Considering how much material that has been published (even from people who are not proponents) that is open to the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis”,  there have been relatively few “critiques”, even of exaggerated/misrepresented straw man versions of it, and none whatsoever of the broader, more modestly positioned “waterside hypotheses of human evolution”.

I have always been as much fascinated by the criticisms of these ideas as I have of the ideas themselves and have made it my duty to read any critique I see with a critical eye and to critique the critique.

Here are links to a small, but admittedly growing, list.

Jim Moore’s Web Site

Bizarrely, the one most students seem to be directed to is a web site written, not by a palaeoanthropologist, not even by a scientist, but by a lay person who just seems to have a huge chip on his shoulder about the idea – Jim Moore’s infamous “Aquatic Ape – Sink or Swim?” web site. This “Jim Moore”, by the way, is not the California-based “proper” anthropologist, Jim Moore, but just some guy who was married to the late Nancy Makepeace-Tanner.

I wrote many pages on my previous web presence criticising his site but it was attacked, so some of the links on the reconstructed pages I’ve put together here might not work.

John Langdon’s JHE Critique

Here we are, in 2020, sixty years after Hardy’s New Scientist piece asked for scientists to consider the idea and even today, as far as I can tell,there are only two papers published in the specialist anthropological literature that attempt to critique the “more aquatic” idea.

The most respected attempt is still probably attributable to the University of Indianapolis anthropologist, John Langdon. He published a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution in 1997 critiquing not the “AAH” per se, he claims, but “umbrella hypotheses” generally.

Basically, I think the paper is flawed for several reasons, but mainly because…

  1. It uses straw man arguments based on cursory and superficial comparisons with truly aquatic mammals. Rather than give Morgan’s claims the weighting she gave them, 26 of them are paraded, in an equally facile way, as if for ridicule. The wading argument for bipedalism argument, for example, which Morgan wrote four chapters on in her 1997 book, was dismissed in one short, facile paragraph.
  2. It was not very scholarly. The Walkenburg symposium, and the proceedings from it (Roede et al 1991) were cited but not one of its findings was reported upon. The critique of the AAH was solely of one of Elaine Morgan’s books (1982).
  3. It placed the “AAH” under the same umbrella as pseudoscientific ideas such as Von Daniken’s “aliens from outer-space” and creationism. Although the comparison was made for effect, many others have repeated this slur since, perhaps getting their lead from Langdon.

To see my critique in full, click the link … WMMAITP 2012 Ch 15 Kuliukas Langdon

Foley & Lahr’s Evolutionary Anthropology Paper

Another specialist journal of the field is Evolutionary Anthropology. As far as I am aware the journal had never published any paper pertaining to the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis” until 2013. I tried to get my wading paper published there in 2008 but it was rejected. Suddenly, not one, but two papers, were published in its pages.

So, why the change of heart? It seems the London conference, organised by Peter Rhys-Evans, and hosted by Sir David Attenborough, caused quite a stir. Some experts of human evolution were, perhaps, getting nervous that a whole set of students were suddenly going to start asking awkward questions about this “aquatic ape” thing again. We can’t have that, eh, chaps?

The paper by Rae and Koppe was a specific critique on Rhy-Evans’ hypothesis that the human paranasal sinuses may have been an aquatic adaptation for flotation, and I think it’s a pretty good one. It tackles the question fairly and accurately, at least, although in my opinion it makes a few omissions.

Read my counter-critique of both of the papers below, but in a nutshell, the Foley and Lahr paper, which is a general critique, suffers from the same problems Langdon’s did. Namely, a) it puts up a straw man, exaggerated, version of the hypothesis, b) It is unscholarly. Langdon cited, but failed to draw upon any of the proceedings in Roede et al even though it was published six years before his paper. Foley & Lahr didn’t even cite Vannechoutte et al (2011.) If they had they could have better addressed their main criticism… c) that although no-one disputes that reliance on water was a big factor in human evolution, there is little evidence to suggest that our phenotype was affected by selection from it.

I must say, I did like the abstract…

Few things show the distinctiveness of human evolution research better than the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH). On one hand, we have “orthodox” research into human evolution, firmly based on land; on the other, we have the aquatic ape community, convinced not only that our ancestors went through an aquatic phase, but that the professional scientific community ignores their work and keeps it out of the mainstream. How many fields of science have two entirely parallel communities that essentially are hermetically sealed from each other?

“Hermetic seal” is right. But whose fault is that?

Kuliukas AV, Removing the “hermetic seal” from the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis: Waterside Hypotheses of Human Evolution. Advances in Anthropology 4:164-167, (2014).