Thursday 15 September 2016

From Waterside to Mainstream

My admiration for David Attenborough has, I must admit, faded considerably in recent years - too much substandard work (excusable at his age, of course), too many dubious public pronouncements. However, Sir David can still come good - as his latest excursion into radio, The Waterside Ape, proves. A Radio 4 two-parter, which ended today (available on the BBC iPlayer), this explored the 'aquatic ape theory' - that much of what makes us human evolved not on the open savannah but by the waterside - and brought us up to date with the latest findings. I've always been attracted to this hypothesis, for which there is ever more compelling evidence, and I was glad to discover that what was once dismissed as cranky pseudoscience has now entered the mainstream, many of the keenest proponents of the (exclusive) savannah theory having  admitted that it was never that simple and that an aquatic phase was crucial to human development (growing our brains and making speech possible, among other things).
 It took a long time for the aquatic ape theory to be taken seriously because it first came to public notice in a bestselling book, The Descent of Woman (1972), by a non-scientist, the screenwriter Elaine Morgan. Though she followed it up with more rigorously scientific treatments of the theme, very few in the science community were taking any notice.
 Elaine Morgan was first alerted to the aquatic hypothesis by a passing reference in a book by Savannah man Desmond Morris, who directed her to the eminent marine biologist Alister Hardy. As long ago as 1930, Hardy had begun to think that there must have been an aquatic phase in human evolution, but he had kept mum for 30 years. As he frankly admitted, he was still young when the idea struck him and he wanted to build a glittering career within the scientific establishment; if he had published a paper on such a wildly heterodox theory, his career would have been over.
 How's that for an eloquent statement of How Science Works (and how it worked even back in the 1930s)? Whatever science might be in theory, in practice it is decidedly prone to 'groupthink' and devotes huge resources to buttressing orthodoxies rather than opening them up to heterodox thinking. With the practice of science heavily dependent on research grants, it is all too easy for scientists to play it safe, proposing work that pushes an established line of research a little further along a beaten path, will duly be published in the appropriate peer-reviewed way, and will swell the CV and sustain the career. This only encourages the strengthening of orthodox ways of thinking, to the point where it is almost impossible for scientists working within the system to overthrow the received wisdom. Yes, it can happen - as it eventually did, for example, with the received wisdom on stomach ulcers - but it usually takes a maverick with little to lose to take on the might of 'settled' science (not to mention, in the stomach ulcer case, the pharmaceutical industry).
 It's good to know that the 'maverick' aquatic ape theory finally proved so strong that it is now widely accepted. Let's hope future TV series re-creating the lives of our hairy, bone-crunching forefathers take a break from the obligatory savannah hunting scenes and show us a bit of the lacustrine good life.


  1. Noam Chomsky and seven other heavyweight evolutionists recently published a paper - 'The Mystery of Language Evolution' in which they admit, in spite of earlier working hypotheses they had developed, that we are further than ever from understanding how this occurred. This paper inspired Tom Wolfe to publish his 'heretical' and mischievous "Kingdom of Speech" recently. As you probably know this attracted a favourable review from Bryan Appleyard and some very prickly ones from more orthodox reviewers.

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  3. Yes, the Tom Wolfe book sounds well worth reading. The aquatic element in speech development is physiological - the mechanism that enables us to stop our breath for underwater activity also happens to make speech possible.