Sunday, August 09, 2009

Elaine Morgan and Aquatic Apes

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis of Elaine Morgan is a classic "just-so" story that attempts to explain the evolution of modern humans by claiming that our ancestors once lived in water. It's a typical adaptationist perspective on biology since it begins with the assumption that every phenotype of humans must have been due to natural selection.

Morgan gave a talk last month sponsored by TED. It's posted at: Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes. You should watch it if you are interested in the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. In addition to being a good example of (false) adaptationist thinking, it's a good example of how a skilled journalist makes a "scientific" case to a general audience. The audience loved her. She gets an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end.

I didn't realize that Elaine Morgan was relying so much on attacking scientific conspiracy in order to bolster her beliefs. Many of her arguments sound similar to those of the Intelligent Design Creationists. Judging by the reception she gets, there's a lot of reasonably intelligent people out there who are willing to buy into the idea that scientists suppress knowledge of things they don't like just because they don't like them.

[Hat Tip: John Hawks]


  1. Jim Moore does a pretty thorough analysis of this "theory" on his site and hits pretty hard on the erroneous research and flawed science of Elaine Morgan:

  2. I saw the video of her TED presentation. My impression was that she was accorded much leeway for this nonsense because of her age. The ambiance was all warm and fuzzy.

  3. It's not only the aquatic ape hypothese that gets undue gleam thanks to adaptationism...take nina jablonka's talk on the evolution of human skin color, linked in teh same Hawks post, a talk Hawks thinks is just super and shows to his students.

    By the way she presents it, you would think that black people living in places with lower uv radiation should be getting all sorts of mean vitamin-D deficiency sicknesses, including problems of mental health. She even goes as far as hoping president Obama takes into account his skin-color, given he has a desk-job.

    I think this is wahooey, in fact when I looked into the data for vitamin D deficiency related to health problems for dark-colored people in low UV places I did not find much compelling evidence for any such thing (plaees, i anyone has this info, show it!). If indeed natural selection against vitamin D deficiency drove evolutionary bleaching, you must assume expect significant differences in fitness. I don't think these exist.

    Rather, I found things like this:

    Osteoporos Int. 2008 Nov;19(11):1639-42. Epub 2008 Apr 12.

    Association between quantitative measures of skin color and plasma 25-hydroxyvitamin D.

    Rockell JE, Skeaff CM, Williams SM, Green TJ.
    Department of Human Nutrition, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.
    SUMMARY: We examined the relationship between vitamin D and skin color measured by reflectance colorimetry at an exposed and un-exposed site in 321 people. Exposed but not unexposed skin color was associated with better vitamin D status. Sun-exposure was more important than natural skin color in determining vitamin D status in our population. INTRODUCTION: Vitamin D is obtained through UV synthesis in the skin where melanin limits its synthesis. Ethnicity is often used as a proxy for skin color, but skin color varies considerably. The relation between quantitative measures of skin color and plasma 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD) concentration has not been well described. METHODS: The aim of this study was to determine the association between constitutive (natural) and sun-induced skin color and 25OHD in a group of Pacific People (n = 87) and Europeans (n = 255) living in NZ (46 degrees S) in summer. Plasma 25OHD was determined and sun-induced (outer fore-arm) and constitutive (upper inner-arm) measured by reflectance colorimetry. RESULTS: Mean (SD) 25OHD was significantly higher in Europeans than Pacific People, 88 (31) nmol/L vs. 75 (34) nmol/L, respectively. Based on constitutive skin color, 35% of participants were very light, 45% light, 16% intermediate, 4% tanned, and 0% brown or dark. Skin color at the forearm but not constitutive skin color was a significant predictor of 25OHD. Each 10 degrees lower skin color value at the forearm (more tanning) was associated with a 5 nmol/L higher 25OHD (P < 0.001). CONCLUSIONS: Tanning but not natural skin color was an important determinant of 25OHD. Further study is needed in a population with a higher proportion of darker skin people.

    Aha!!! TANNING. The wird Nina Jablonka did not ONCE mention in her discussion of the evolution of human skin pigmentation. You know, phenotypic plasticty simply does not exists for most ultradarwinians.

  4. When that video got posted, everyone was linking to it on places like Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook. I went crazy posting the link to Moore's site. A bunch of SciBlings also explained why this "theory" is crap:

  5. She absolutely, 100%, definitely gets away with talking utter nonsense because she is an old lady.

    I went to one of her talks and have to say it was one of the most ridiculous hours of my life. Nonsense, pure non-science nonsense.

    I asked about whether there were any traits or potential evidence from the fossil record to test with this aquatic ape nonsense: she claimed there couldn’t possibly be. So, by her own admission, there is no testable hypotheses for hew view of human evolution using the fossil record.

    I just hate the aquatic ape hypothesis. It is for cranks, and has absolutely no place in science education or literature.

    It is amusing that she tries to paint her, and her followers, as scientific rebels trying to bring down the evil, corrupt mainstream. Whilst it is true that sometimes the consensus can be wrong, for the aquatic ape it is not so.