April 30, 2013 | 25
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:
Body hair makes spacesuit temp control systems less efficient. Head hair is important though because it looks awesome weightless. #spaceape
— Karen James (@kejames) April 28, 2013
Exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics needed for mate recognition while wearing bulky spacesuits. #spaceape
— Holly Dunsworth (@HollyDunsworth) April 28, 2013
Our hairless skin provides better adhesion for spandex spacesuits. #spaceape
— Patrick N.R. Julius (@PNRJulius) April 29, 2013
Early primates developed grasping hands, knowing one day they’d be used for space-knobs, buttons, & levers. history.nasa.gov/SP-402/p58.jpg #spaceape — Patrick Clarkin (@Patrick_Clarkin) April 28, 2013
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.