Although I graduated with a degree in Zoology/Pharmacology from Nottingham University – a relevant degree for someone who is interested in human evolution – that was a long time ago. I have worked in the computer industry for most of the time since then (self-employed since 1990), gradually drifting away from biological sciences and feeling frustrated that I’d wasted my degree.
When my wife, Lesley, who is a midwifery teacher, gave birth to our fourth child with the help of a birthing tub, it rekindled my interest in human evolution and sparked a fascination with the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis” (AAH). I soon had read most of Elaine Morgan’s work about it and became distracted by the dilemma it posed: Everything she wrote seemed so sensible and plausible and yet the official texts on human evolution seemed to either ignore the idea or give very weak ‘straw man’ arguments against it.
I became so frustrated by this, encouraged by Lesley, I decided to go back to university to study human evolution properly for myself. I was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of why the AAH was ignored. When I arrived at University College London (UCL) in September 2000 I honestly expected that the AAH would be a hot topic. Everyone would be discussing it, I thought. I couldn’t wait until it was the subject at one of the seminars. Then, perhaps, I’d find out why it was flawed. Then I’d get to hear why Elaine Morgan must be wrong.
Of course, that never happened. The AAH was simply not on the agenda. It was not on the syllabus, not on any reading list and it was only discussed in seminars because I raised it – to the predictable groans of frustration, raised eyebrows and rolling eyes from most of my fellow students! I felt like a pariah bringing it up and I even started self-censoring myself, allowing myself two mentions of the dreaded ‘a’ word per session. I must say the most disappointing moments on the course, from my point of view, were those spent sitting in a lecture hall with scores of undergraduate students all writing down the story about human evolution. All those young, inquisitive minds listening and concentrating on the fascinating enigma which is the study of human evolution and yet the most common question they asked was “how do you spell that?”
Even then, in 2001, the ‘official’ answer was still …
… “s – a – v – a – n – n – a – h”.
(Note the ‘h’ – this is the English spelling. If we had been in the US, that would have been omitted.)
I really enjoyed my time at UCL although I’m not sure if they felt the same way about me! The key people I had dealings with, Leslie Aeillo, Cathy Keys, Mark Collard, Volker Sommer, Simon Hillson and Mark Thomas, were inspirational. They taught me a great deal in a short space of time. But perhaps the thing I learned most was that the AAH has not actually been rebutted at all. In fact it has hardly even been considered.
I knew, right from the moment I stepped into UCL, what subject I wanted to study for my project – the origin of bipedalism. Having read Elaine’s latest (at the time) book on the subject, which contained four chapters on the problem, it seemed to me the most obvious elephant of several elephants in the room.
My thesis, “Bipedal Wading in Hominoidea past and present”, controversial as it was, was rewarded with a distinction. That, I must admit, was a big surprise to me and did much to restore my faith in academia. It convinced me that if only more people were motivated to study this area objectively with the scientific method then the AAH is sure to receive a much fairer hearing than it has so far. So, that is what I decided to do.
Again, only with full support of my wonderful wife, we emigrated to Australia so that I could continue my studies to PhD level, I hoped, under Charles Oxnard, who was Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Australia (UWA). It took 13 years, including a three year break, but I eventually, did pass my doctorate with my thesis “A Wading Component in the Origin of Hominid Bipedality?”
It would be great to report here some slight difference I have made to the way students are taught about the origin of human bipedalism at my university UWA, where I have been now for 16 years, but I’m sad to say I can’t. Just last week (March 15th 2019) I listened to the first lecture the students get on human evolution – the one that has a slide or two on our bipedality – and it contained precisely 18 words about the wading hypothesis, which took 7 seconds to utter, right at the end as a kind of minimal lip service.
“”Some people, they even propose an aquatic origin of bipedality, that humans started walking upright in shallow water.”
Can you imagine how it feels to hear the students being told that? No mention of the evidence and, sorry to be vain, no mention of me. Even if you don’t like the idea, wouldn’t it be a kind of encouragement to the students to make them think that one of the tutors here had done research into the area? Wouldn’t that give the university a bit of a boost in credibility?
In science one is suppose to take these set backs on the chin and just carry on, which is, I suppose, all I can do.
Now, I hope to add to this body of research by studying another major ape-human difference, our pattern of body hair. I have made the first steps wading in that direction now.
Perth, March 2019