Thursday, 27 October 2016

Murky waters: why is the aquatic ape hypothesis so popular?

Whilst not in the same class as the laughably abysmal Discovery Channel mockumentaries on the likes of mermaids and extant (rather than extinct) megalodon, the recent two-part David Attenborough BBC Radio 4 documentary The Waterside Ape has left me gritting my teeth...grrr.

The programme has confirmed something I suspected from his 2010 BBC television series and associated book, First Life: namely, that the style of his exposition takes priority over the substance of his material. I'll quickly recap on the howler he made in an episode of First Life, ironically one that featured renowned trilobite expert Richard Fortey, albeit in a different sequence. When discussing trilobites, Sir David briefly mentions that they get their name from having three segments from front to rear: head, body and pygidium (tail) - which is totally wrong!

The name is the give-away. Tri-lobe refers to the three segments across the width of the body: a central lobe and two lateral lobes. Many creatures have the head, body and tail segmentation, so it would be far from unique in trilobites. I find this example of incorrect information rather discomforting, especially from someone like Sir David who has been a fan of trilobites since childhood. You have to wonder why experts aren't invited to give BBC science and nature documentaries the once-over before broadcast, just in case any gaffes have got through to the final cut?

The issue then, is that if we non-professionals believe the content espoused by such senior figures in the field of science communication - and if such material goes without basic error-checking from professionals - how is the public to receive a half-decent science education? Of course science isn't a body of knowledge but a toolkit of investigation techniques, but few of the general public have the ability to test hypotheses themselves or access the jargon-filled original scientific papers. So relying on books and media from distinguished communicators is the primary way of increasing our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) knowledge.

Back to The Waterside Ape. The hypothesis is an old one, dating back to marine biologist - and let's face it, oddball theorist - Sir Alister Hardy's first, unpublished speculations in 1930. However, the idea didn't achieve widespread dissemination until Elaine Morgan began to publicise it in the early 1970's. Otherwise known as a fiction writer, Morgan's output on the aquatic ape hypothesis was originally considered to be a feminist critique rather than particularly serious science, bearing in mind that the author lacks professional training or experience in the field of evolutionary biology.

Whether it is thanks to dissemination via the World Wide Web, her pro-aquatic ape books have become ever more popular over the past twenty years. This is in spite of the ever-increasing number of hominin fossils and sophisticated analytical techniques that have shown little support for the idea. I'm not going to examine the evidence for and against the hypothesis, since that has been done by many others and I'm marginally less qualified to assess it than Elaine Morgan. Instead, I'm more interested in how and why the idea has maintained popular appeal when the general consensus among the specialists is that it is profoundly incorrect.

Could it be that the engaging quality of Morgan's writing obscures a lack of dry (geddit?) analysis upon a subject that could at best be deemed as controversial - and thus fool the general readership as to its validity? Or is there more to it than that? The BBC seem to have maintained an on-going interest in supporting her work over the past two decades.

Indeed, The Waterside Ape is not David Attenborough's first foray into the idea. He made another two-part BBC Radio 4 series called Scars of Evolution back in 2005, which included some of the same interviews as the recent programmes. The BBC and Discovery Channel also collaborated in 1998 on a television documentary favouring the hypothesis called surprisingly enough The Aquatic Ape, albeit without Attenborough's involvement.

A key argument that I'm sure gets public support is that the of a radical - and female - outsider being shunned by the conservative, male-dominated establishment, with Elaine Morgan pitted against the reactionary old guard of palaeontologists, biologists, etc. Her plight has been described in the same vein as meteorologist Alfred Wegener's battle with orthodox geology between the world wars, but in Wegener's case his hypothesis of continental drift lacked a mechanism until plate tectonics was formulated several decades later. As for the aquatic ape, there seems to be a suite of models describing a gamut of ideas, from the uncontroversial speculation of hominins wading for iodine- and Omega-3-rich foodstuffs (promoting brain growth) to human ancestors being Olympic-class ocean swimmers who would feel at home in a Discovery Channel mermaid mockumentary.

We shouldn't ignore the emotive aspects of the hypothesis, which the various programmes have described as a "fascinating idea" that would be "lovely to confirm". Since most people still think of dolphins as innocent, life-saving and cute (when in fact they play brutal cat-and-mouse games with live porpoises) could this be a psychological attempt to salvage something of our own rapacious species?

Elaine Morgan admitted that her first book was a response to her annoyance with the 'killer ape' theories of the 1960's, as espoused in Robert Ardrey's seminal 1961 volume African Genesis. In these post-modern, politically-correct times of gatherers first and hunters second, Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey's once-influential machismo ape-man has fallen from favour. Unfortunately, the famous Ardrey-influenced Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey promotes just such a viewpoint, so perhaps it isn't any wonder that supporting a more tranquil aquatic ancestry might appear to be an easy way to bring 21st century sensitivities to a world reeling from constant violence.

Another possible reason for the hypothesis' widespread support is that it relies on what appears to be an impressive accumulation of facts in the Darwinian mould, without recourse to difficult mathematics or sophisticated technical jargon. For those unable to get a clear understanding of major contemporary science (Higgs boson, anyone?) the idea of aquatic ape ancestors is both romantic and easy to digest, if the supporting evidence is taken en masse and the individual alternatives for each biological feature ignored or undeclared.

Clearly, whoever thinks that science is detached from emotion should think again when considering the aquatic/waterside/paddle-boarding ape. Although on the surface a seductive idea, the collection of proofs are selective, inadequate and in some cases just plain wrong. It might be good enough for the sloppy pseudo-scientific archaeology of Graham Hancock and Erich von Daniken, but good science needs rather more to go on. Yes, there are some intriguing nuggets, but as Dr Alice Roberts said in her critique of the recent Attenborough radio series, science is about evidence, not wishful thinking. Unfortunately, the plethora of material contains rather more subtleties than trilobite nomenclature, so I can only sigh again at just how many equally poorly-concocted ideas may be swashing around the world of popular science communication. Come on, Sir David, please read past the romance and dig a bit deeper: the world needs people like you!