Jim Moore has a web site which has long been cited as the definitive reference point for anyone tempted to be fooled by the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis.”
Helpfully, perhaps, it’s called …
What follows here is my counter-critique of it but please read Elaine Morgan’s own response to Jim Moore’s Web site.
Considering that the so-called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is so well known, there is surprisingly little about it in the scientific literature. John Langdon’s (1997) paper
in the Journal of Human Evolution is probably still the most cited paper published in a leading paleoanthropological journal, that attempted to reject it. Another serious
piece of work that was often quoted is Roede et al (1991) the published proceedings from the 1987 Valkenburg
Conference on the AAH.
So sparse is the literature against the AAH that you tend to find that you are often referred to Jim Moore’s web site for, one is told, the ultimate refutation of the AAH. One regular participant on the paleo.sci.anthropology newsgroup in the 1990s called it a ‘Magnus opus’! It is difficult to imagine any other area in science where an amateur’s web site could take on such a role, but it would appear to be the case here.
One should be careful to note here that this Jim Moore, the author of the web site, is not the relatively well known professor of anthropology, Jim Moore, at the University of California, San Diego. “Our Jim” here admits himself to lacking ‘any formal credentials in evolutionary science, although he was the husband of the late Nancy Tanner, who was a famous anthropologist.)
This section, then, is dedicated to Jim Moore’s web site, it’s rebuttal of the AAH and what might best be described as a character assassination of Elaine Morgan. Jim Moore has promoted his web site by suggesting that “for a scientific critique of the aquatic ape theory, go to www.aquaticape.org” but actually how scientific is it? In writing this section I am going to try to
answer three questions:
Which of Jim Moore’s objections to the AAH are valid?;
Do they amount to a refutation of the AAH?; and
Are his criticisms of the scholarship of AAH proponents justified?
Of course I understand that few people will have the time to read much of this critique. So, I’ll summarise it in the paragraphs below which I’ll later expand upon on a separate page which will provide links to the detailed criticisms I make. In this way, you’ll have two ways of going through this review: either using the same structure Jim Moore uses on his web site (using the table of contents below or going through page by page) or a kind of top-down ‘see the criticisms’ approach.
Moore’s web site does not seriously dent any of the major arguments in favour of a mild form of the AAH in my opinion. (By that I mean one which considers Hardy’s original question “was man more aquatic in the past?” – my emphasis on the word ‘more’ – rather than a literal interpretation of its label – “was there an
At best, it acts as a source of counter-arguments to the idea of a distinct post-LCA, pre H. sapiens aquatic phase and some of the more marginal speculations in Elaine Morgan’s work. Moore does make some good points on predation too which is, in my view, the strongest case against waterside hypotheses of human evolution.
At worst it appears to be some kind of sad, bitter attempt at a character assassination of Elaine Morgan.
The main thrust of his argument, that the quality of research of AAH proponents (Morgan, almost always) is poor at best, and is not trustworthy at worst, does not stand up to close scrutiny. Most of the claims made about misquotations and/or misrepresentations that could be verified turned out to be minor errors and sometimes revealed misrepresentations in Moore’s own research. In this regard, the quality of his research when it came to giving
clear and verifiable sources for the claims he was attributing to AAH proponents was almost always non existent and, as this was one of his main criticisms of the AAH, it revealed a rather nauseating double standard. This hypocritical position is perhaps best illustrated by his use of URL, a web site called www.aquaticape.org, but
dedicated to its ridicule.
Most of his points are in the form ‘AAH proponents believe trait x is explained by aquatic factor y’ but hardly ever are such claims backed up by references. So, to check them I had to spend hours reading through the entire AAH literature again and again to see if anyone had actually said what Moore claimed. Almost always Moore exaggerates the claim to some absolutist, exclusive argument that was never intended when, perhaps, they’d used it as *part* of their argument or in a certain situation. Moore never reports accurately any such moderately argued point. Quite often the claims are taken from conversations on internet newsgroups and occasionally I couldn’t find anyone who had said Moore’s claims at all at all.
It is probably true that Morgan may, on occasions, have been guilty of being too enthusiastic and uncritical in endorsing pieces of data which she thought supported the AAH (such as the salt tears argument) but Moore is even more gung-ho at finding any tiny error in her work to discredit it, to blow it up out of all proportion and report it as if it were some great shock-horror deliberate deception. (On the salt tears argument, for example,
Morgan abandoned her support for it seven years ago, yet Moore continues to stress this argument as if it were a major pillar of the AAH, writing over 10,000 words about the salt argument compared to, say, 2,000 words on major AAH arguments like hairlessness.)
It could be argued that Moore makes a good case against extreme versions of the AAH but it is unlikely that many people would support such views any more today. Moore, then, hardly addresses, let alone refutes the, far milder, hypothesis that water has acted as an agency of selection in human evolution more than it has in the evolution of our great ape cousins. (Click here for formal proposed definition of the hypothesis.)
The fact that aquasceptics continue promote the web site as some great rebuttal (‘Magnus opus’ even) shows the paucity of the counter-arguments arguments or reluctance to consider more moderate versions.
Moore’s choice of URL One thing that Jim Moore should be taken to task for is the URL of his web site: Using
www.aquaticape.org appears to be deliberately provocative. Anyone wanting to find something about the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis” might well type in that URL thinking that they’d be directed to some kind of neutral site informing the general public about it, or perhaps a less balanced site that was in favour of it, but it is doubtful they’d expect to find one that was dedicated to it’s dismissal. Some people may have no problem with this, suggesting perhaps that a web site against racism might still use the URL www.Racism.org. But I think if a
creationist organisation used the URL www.HumanEvolution.org or a multi-regionalist used the URL www.OutOfAfrica.org to purely to discredit those ideas I think most neutral people would be a little indignant and suspicious of the content.
I’ll say no more about this here. Everyone has to make their own mind up about this.
It is interesting to note that since I started doing this critique (I announced it in a conversation with Richard Wagler on the
sci.paleo.anthrop newsgroup on 22nd January) Moore has been adding several pages starting on 29th January. I do not know if the thought of having someone pouring over your work with a view to publicly critiquing it has caused Jim to want to add to it but the web site had been quite static prior to this for at least a year or two. I will review the new content in the near future.
The Web Site’s Introductory comments The very first thing Moore does is to cite Darwin from the Descent of Man. “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness: and
when this is done, one path toward error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.” The clear implication, straight away, is that Moore’s claiming that the AAH is supported on the basis of false facts and that he’s going to point them out to us for the benefit of mankind – kind of like Charles Darwin did.
Jim Moore does start out with some sort of working definition of the hypothesis he is about to critique, which is more than Langdon (1997) did, but unfortunately he makes the usual classic mistake of misrepresenting it:
He states: ‘The Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT) says humans went through an aquatic stage in our evolution during the transition from the last common ancestor we shared with apes to hominids’ (my emphasis.)
The nub, as usual, lies on that word ‘aquatic’. He states, quite clearly, that the AAT is claiming humans (suggesting post Homo) went through an ‘aquatic’ stage but what does he mean by aquatic? We shall see, but
Hardy made it quite clear that he envisioned our ancestors (and he was thinking about ancestors that lived long before the advent of the genus Homo) being less aquatic than an otter. “It may be objected that children have to be taught to swim; but the same is true of young otters, and I should regard them as more aquatic than Man has been” Hardy (1960:643).
After such an ambiguous (at best) definition of the hypothesis and one that, if taken literally, would also be rejected by even the most vociferous
proponent, it does not strike a great deal of confidence in what is to follow. But let us give Jim some slack here and just assume that, like most, he’s just not quite clear about what the AAH is proposing.
says, right from the onset, that his web site is one of the few to be ‘treating it as a serious scientific theory’ claiming that his is one of the few that give ‘critical examination’ of the theory. Next, Moore offers a word of explanation as to why he has written this site. He writes “I am doing what many AAT proponents — including its principal proponent, Elaine Morgan — have repeatedly claimed they want done: treating the AAT as befits
a serious scientific theory.
I am sure that Morgan had something more in mind than a web site dedicated to it’s dismissal. And the way that Moore’s very first sentence on the hypothesis contained at least two serious errors (stating that ‘humans’, not human ancestors, went through an ‘aquatic’, not ‘more aquatic’ stage) hardly
amounts to befitting serious scientific treatment.
Moore makes a good point in stating that “All scientific theories need to be examined for accuracy; it’s an essential component of the process of
science.” No-one could argue with that. But then adds that “I’m afraid that when the Aquatic Ape Theory is examined, it does not fare well. The AAT is built on many supposed facts which, when examined, do not turn out to be true. Perhaps the kindest thing would be to ignore it, but I am not that kind.”
So, Jim is setting himself up as the defender of the scientific process with regard to the AAH, the auditor of the supposed factual evidence for it and theoretical understanding about it.
As we shall see, his own standards, particularly when it comes to citing references to the arguments he claims have been made to support the AAH, leave much to be desired.
Such a goal is indeed laudable. No-one, least of all Elaine Morgan, would expect anyone to accept the AAH without a critical appraisal of it first.
And, one should not forget that Hardy’s original paper ended with this paragraph: “My thesis is, of course, only a speculation – an hypothesis to be discussed and tested against further lines of evidence. Such ideas are useful only if they stimulate fresh inquiries that may
bring us nearer the truth.” Hardy (1960 p645.) So, when Moore writes that it is absolutely necessary to look at the facts that support an hypothesis, he
should be clear that we (proponents of the AAH) are 100% behind him. What remains to be seen is if Moore himself is being objective and faithful to the facts as he claims to be and whether his theoretical understanding of the hypothesis is free from pre-conceived misunderstandings which prejudice his view, perhaps leading to a false refutation.
Moore then goes on to make a very serious and important allegation: That the source material which supposedly supports the claims of the AAH were not given. He writes “chief AAT theorizer Elaine Morgan was posting regularly in
the sci.anthropology.paleo newsgroup, and claimed to be willing to supply references for her written AAT claims, but she proved to be reluctant to provide these references to people who have a past history of actually reading the source and reporting back what it really says.”
Moore writes “…when I first read the work done on the AAT, I saw some big holes in the reasoning, but I did think that the evidence which was (sometimes) given was probably accurately and fully reported. When I started looking these things up, however, I found that I was wrong on that count — the AAT has proven to be a hotbed of those “false facts” Darwin referred to.” This is a serious claim indeed. Putting to one side whether Elaine Morgan, a playwright and English graduate, could even theoretically have access to such a body of source material to back up ideas about human evolution that have often simply not yet been studied, any ‘claims’ made in her books should, at least, be backed up with some evidence. Again, no-one could argue with that.
Moore argues right from the beginning that the scholarly methods employed by
‘ most pro-AAT accounts’ (e.g. not citing references properly and misquoting
sources) are not repeated by him and yet, up to now, he has not made one
specific citation of any work by Morgan or any other proponent of the
his specific criticisms lack specific references. For example he makes great
play on writing this paragraph:
“The references for AAT statements, when they are given at all, are often
maddeningly incomplete or misleading. For instance, it took some hunting to
find the source for a quote when the quote supposedly came from a “famous
authority during a television programme” (it was actually a 1929 book by
Prof. Frederick Wood Jones). Another time the source of information for a
claim was said to be a 1979 book, with an author mentioned. Finding
the ref then started with finding that book, then finding the one page out
of hundreds (which wasn’t given) that referred to the actual reference which
contained the info (a 1956 article), then finding the article which
contained the info, which, it turned out, didn’t actually say what the AAT
proponent claimed it did. To complete the critique of that one AAT claim
(about seal sweat) also required finding yet another article, and a total of
perhaps 6-8 hours of actual research time. I’ll guarantee you the
original one paragraph AAT bogus claim didn’t take that long to churn out…
and people wonder why anthropologists don’t spend their time and meagre
research grants chasing down AAT claims.”
sounds very impressive, but one should notice that he omits to
actually cite any of these examples so that those of us who are sceptical of
Moore’s motives are unable to go and check them out. We are supposed to just
take his word for it. Already we see a certain double standard emerging. He
can criticise AAH opponents for their shoddy methods, but he is above that
same criticism himself.
ends his intro by defending his attacks on Elaine Morgan. He writes “I find
it really annoying when good science is taken to task for not accepting a
theory which is so full of holes and mistruths, and which is argued for so
dishonestly.” He claims that he is no harder on Morgan than scientists are
on each other and on their own work. But therein lies the point: Morgan is
no scientist and has never claimed to be one. She is an interested
commentator on human evolution.
heard about Hardy’s theory and thought ‘that makes sense, how come no-one
has looked at it?’ So, she used her talent for clear and entertaining
writing to author five books on the subject, the purpose of which was to
wake scientists up to the possibility that there might be something in this
idea. I think Elaine Morgan
actually deserves some formal recognition for over thirty years work in this area but
certainly a great deal more generosity than people like Jim Moore have been
willing to give. Thankfully there are others in the field who share that
Moore asks: “I don’t have any formal credentials in evolutionary science, so
how can I expect you to believe what I tell you instead of what AAT
proponents say?” It’s a good question which he attempts to answer by
claiming that he’s good at library work, has an ability to learn basic
scientific principles and that he’s ‘just a little bit nutty’.
perhaps another opinion about Elaine Morgan’s work would be a timely end to
this introductory page about Jim Moore’s web site, from someone who actually
does have excellent credentials to comment, Phillip Tobias. In a 1998 BBC
documentary interview, he said: “I see Elaine Morgan, through her series of
superbly written books, presenting a challenge to the scientists to take an
interest in this thing, to look at the evidence dispassionately. Not to
avert your gaze as though it were something you that you hadn’t ought to
hear about or hadn’t ought to see. And those that are honest with themselves
are going to dispassionately examine the evidence. We’ve got to if we are
going to be true to our calling as scientists. (Tobias 1998). Clearly, not
everyone is so ‘annoyed’ by her work.
rest of his opening page acts as a contents page for the rest of the web
site. This critique will mirror that structure allowing, as does Moore’s,
for a page by page reading if you prefer. Each critique page here will also
refer back to the related page on his web site.
Skin, Sweat, and Glands
Can AATers research be trusted?
Wegener, Continental drift and unaccepted theories
Why don’t anthropologists mention the AAT much?
A brief critique of Morgan’s latest book
Misrepresentations of Hardy’s Original Paper
Objections (to critiques) and answers
My response to Elaine’s response to me
Hardy, Alister (1960). Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?. New Scientist
Langdon, John H (1997). Umbrella hypotheses and parsimony in human
evolution: a critique of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Journal of Human
Evolution Vol:33 Pages:479-494
Roede, Machteld; Wind, Jan; Patrick, John; Reynolds, Vernon (eds.),
(1991). Aquatic Ape: Fact of Fiction: Proceedings from the Valkenburg
Conference. Souvenir Press (London)
Tobias, Phillip. V. (1998) Interviewed in the BBC Documentary “The Aquatic