Jim Moore's "AAT Sink or Swim?" Web Site
A brief critique of Morgan's latest, her 1997 book,
The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
Moore's web site has updated fairly infrequently since it first hit the web. The most significant change recently was Moore's buying of the URL www.aquaticape.org, although the content didn't change much when he did. The last changes to the content noted before writing this were made in early 2004 and yet, seven years after the most recent and most important work on the so-called "Aquatic Ape Hypothesis", Moore has still only written a single (albeit, fairly long) page about it.
I suppose we are all busy with more important things to do. Well, me too. I have spent many hours reading and critiquing Jim Moore's web site and by the time I got to this page I was extremely tired of it all. I started reading this page and, again, began making notes but, having only got to the second sentence I thought 'what is the point?'
I re-read Morgan's book quite recently and was very impressed with it. I was particularly taken by her grasp of the issues regarding the origins of bipedality and the four chapters that covered them. As with all of her work, it is largely speculative and explores many areas in which there is simply a lack of scientific literature. Even so, most of the evidence she refers to is backed up with solid citations, certainly to the same sort of degree as one would expect from a good popular science book.
So what does Moore have to say about her latest book? Even though he hadn't yet been able to give the book "a thorough going over" (an appropriate phrase if ever there was one) he still found errors, problems and logical fallacies. He adds "this is instructive, since it shows just how badly done her work is, and why it isn't accepted as reasonable; if it's so easy to see major problems with something just at first glance, what hope is there that delving into it at length will turn up a useful scientific theory?"
I have to say that I hold a similar view about Jim Moore's 'work'. If even in the second sentence one can see that he has made no effort to give a fair and balanced account of her considerable efforts to meet his own criticisms, then what is the point of reading the rest of the invective bilge?
The point is, of course, that Moore's critiques, like the AAH itself, needs to be challenged. No-one, least of all Elaine Morgan, would expect anyone to read about the hypothesis in an uncritical way and, similarly, readers of Moore's web site should also be critical too. They should be wary of his objectivity. Why would someone buy the URL www.aquaticape.org if they were opposed to the hypothesis? The point of these pages is to show that many of Moore's criticisms are bogus and misunderstandings at best, misrepresentations at worst.
At least, on this page, almost all of the specific criticisms of the book are backed up with unambiguous page references so that they can be cross-checked more easily.
Moore makes one good point about sebum (in Chapter 13) but otherwise distorts definitions (Chapter 1, 2, 4, 9, 13) and ignores vast bodies of the literature (Chapter 1) or parts of AAH arguments (Chapter 9) to try to discredit Morgan, tells a lie about part of Morgan's argument (Chapter 2, 10), misrepresents ideas in some (Chapter 5, 6, 13) and selectively chooses the evidence he wants to see in others (Chapter 6, 11). In parts (Chapter 7, 8) he encourages mistrust of Morgan's citations and evidence by exaggerating slight errors into shock-horror mega deceptions. In parts (Chapter 8, 13) he ridicules subtle arguments by viewing them in crude black and white terms.
Overall, Moore's whistle-stop tour of Morgan's latest and best book is not a valid critique. It fails to concede a single point and merely attempts to stir up lynch mob style suspicions of every piece of evidence offered in its favour. As usual, upon close scrutiny, those allegations have no real substance and are, at worst, slight errors which Moore joyfully blows up out of proportion to imply some kind of attempted deception. Characteristically, Moore uses many of the tactics he alleges Morgan uses himself, notably his 'Creationist Darwin-quoting style' techniques, to discredit her work.
'Hypothesis' or 'Theory'
Moore then sets off on a whirlwind tour of Morgan's book. A couple of paragraphs of destructive comment and then onto the next. I'll track his journey here as thoroughly as I can.
Chapter 1 - Death of a Hypothesis
Moore wants you to think that Morgan's doing the savanna spinning but, if anything, it's him.
It's the same with the so-called 'straw man' argument. The very idea that the prevailing view of human evolution was based on greater aridity and a move from closed woodland to more open habitats is, we are to believe, another invention by Elaine Morgan. John Langdon first attempted to argue this, and Moore dutifully follows.
However, the most perfunctory examination of even the most basic literature for the previous hundred years on the subject is simply riddled with the idea. From the most elementary school book, in the early 1960s, illustrated with man -the-mighty-hunter images chasing antelopes on open grassland, to very technical works like 'African Biogeography, Climate Change and Human Evolution' in 1999, you find references to the process again and again: It was aridity, or 'the drought' as Coppens refers to it (Coppens 1999:14) which was the prime driver of in human evolution and it was the resulting changes in habitat from closed woodland to more open savannahs which was the mode of change.
Now Moore and Langdon might have had a point if they'd
tried to argue merely that Morgan exaggerated the case and, perhaps, ignored
the viewpoint of some (a minority) who had promoted the view that human
evolution had always occurred in wooded habitats. But even if they'd have
done that, they'd have been fighting a losing battle. It's not just Morgan
who has argued that the savanna idea was a prevailing view. "Until recently,
the evolution of early hominids in the savanna has been a strongly held,
prevailing hypothesis. Yet some of these human characteristics would have
made us hopeless savanna-dwellers." Tobias (2002:15)
Moore patronisingly and rather stupidly claims that "Morgan, by the way, has been corrected on this subject many times over the course of the past decade" but, actually, it can be clearly seen that on this point it is Moore that is absolutely wrong. He misrepresents Morgan's argument completely, twisting the definition of 'savannah' towards his view, ignoring the vast body of literature that backs up her case and omitting the comments of respected anthropologists who actually agree with her point.
Of course, in all this furore Morgan's beautifully elegant point is forgotten. Let's hear what she has to say on the matter.
"The original savannah model - though it did not stand the test of time - was argued in strong and clear terms. We are different from the apes, it stated, because they lived in the forest and our ancestors lived on the plains. The new watered-down version suggests that we are different from apes because their ancestors, perhaps, lived in a different part of the mosaic. Say what you will, it does not have the same ring to it." Morgan (1997:18-19.)
She is right. Moore's attempts to confuse the issue of what makes a savanna doesn't help in the slightest in putting forward a case to explain the differences between humans and the apes. And Moore's dismissal of this very important point shows an alarming naivety on his part.
Chapter 2 - Where the Hominids Died
It is a rather obvious point, actually. Most fossils are found in depositional layers formed on the margins of lakes and rivers. And, of course, in such places one would expect to find a great deal of aquatic fauna buried alongside. Kathlyn Stewart more or less wrote the same thing in her 1994 paper. "Fish remains are also associated with many early hominid sites, often in dense concentrations such as at sites in Olduvai Gorge. Unfortunately, fish bone assemblages associated with early hominid sites display little direct evidence of modification such as cut marks, and with a few exceptions (See Clark, 1960) these have been given little attention in the archaeological literature, except to be regarded as washed in 'background noise.' " Stewart (1994:230.)
Moore implies, as is the normal response, that this is
just due to taphonomic bias. "... if our early ancestors were frequenting
shorelines, we would expect to find far more than the relatively few we do
find. Instead we find the sort of numbers we might reasonably expect from an
animal which was spending most of its time elsewhere. But it seems Morgan
would have it that if you die in hospital; you must have spent most of your
Moore writes "On page 30 Morgan tells us that
crocodiles are just friendly, fish-eating fellows." She hardly does that but
cites two pieces of anecdotal evidence that suggests the crocodile
population in the Awash is relatively harmless to man.
Next, Moore criticises Morgan's attempt at answering one
of his 'tricky questions of the AAT' - why didn't our bodies become more
'fusiform' like seals and dolphins and exhibit limb reduction? It is special
pleading, we are told, to argue that some traits (like short paddle-like
limbs) didn't evolve in Australopithecus afarensis because there
wasn't enough time but that there was time for other traits (like
nakedness etc) to do so.
Chapter 4 - Walking in the Mosaic
Moore misrepresents the argument for a wading origin for bipedalism when he suggests that "... the thrust of the AAT's argument regarding bipedalism has been that it could not occur without the support of water." This is only one, rather small part of it. The main argument is that, whilst moving through shallow water, an ape has no choice but to move bipedally, another point conveniently ignored by Moore.
Chapter 5 - A Surfeit of Solutions
Moore completely ignores the fact that many of the dozen purely terrestrial
ideas regarding bipedal origins are contradictory whereas the wading origins
model isn't necessarily contradictory to any of them.
Chapter 6 - The Wading Ape?
Chapter 7 - The Naked Ape
Moore argues that the differences between the sexes on
this point and the changes that occur during puberty indicate that sexual
selection is the main cause, a view Darwin held himself.
Another accusation of
misrepresentation turns out to
be, on closer reflection, a simple mistake in not accurately reporting the
source of a citation. It did not change the argument in the slightest. Moore
ignores the point Morgan was making - that the argument that explanations
for the difference between humans in chimps in body hair were 'mercifully
not needed' because the density of hair follicles in humans was greater than
in chimps, was a kind of special pleading - but, instead, concentrates on
slur. He writes "So Morgan inadvertently teaches us another point to
remember about science if you want to be taken seriously: don't just make
stuff up." She didn't make the argument up, just mistakenly attributed it to
the wrong source.
Chapter 8 - The Other Naked
Morgan, apparently, made a mistake in stating that
"the Arctic fox and the Arctic hare and the others have converged in respect
of one single trait only. [My emphasis, referring to their snowy
white fur]" (Morgan 1997:79.) This is clearly not true. As Moore correctly
points out, there are several other features, notably ear size, on which
they have converged.
On the next subject Moore again clearly demonstrates
his misunderstanding of the AAH due to binary thinking. Moore takes issue
with Morgan's argument that ancestors of elephants, pigs and rhinoceroses
may have been "in some degree aquatic" arguing that if the ability to swim
or even wallowing in mud is taken as 'aquatic' then practically all mammals
could be said to be "in some degree aquatic."
Ask yourself the question: Is a chimp arboreal or terrestrial? The images of chimpanzees flashing in your mind should indicate to you that they are actually a bit of both. They are neither fully arboreal nor fully terrestrial. So, then, what about orang-utans and gibbons? Is it unreasonable to suggest that, in these terms, gibbons and orang-utans are more arboreal than chimpanzees, and that gorillas would be slightly less.
In terms of aquaticism, it is clear that a fish is more aquatic than a whale, that a whale is more aquatic than a seal, that a seal is more aquatic than an otter, that an otter is more aquatic than a human and that a human is more aquatic than a chimpanzee. The idea, completely misunderstood and misrepresented by Moore and aquasceptics like him, is that something in our evolution has pushed us somewhat more in the direction of aquatic animals than did the ancestors of chimpanzees.
The subtlety of this kind of argument is, however, completely lost on Moore.
Chapter 9 - The Fat Primate
He concedes that Morgan's statement "about humans
having ten times as many adipocytes (fat cells) as would be expected in an
average mammal of similar size..." was actually from Caroline Pond's 1987
article (Pond 1987:63) but then, in the same sentence, twists it to
look like a misrepresentation. He continues by explaining that Pond's
article "...points out that this feature of relatively small and numerous
adipocytes, is common to humans, fin whales, hedgehogs, monkeys, and
badgers, and not rats." Notice that? The first part of the sentence is only
about the number of adipocytes - where humans have distinctly more
than would be predicted in top carnivores or any primates - but
the second part subtly, with deft of hand, introduces the secondary point of
the size of the adipocytes themselves, where both primates and humans do,
according to Pond, both have relatively small ones unlike rats.
In Moore's next point, that
Morgan was "trying to kill the idea that human fat distribution is a
sexually selected trait by pointing out that babies are fat", he quotes her
argument that "epigamic adornments appear at puberty" but conveniently
misses the next, winning, part: "No feature which has evolved purely as a
sexual attraction is found at its highest peak of development in young
infants of both sexes" (Morgan 1997:100).
To end this section Moore takes another shot at misrepresenting Morgan's position, actually using those very words himself: "To end this chapter, Morgan takes another shot at misrepresenting Pond's position." On what basis? Seemingly a guess that her citation of Pond's summation of the subject was a creationist Darwin-quoting type misrepresentation. He'd not checked to see if it was, but hey, never mind that. The lynch mob have obviously seen enough already.
Chapter 10 - Sweat and Tears
Moore had an opportunity here to show fair handedness by praising Morgan for admitting past errors but rather than do that he prefers to refer once again to his arguments already laid out in over 10,000 words on the web site.
It is not clear to me that emotional tears can have much to do with a more aquatic past but the link with sweating seems obvious. Throwing away precious water in order to gain a few minutes of slightly cooler skin would seem profligate in the extreme for any creature that could not guarantee to replace it at will but Moore does not go there. Instead he chooses to pick out three "major problems" to highlight.
First, he argues that eccrine sweating is adaptive to !Kung hunters allowing them to hunt down giraffes because their sweat glands "keep going and going." Moore forgets that as they keep going, they keep losing water and fails to consider where such an adaptation might have most likely evolved.
Next Moore argues that "On
pages 115-116 Morgan tries again, despite the long-established facts of
basic physiology, to have sweat be a salt excretor." Giving him the benefit
of the doubt, Moore has clearly misunderstood Morgan's argument here or not
even bothered to read the chapter properly. She thought, as she made clear
at the beginning of the chapter, "it may be of interest to recapitulate the
course of the debate to clarify the issues involved." She introduces this
argument "My first approach was..." and "I mooted the idea..." Afterwards
she wrote "the excretion theory was speculative and controversial, but there
seemed little danger that the factual basis for this speculation would begin
to unravel." but then "Nevertheless, unravel it did." (Morgan 1997:116.)
Moore's final parting shot on
this chapter is this: "On page 119 she says that "The credibility of
the AAT would indeed be weakened if..." and goes on to offer several things
that would do so; the second and third are "...or if it had not been based
on scientific data that had appeared valid at the time; or if I had
continued to believe in it when the balance of the accumulating evidence
clearly swung against it;..." Both these things are true, and the evidence
on salt, which she distorted from the start, is just one of the examples of
Considering the fact that Moore has spent so much time attacking the salt excretion AAH argument one can understand his reluctance to let it go. But the salt excretion theory was never a major reason for supporting the AAH in any case.
Chapter 11 - The Larynx and
Chapter 12 - Why Apes Can't
Chapter 13 - Infrequently
Next Moore condescendingly
attacks Morgan and her "muses about the menstrual cycle" concluding
"I'm struck by the irony of being male and having to explain menstruation to
a woman." Morgan cites Chris Knight's work about female menstrual synchrony
and the speculation that, on average, its periodicy corresponds, almost
exactly with the lunar cycle of 29.5 days (Morgan 1997:152).
Next Moore pulls Morgan up for
claiming that "Sebum is an oily fluid whose only known function in mammals
is waterproofing the hair and skin" (Morgan 1997:153-4) whereas it does seem
to also have a function in producing sexual attractants in some species too.
Moore then picks out a reference to a speculation first made by Hardy, that the orientation of body hairs on the chest may help reduce drag whilst doing the breast stroke. He points out that the head (and particularly a bearded man) would also be at least partly in the water and that the arms would not be held down by the sides. The beard is indeed a problem for this argument but perhaps, as with many an awkward fact, can be explained away by sexual selection invoking Zahavi & Zahavi's handicap principle.
Next, Moore suggests that the
evidence that ear exostoses (bony growths in the auditory meatus) associated
with divers is a counter-argument to the AAH rather than an argument in
favour of it because one would expect that, if our ancestors were "adapted
to an aquatic existence" this problem would have been selected out.
Finally Moore criticises
Karl-Erich Fichtelius, cited by Morgan, for selectively giving
evidence. He mentions the numbers for apes and humans but not for marine
mammals. "Wonder why?" Moore muses. "Could it be because those numbers make
the aquatic mammals seem just a little too different? For instance, about
60% higher percentage of haemoglobin for seals as opposed to humans."
Chapter 14 - Beyond Belief
He starts by claiming that Morgan has made factual errors even in her single page summary. He writes "how could you say anything incorrect in that small space? Well, don't underestimate Morgan, she's a trouper."
So, what error does he cite? This: "The answers it [The AAH] offers are speculative, but no more so than those of any other available model." Clearly this is a matter of opinion, and not a matter of fact but it doesn't stop Moore criticising it.
"I beg to differ" he writes. "No matter what you call it -- theory, hypothesis, or model -- when it's built on "false facts" and has so many holes that a first reading can find as many as I have above, it's more than speculative. It's way past speculative and heading toward the realm of pseudoscience." But Moore's so called false facts are, as we have seen, at best a small collection of rather insignificant errors which do not affect the main arguments at all.
Moore admits that Morgan has reacted favourably to his, and fellow aquasceptics' criticisms. He writes "Having been privy to the arguments on sci.anthropology.paleo in the mid 90s, I can see that Morgan was reading and thinking about what was said. Many of the arguments she makes in The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis are reactions to critiques raised there -- even the title itself and giving page numbers for quotes." But he can't quite go that extra mile and concede that there is anything at all valid in her arguments. Instead he suggests that she "chose to just try to explain away some things, shovel over others, and offer many of the same old discredited arguments and "false facts" in a book which is superficially constructed to seem more scientific."
I think that assessment is
grossly unfair and rather mean. Elaine Morgan has worked tirelessly with
almost no official academic recognition (The Norwegian Academy of Sciences
honoured her in 1999) for over thirty years. She was right to pick up on
Hardy's hypothesis doing what paleoanthropologists have clearly failed to
do, and ask whether there might be something in it.
It seems to me that rather than trying to pick holes in every sentence Morgan has written, as Jim Moore has done, what is needed is an objective assessment of the generality of the argument. Could water have acted as an agency in our evolution? Clearly it could. Could it have done so in our past more than it did for the ancestors of the great apes? Neither Moore nor anyone has offered a single scrap of evidence to suggest that this could not be the case.
When seen in that light, the AAH or some moderate form of it appears to be quite reasonable, or, as Morgan puts it as a sub-title of her book, perhaps even "the most credible theory of human evolution."
Potts, Richard (1998). Environmental Hypotheses of Hominin Evolution. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology Vol:41 Pages:93-136.
Stewart, Kathlyn M (1994). Early hominid utilisation of fish resources and implications for seasonality and behaviour.. Journal of Human Evolution Vol:27 Pages:229-245
Tobias, Phillip V (2002). Some aspects of the multifaceted dependence of early humanity on water. Nutrition and Health Vol:16 Pages:13-17.
Treloar, Alan E, Boynton, Ruth E, Behn, Borghild G, Brown, Byron W (1967). Variation of the human menstrual cycle through reproductive life. International Journal of Fertility Vol:12 (1) Pages:77-126..