Older Talks are posted here
Algis introduces the series and ponders what went wrong in the twenty years since waterside hypotheses of human evolution appeared to be on the brink of a long overdue breakthrough into the mainstream.
Sunday 7th November 2021
WHAT Talks? Humans, right?
But why are we so different from the chimps and gorillas?
Time to consider Waterside Hypotheses of Human Evolution
Here is the PowerPoint file Algis used in his presentation and a few other supporting files he showed or discussed.
Simon Bearder graduated in Zoology from Aberystwyth University in 1967 and then spent 10 years in the savannas of southern Africa studying the behaviour and ecology of nocturnal primates (bushbabies) and carnivores (spotted hyaenas).
On returning to the UK, he spent a year at London Zoo before joining the staff of Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University (then Oxford Polytechnic) where he helped establish the Nocturnal Primate Research Group.
Fieldwork in 22 African countries helped to increase the number of bushbaby species recognised from six to more than twenty, with more waiting in the wings. Over the last 50 years the group have built up a Sound Library of more than 300 hours of recordings of African Wildlife, using species-specific patterns of calling to help identify otherwise 'cryptic' species.
Simon taught courses in primatology and human evolution for 32 years before retiring as a Professor Emeritus at Oxford Brookes. He is now working with a group of colleagues to help disentangle the taxonomy of a second group of highly vocal African mammals, the hyraxes (Order: Hyracoidea).
Simon's talk will focus on the question of why his colleagues in Anthropology, more often than not, refuse to pay any attention to waterside hypotheses of human evolution and refuse to include any mention of them in their courses or research programmes. Added to the fact that student textbooks on human evolution, without exception, omit any mention of words associated with these hypotheses (e.g. naked, subcutaneous fat, wading, swimming etc.), as well as the complete absence of reference to prominent authors in this field, the result is that generations of anthropology students are denied the opportunity for open discussion of these ideas and are fearful that they will be ridiculed or penalised if they break rank. He will explore what happens when students are freed from these constraints and ask how we can set about reversing the trend and establishing a more balanced appraisal of how we became different from our closest living relatives.
Simon shares his contrasting experiences asking academic colleagues about Elaine Morgan's so-called "aquatic ape hypothesis" with the responses of students and members of the public. He encourages us to challenge the academic censorship on this subject in university level texts that has been going on for decades.
Here is Simon's succinct and to the point summary of the status of waterside hypotheses back in 2000... "Flood Brothers."
His question, "how do you upset a gathering of biological anthropologists?", and answer "Just mention the words 'aquatic ape hypothesis'" is as true today as it was then. This, then is a prescient piece, well worth reading.
(Apologies for the quality - a scan of an old photocopier was all I could obtain.)
Dr Stephen Munro, PhD from Australian National University in 2010. Thesis Title: ‘Molluscs as ecological indicators in palaeoanthropological contexts’. Currently a curator at the Centre for Anthropocene studies at the National Museum of Australia.
Verhaegen, M., Puech, P.F., Munro, S. (2002) Aquarboreal Ancestors? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 17: 212–217.
Verhaegen, M. & Munro, S. (2011) Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foods? Journal of Comparative Human Biology 62: 237–247.
Vaneechoutte, M., Munro, S. & Verhaegen, M. (2011) Seafood, diving, song and speech. In Vaneechoutte, M., Kuliukas, A. & Verhaegen, M. (eds) Was Man more aquatic in the past? Fifty years after Alister Hardy: Waterside hypotheses of human evolution. Bentham Science Publishers: eBook, pp. 181-189.
Joordens, J., d’Errico, F., Wesselingh, F., Munro, S. et al. (2015) Homo erectus at Trinil used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature 518: 228-231.
Title and summary of talk:
Selling the Aquatic Ape Theory
For those that have studies and understand it, the aquatic ape theory makes perfect sense. So why is it so difficult to sell? In this talk I look at some of the reasons why the aquatic ape theory has had such bad press in the past, and offer some personal views on how it might best be promoted in the future.
Stephen studied the faunal assemblages of hominin fossil sites for his honors and PhD. His talk outlined his personal journey investigating these ideas having been inspired by Elaine Morgan and greatly influenced by Marc Verhaegen.
Stephen reminds us of the important principles of comparative anatomy which strongly suggest a more aquatic past for humanity and not one on the savannah.
Stephen Munro's research contradicts the myth that the fossil evidence supports the idea that humans must have evolved in arid, open savannah habitats.
Feel free to download his honors thesis
"Fauna of Selected Late Miocene to Early Pleistocene Fossil Sites and Implications for Hominid Evolution"
and a link to his (very large) PhD thesis "Molluscs as ecological indicators in palaeoanthropological contexts" below.
Marc Verhaegen was born in Turnhout, in Belgium, in 1951. He studied medicine in Antwerp and Louvain between 1969-1976 and has been a general practitioner ever since, in the village of Putte (between Antwerp and Brussels.
Marc is married with three children and five grandchildren. He says he's thinking of retiring.
Marc first became interested in human evolution through his grandfather and read everything he could find on the subject. He first came across "the aquatic ape" idea when he read Elaine Morgan's best seller, "The Descent of Woman." He immediately wondered why, if aquatic mammals become bigger and lose protuberances, are all apes tailless and why are gorillas bigger?
This train of thought led him down the path to consider that all apes had a somewhat aquatic (wading-climbing) origin but that the most aquatic our ancestors became was during the evolution of early Homo, especially Homo erectus.
Since the passing of Elaine Morgan, but perhaps even before, Marc has undoubtedly become the most prolific proponent of a Littoral Phase in human evolution (as Marc prefers to call these ideas) and has published scores of papers on many topics from language origins, to bipedalism.
In his talk, Marc will provide us with a glimpse of how so many human characteristics are better viewed through a "more aquatic" lens and how poor the now very popular "savannahstan" ideas are.
Marc focuses on his "Littoral Theory" for early Homo - the idea that Homo erectus and other early members of our genus lived in coastal habitats and were specialised swimmers and divers. He critiques the endurance running hypothesis that seems to have been so uncritically welcomed by biological anthropologists recently as the latest iteration of the savannah theory that Elaine Morgan so successfully railed against.
Here is a copy of Marc's Powerpoint slides for his talk and the 'aquarboreal' paper he mentioned in his talk.
Human brain evolution: how a shore-based habitat would help overcome the nutritional and metabolic constraints on brain expansion.
The big brain is the defining feature of humans yet we understand almost nothing about how it evolved. My contribution to this subject has been to work backwards from the constraints that any brain faces, let alone one trying to expand: what does it need to develop and function optimally? If it expanded during evolution (which is rare), what constraints did it overcome to do so? The vulnerabilities of our brain today reveal a lot about those constraints, especially the nutritional and metabolic constraints. Having a big brain is not necessarily an advantage; many species have done very well without one. Expanding the brain 3-fold is therefore highly unusual because it is very difficult to achieve. And it has to start in infants; if brain development (let alone expansion) goes wrong at that stage, there is no fixing it, so infants are the focus of this question: how did hominins get it right?
Stephen Cunnane is a professor in the Department of Medicine, University of Sherbrooke, and researcher at the Research Center on Aging. His team is assessing the links between deteriorating brain energy metabolism and risk of cognitive decline during aging. They were the first to show that ketones can at least partially correct the brain energy deficit in older people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This observation that led to the concept of ‘brain energy rescue’ by ketones to treat neurodegenerative disorders. In the recent 6-month BENEFIC trial in MCI, his ketogenic medium chain triglyceride drink improved outcomes in all five cognitive domains. It was commercialized as BrainXpert by Nestlé in 2020 and is the first treatment available for MCI.
Dr. Cunnane has published over 350 research papers and five books, two of which highlight the key role of ketones in brain expansion during human evolution. He was elected to the French National Academy of Medicine in 2009. In 2016, he was inducted as a Fellow of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL). He received the Chevreul Medal from the French Society for the Study of Lipids in 2017 for his research on fats, nutrition and health
Stephen outlines his brilliant idea that the incredible phenomenon of encephalisation (we have 3x bigger brains than chimpanzees / gorillas) is due to an exaptation - a feature that has not evolved because of selection for that feature specifically, but for something else that has, as a kind of side effect, result in its evolution.
That "something else" Stephen argues, is fat, specifically infant adipocity laid down in the last trimester of pregnancy. Humans are born 5x fatter than chimp infants
Michel Odent, MD, has been in charge of the surgical unit and the maternity unit at the Pithiviers (France) state hospital (1962-1985). During many years he has been the only doctor in charge of about 1000 births a year.
Michel is most proud that he wrote the first article about the initiation of lactation during the hour following birth (1977).
Most significant here is that he was the author of the first article in the medical literature about the use of birthing pools (Lancet 1983). Michael also wrote the first article applying the ‘Gate Control Theory of Pain’ to obstetrics (1975). He coined the term “hormone of love” when mentioning oxytocin. He created the Primal Health Research database (www.primalhealthresearch.com). He has been a member of the Professional Advisory Board of La Leche League International for about 40 years.
Michel Odent is Visiting Professor at the Odessa National Medical University and Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Brasilia.
Selling the Marine Chimpanzee Concept.
Several trustable persons - including Elaine Morgan – have suggested that the term “aquatic ape” is hardly marketable. Who can help us to renew our vocabulary? We’ll follow the advice of Stephen Munro, who expressed his point of view during a previous “WHAT talk” session. He emphasized that we should not waste time with experts, and offered a list of valuable potential advisers.
Photo by Elena Heatherwick, born at home "in the caul" in 1987. Michel Odent was the midwife.
The amazing Michel Odent (aged 92!) talks for 50 minutes on the question of the label "aquatic ape theory", suggesting a better alternative might be The Marine Chimpanzee Concept. He cites good evidence, such as vernix caseosa, in support of this and, drawing on Stephen Munro's earlier talk, reminds us that seeking the support of experts in sometimes less important than making good sense to an intelligent child. All done without the usual prop of a PowerPoint presentation.