the planet, our ancestors may have moved through trees, on land or in water. It is bizarre in the extreme to discount one of those a priori, simply because one has misunderstood some people’s writings about a particular idea and has decided that it is as bad as thinking we evolved in space, especially when it is known that climate change did affect the habitat of our ancestors and the major result of that change was to do with that stuff that begins with “w”.

    I must pick up on your last point:

    “But there is no substantive evidence to support the idea that the anatomical characteristics that distinguish us from our ape kin arose as adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle”

    Except for a really obvious one: we do swim and dive better than chimps.

    Algis Kuliukas

    Link to this
  18. 18. NORCALROE 2:33 pm 05/8/2013

    Aquatic Ape makes complete sense if we change the Earth model. If we discount Continental Drift in which there is no sold evidence for, and replac eit with an Expanding Earth much Robert Montavani proposed in 1910, than the aquatic ape makes perfect sense. Before the Earth started growing 200mya, the land was shallow seas, this was proved in China, where they found fossilized remains of a 300mya old Tropical Forest. This makes sense since evolution is merely environmental adaptation. We grew hands and feet since we were rising up out of the ocean, science has already proven the mechanism behind the formation of flippers into limbs. We will continue with more questions than answers until we answer the right questions.

    Link to this
  19. 19. newpapyrus 4:28 am 05/13/2013

    “If it were extreme, we’d have separate reniculi. We don’t. It’s important to remember that too much salt and too little water are the same thing as far as kidneys are concerned, and we live in drier environments than pretty much any other primate; no wonder our kidneys are the most cattle-like and rhino-like of apparently any primate.”

    If that were true then baboons would have the most lobulated medullary region of all primates. They don’t. Plus there’s no evidence that humans were confined to deserts and lacked freshwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Plus losing too much salt is still a problem even in the desert especially for humans since the sweat a lot of salt. Salt loss is such a problem in human beings that a significant number of human sweat glands have been deactivated. And even the sweat glands themselves have been modified to reduce salt loss by returning salt back to the body.

    Marcel F. Williams

    Link to this
  20. 20. David Marjanović 10:11 am 05/13/2013

    References to the aquatic origin of bipedalism in archosaurs can be found in:

    I replied to all this yesterday in the appropriate thread. I won’t repeat it here because, among other things, it’s just too embarrassing for you. *facepalm*

    I also replied to what you say about Oreopithecus.

    Camels have lobulated kidneys, not because they live in the desert but because they consume plants and drink water from brine pools with a salt content that’s higher than seawater.

    Are you sure you haven’t confused cause and effect here?

    they managed to avoid a baboon retrovirus than substantially contaminated all other hominoids and other primates in sub-Saharan Africa– except humans

    …You must have overlooked this comment (follow the link called “here”) and the middle of this admittedly very long comment.

    the questions raised by the theory are very interesting, such as why we lost our hair, have subcutaneous fat etc, etc…

    I wouldn’t say these questions are raised by the AAH. The AAH is simply one attempt to answer them.

    The loss of hair except on the head is usually explained as an adaptation to radiating heat off and making the sweat glands work better while still not overheating the head. Subcutaneous fat… well, do most of us really have more of that than your average male orang-utan, for instance?

    And do keep in mind that nobody is telling the AAH proponents to just shut up. We’re explaining the errors in the hypothesis.

    (A theory is something larger than a hypothesis, something that shows underlying connections between hypotheses and explains many disparate facts. A hypothesis has a narrower scope.)

    a bit like finding out Sam Harris keeps “several” guns

    Having read what he has written about torture and about nuclear first strikes, I’m not at all surprised about that.

    It is bizarre in the extreme to discount one of those a priori

    It’s not a priori. That’s what I’ve been trying to explain all along.

    Except for a really obvious one: we do swim and dive better than chimps.

    We also run much better than them, and even when walking we’re much better at covering long distances.

    Obvious questions:
    1) Since when?
    2) Which abilities could be byproducts of each other?

    Our long legs and large lung capacity let us swim and dive better than chimps; but, given the fossil record and various details of the anatomy of our legs, isn’t it easier to assume the selective advantage they convey lies in long-distance walking?

    If we discount Continental Drift in which there is no sold evidence for

    …Indeed, it was a somewhat shaky model. That’s why it was replaced by plate tectonics in 1968. I wonder where you’ve been in the meantime.

    It’s an observed fact that the Alps and the Pacific become narrower each year.

    And switch your spellchecker off, its vocabulary is way too small.

    and replac eit with an Expanding Earth much Robert Montavani proposed in 1910

    How does that work? What force creates empty space in the Earth? Why are there subduction zones? I could go on.

    Before the Earth started growing 200mya, the land was shallow seas, this was proved in China, where they found fossilized remains of a 300mya old Tropical Forest.

    Oh, man.

    That forest didn’t grow in the sea. I mean, hello? Neither did the 315 to 300 Ma old coal forests in North America and Europe, or the 370 Ma old Archaeopteris forests in about the same places, or the liverwort carpets of Ordovician times. There are 1.4-billion-year-old raindrop imprints; those can’t form on the seafloor!

    The idea that “the Earth started growing” at the end of the Triassic comes from the fact that Wegener, who died in 1930, didn’t reconstruct the positions of the continents before that age. But Pangaea isn’t the original state of the Earth. Pangaea assembled itself from continents that collided. Their movements have been reconstructed all the way through two previous supercontinents, to about 750 million years when the Pacific Ocean opened between North America in the east and Australia + Antarctica in the west, and with less precision to one more supercontinent that existed about two billion years ago.

    Here’s a paper I’m sure you will enjoy. If you don’t have access, find me in Google Scholar and drop me an e-mail!

    We grew hands and feet since we were rising up out of the ocean

    That wasn’t 200 Ma ago for any definition of “we”.

    If that were true then baboons would have the most lobulated medullary region of all primates.

    It’s size-related, too; and baboons don’t live in drier areas than where we come from – they live in the same savannas.

    Plus there’s no evidence that humans were confined to deserts and lacked freshwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Never said they were. Just saying savanna vs. rainforest.

    a significant number of human sweat glands have been deactivated

    Details and evidence, please.

    Link to this
  21. 21. David Marjanović 10:26 am 05/13/2013

    Here’s a paper I’m sure you will enjoy.

    What I was actually looking for was the introduction of the special issue the paper is in. But both are interesting. :-)

    Link to this
  22. 22. tomwdf 5:30 pm 05/16/2013

    It is a great pity that ideas like the Waterside Theory should attract such ridicule – especially when this is initiated by a writer on a reputable journal, like Scientific American.
    Good scientists are open-minded. History is full of ideas and theories that were initially ridiculed before becoming established based on evidence. Remember continental drift?

    Link to this
  23. 23. definingsound 12:42 pm 05/24/2013

    Brutal (as in awful) editorial content in Kate Wong’s article above. The title suggests that a disproof of a current scientific theory will be contained within the article, instead it is clearly just a “straw man” fallacy argument. To see a science journo working to discredit interesting scientists with interesting theories, leaves a bad impression on this reader.

    Link to this
  24. 24. David Marjanović 10:56 am 05/31/2013

    Good scientists are open-minded.

    Uh, yeah. We’re just not so open-minded that our brains fall out.

    See, the AAH has been tested so often, and failed every time, that there’s really no point in continuing to entertain it.

    Remember continental drift?

    Oh yeah. About half of the scientists in relevant disciplines accepted it right away; and then it turned out Wegener was massively wrong about the mechanism and several other things.

    interesting scientists with interesting theories

    Hacks who don’t understand what they’ve been talking about for decades. Don’t take my word for this – read this thread, where Marcel Williams, Algis Kuliukas and Marc Verhaegen have participated, and find out!

    Link to this
  25. 25. marcverhaegen 7:34 am 10/1/2013

    A pity that Scient.American uses outdated & biased sources.
    For recent info on the “littoral theory” (Pleistocene Homo dispersing along coasts & rivers) – which is much more correct than “aquatic ape” IMO – please google
    - econiche homo
    - greg laden verhaegen
    - vaneechoutte rhys evans
    marc verhaegen

    Link to this

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