A little something
by Thanassis Moschou
Good evening fellow hobbyists….
I guess you won’t be surprised to learn that this is an article related to water - and an aquatic organism. Be prepared though, as it’s not exactly about what you might expect here in MCH. Not because it starts on the other end of the fish-keeping hobby (the one of the “keeper” instead of the fish) but -as you’ll soon find out- because it goes … a bit too far!
I can safely guess that what brings us all here together every so often is our love for fish keeping. But… is it only this? Let me ask a trivial question… What makes “fish-keeping” so special? Is it different than “bird-keeping” or “horse-keeping”? We all know it is, though we are not able to tell how exactly… Now, here’s a hint that might help you a bit: do you prefer to call yourself a “fish-keeper”, or an “aquarist”? The second sounds a little better, I think, and it means - literally - a lot more. It encompasses much more than “fish”: from all the non-fish creatures we also keep, to the illusion that we maintain a wonderful little aquatic ecosystem in our home. (And quite a few times this is not an illusion at all!) For the majority of us it is difficult to limit our ambitions. Anything that lives in a tank attracts our attention and ignites our imagination immediately. Even a bare tank full of water does…
This very page, Malawi Cichlid Homepage, can be an example on this. Would you say it corresponds to its title, being a site about Malawi cichlids? No, for this would be a gross understatement… For the same reason it is not a site about African cichlids, or cichlids - anywhere they come from - or freshwater fish, or even fish in general… It is a site on water dwelling creatures, (side effects section excluded) and our fascination for them. In fewer words, it is about our passion for water. Such is the mistake the dear creators of this site made in the very beginning: they thought that their aquatic interests would be contained in a single group of African cichlids. Poor fellows! Water is mesmerizing, powerful and irresistible… For not only the -very aptly named- “aquarists” (those addicted to water) feel a “little something” in the sight of water and the life forms it hosts, but virtually just everybody does so. I have yet to meet a person that won’t daydream in front of a picture of a shore, one that will deny that nostalgic feeling in the mere thought of blue water, that feeling of a “little something”…
Can we define this “little something”?
Can we reason it?
There are -certainly- several social and historical and cultural reasons for this special bond of humanity with the sea – open water if you wish. Probably all of them are true… but they are not enough. They don’t address to that part of us that feels the “little something” we are talking about here. Why do we enjoy so much swimming in the sea and not swinging from one tree to another or lying on thick grass? This love of water seems to be deeply entrenched in our traits, perhaps associated with a part of ourselves more ancient and more profound than civilization and society. It may sound a bit awkward, yet there is an approach to our fondness of the aquatic environment that goes a bit deeper in explaining it and gives a biological and evolutional perspective to this particularity of our species. It is an oddity called “AAT”…
Before I give you my rusty “two bucks” on what is known as the “Aquatic Ape Theory”- AAT, I would like to say a few things in advance in order to avoid the inevitable – misunderstandings. First of all I’d like to tell you that I’m not a biologist or paleontologist, so please do bear in mind this when you read from now on. Secondly, please don’t let the fact that I lack the appropriate knowledge and credentials to interfere with the validity of other people’s theories and thoughts mentioned hereby. I will not attempt to do anything more than presenting a certain way of thinking to those of you that are not aware of it, and a chance to re-evaluate it for those that have heard about it. I do not support this theory here; I am just trying to roughly describe it, and only to any extend my very limited knowledge allows. And I do this because even the distant possibility that we may have once been sharing the same habitat with the creatures we keep in our tanks, some time in our past, is rather fascinating (at least I think so). And -who knows- this may be an opportunity to look at some things we take for granted in an alternative way and ask ourselves some rather provoking questions.
The AAT appeared during the early eighties and purposed to explain the “strange” and “inexplicable” morphological differences between humans and the rest of the primates… Which, roughly, are: substantial loss of body hair (not in number, but in size), special and unique construction of larynx, nostrils, mouth and the rest of breathing and voice producing organs, residual membranes between our fingers, differently distributed fat under our skin than in other primates, differences in posture and movement etc.
For what it’s worth to you, while you read these lines please remember that the AAT is considered as a non-serious approach to the issue of human evolution. Usually no self-respecting palaeoanthropologist or biologist wastes his time by referring to it or even refuting it, basically because the person who founded the theory (Elaine Morgan) was not herself the “correct” kind of scientist, and secondarily because this fact was indeed inhibiting for a proper foundation of such a theory. But this does not alter the fact that certain differences between man and ape do exist, and they are not explained adequately till now. Thank God this is not an anthropology conference but a free site addressed casually by intelligent people, so I need not worry that I’ll infuriate somebody! Not that it would mind me if I did…
AAT suggests that some time in our early stages of evolution, various reasons -like changes in the environment- forced our ancestor species to move towards the shore and go through various adaptations to a life that involved moving and acting in the aquatic environment. It is remarkable that all these adaptations form the bulk of the differences between man and primates, and at the same time they are common to most mammals that made the turn to the water. After these alterations had been established, another possible environmental change forced this primate species to leave the sea and change habitat once again, only now it was very different from the other “monkeys”: it was bearing the “mark of the water”, the basic adaptations to aquatic life.
Let us take a brief look at the significance of some of these “modifications”, according to the AAT.
-Supposing that such a habitat change did take place, less hair meant better hydrodynamics. Today’s athletes are particularly aware of this fact.
-Out fatty tissue that is evenly distributed under our skin is a perfectly logical adaptation, as it is insulating and shaping a warm-blooded submersible body, just like in dolphins, seals and whales. This is something that apes don’t have.
-Our nostril construction allows us to dive without water entering immediately inside our nose. Only another one primate has a feature of this kind, the Nasalis larvatus sp., which (to the delight of AAT-ists) spends quite a lot of time in the sea…
-The bases of our digits are connected with a (very small) “membrane”, which allows our hand to double efficiently as a paddle for swimming. Our foot and leg construction is also providing a good compromise between a walking and a swimming/sea faring mammal. Supposedly, it allows maximizing the water column where we can walk in, as it has maximized our head distance from our feet in standing posture, and at the same time it allows some swimming…
Another point is that almost every animal group has a member that adopted a “backwards” evolutional path - and adapted to a life in a more or less aquatic environment. A distinct exception is the one of the primates. AAT fills this “gap” with the aquatic human ancestor it suggests.
There are more such physical adaptations, but I wouldn’t like to continue any more on these, as my point is not to support this theory in it’s entirety right here and right now. Anybody interested may find some references in the end and pursue the matter further. The details of the subject would be of no importance here. What might be important though are the possibilities the AAT implies and its “heretic” point of view… Even if an “aquatic Australopithecus” (as it is described by the AAT) has never existed, and this is the most probable truth, the fact that we differ in a way that this theory successfully “senses” still remains. There’s a hint of an aquatic organism in us… An echo of a porpoise in our voice, a spark of an intelligent octopus eye in our glance, a lithe sea lion shape in our figure… a vague “little something” that binds our fate to the water in an almost mystical way. Even more, apart from the biological traces of such (or another) possible aquatic past, there are other, deeper and therefore subtler, like the behavioral ones. The swimming ability that we are born with and our natural fondness of the water, for example. Still, in case we do have an aquatic past, maybe water has left us a far more important legacy.
We took a look at the morphological characteristics that distinct us from the apes… Yet, is this our fundamental difference from that grinning Darwinian chimp? Hair, feet, face? It appears that the human being has a single but invaluable difference from all other animals – not only primates: Civilization.
In very simple biological terms, civilization could be defined as the ability to store and inherit information vital for the behavior and survival of the species in a way other than its genetic code. This is the reason why our babies are the only ones in the animal kingdom that are born incomplete as organisms in a very unique manner. A human that does not grow in a human environment, is not exactly a human. Take for instance the various reports on “feral children” - like the famous Indian girls Amala and Kamala… When such infants miss completely the contact with humans till the time they are found, they fail to live a human life, and even die young… Mowgli may be a romantic and aspiring figure, but probably it could have never existed. Only if the poor creatures were left at their own at an age well long after birth (possibly 2+ years) do they have a chance to associate successfully with humans and live a “human” life. During the (extremely extensive) period that the human parent takes care of its offspring, data that are crucial and characteristic of the species are being “fed” to the baby besides the mammalian milk. This invention is perhaps what “humanity” is in fact - a revolutionary way to control and reprogram our behavioral code and body construction in order to deal with nature in almost “real time”. And in comparison with the timescale of species evolution, civilization changes and adaptations are “instant” indeed. We are the one and only species that has risen above the “prison” of its genes. We need claws? We grow them “instantly” (blades). We need fur? We grow it “instantly” (clothing). We have to be carnivores? We form a hunter society. We have to be grazers? We adopt an agricultural way of life… This is the formidable weapon that has allowed Homo sapiens to evolve so much in so little time, and reign above all and become super-species.
We are mostly correct if we consider this civilization feat as a product of intelligence and communicative abilities combination, as the lack of either one of these two is critical. There are thoughts, among those who believe in the truth of the AAT, that something in the aquatic life improved drastically those two abilities of our species, in a way similar to the dolphins and other sea mammals. What was the reason that allowed dolphins to improve their mental and communicative abilities so much? Why couldn’t it be the same reason that boosted those same abilities of ours? (1) The temptation to “merge” the dolphin and the ape in order to “produce” man is strong… An ape-like dolphin, or a dolphin-like ape if you prefer, what a figure!
You very rightfully say this water-oriented intelligence is pure fiction. Indeed, but remember that fiction is just an alternative reality. And in cases where reality is not known, there’s no fiction, too. There are only possibilities. So, here is another heretic suggestion that not only our “animal” nature but also our “human” one is made and shaped by water.
A very intriguing symbol of this possibility emerges from the distant past of humanity. Babylonians, heirs to one of the greatest and most ancient civilizations we know of, the Sumerian, preserved from them the enigmatic figure of the aquaman Oannes, a fishlike human who came out of the sea and gave the gift of civilized life to “the first people”. Elegant coincidence, instinctive knowledge or dim memory?
Either such an origin of humanity is true or not, water is the essence of life, the most incredible element of nature and a great influence to our world and our lives. Life comes from water, grows in water, perfects in water. Maybe AAT is nothing more than a symbol, a tribute to the importance of water in our path of evolution. Even this is not without a certain importance. But when we talk about scientific authority, there’s no place for emotions. Intentions matter not, only facts, right? Hmmm… I’m afraid this is not the case.
There are more than enough examples that the leading minds of scientific thought have been distinctly narrow-minded during the past centuries, always being afraid to look onto a greater universe, always refusing to admit the wonder. The people of science we honor today, the pioneers of the great discovery of the world, were ridiculed and rejected by the privileged elite that formed and controlled the “officially one and only” scientific truth. That same elite that after evidence became too rigid accepted the new theories and formed the new “truth”, the new canon, that same elite that values “truth” and discovery not nearly as much as a good rank in academic hierarchy…
Today, there is a strong bias in the evolution sciences in favor of the so-called darwinistic way of thinking, and many interesting suggestions are nonchalantly considered non-science, if not nonsense. The simple fact though is that a strict “natural selection” for every trait, every characteristic of every species on earth, without any “guidance” or selection but based purely on luck and trial/error, sounds as “wrong” as anything else. And what “else” is there besides evolution by natural selection – or “Modern Synthesis” as it is called today? Much…
From creationism to the molecular drive theory, from Lamarckianism to orthogenesis, the alternative theories that attempt to unravel the mystery of life on Earth are many. Some are indeed laughable, some are smart and some are really serious. But it looks that in this case, “right” and “wrong” is more a matter of taste than evidence. And the evidence is life itself. Life is neither random nor flaccid and mindless. Life is brisk, self-regulating and amazing. Life is beyond the specimen and beyond the species. And this is a fact that the so-called “evolution by natural selection” failed to take into consideration.
Somewhere between the multi-cellular level of organization and the genetic code hides the elusive sparkle of life. We used to consider “animals” as the basic “unit” of life, till we discovered the cell, and then DNA and genes… Today we talk about the selfish gene, a theory that looks at specimens and species as the vehicles of genes, and we tend to forget about the importance that the specimen or the species have for the essence of life. How “aware” are the two ends of the scale of each other? Is gene really so “selfish”? We are unwilling to accredit “consciousness” to life. Molecules and electricity, is that a living cell - only? Try as we may, we can’t reach life this way. From Monty Python to the greatest philosophers, humanity keeps wondering about this meaning of life, yet the simplest microbe seems to know what life is better than we do. Human is the only living being that disrupts life and kills not only specimens but also species themselves. And this definitely shows lack of understanding…
One might say that this “long distance run” of the species in order to deliver the genetic message is what life is all about… But what does this message say in fact? Who is the receiver? Who is the sender? Is it maybe true that “the medium is the message” or everything on Earth has a purpose, an ultimate message, carried by an ultimate species? And finally, is this message erratically written by chance, is it “consciously” composed or is it self-existing and self-constructing?
Why are we urged to deny the possibility that interaction between the gene and the organism is a bi-directional one? Because there is no evidence in support of this, we are told… But are we being told the truth? Many are the instances where wisdom and adaptability of life is beyond our wildest fantasy. Many are the signs that life is actively adapting instead of being passively adapted. When are we going to “measure” and quantify and describe this fact? When are we going to convince ourselves that the “non-measurable” is of equal importance to the “measurable”?
Every time we refuse dialogue on an obscure and unknown issue, every time we produce dogmas relying prejudiced on not-so-rigid evidence, every time we defy the fact that this practice has been proven poor again and again in the past, we are acting non-scientifically. And thus, our words lack the authority we claim they have. Above all, scientific thought is all about not being prejudiced.
There was a time when mere reference to novelties like “bacteria”, “evolution”, “heliocentric star system”, was causing academic laughter and condemn. Every major step in the advance of scientific thought was a struggle against science… (How’s that for an oxymoron?) What makes us believe that this process has ceased? Every now and then, the hard shell of the mummified academic thought breaks, but only to reveal the next, even harder to break, layer…
AAT is a field of controversy, even if it is a futile one. Evolution in general and Homo sp. evolution specifically is not nearly resolved. Allow me to believe that as long as scientific authorities continue to think and act the way they do until now, it will never be. In fact, fossil evidence and “official” theories and schools of thought form a loosely constructed network that cannot conceal our huge ignorance on the matter. We suppose a number of ancestral genus’s, the various Homo, Australopithecus etc. based on a number of fossilized specimens that is so small, with a chronological and geographical spread so big, that conclusions are necessarily too arbitrary. What’s more, most traits and characteristics of ours that are elementary for the AAT are impossible to be found in fossils. Can we be sure about the Homo sp. evolutional branch that is suggested by paleontologists? We can’t, and in fact we aren’t. This is something we forget about too easily. Paleoanthropology authorities call the AAT “pseudoscience”. Perhaps they are right, but their motivation is not honest, their method is not unbiased, and they do so without caring to propose a credible alternative on the issues it approaches. Many times discussion on this and similar issues becomes a contest in smart insults. A favorite “answer” to the AAT from mainstream paleontology is the “Aerial Ape Theory”, and this is a telltale of the quality of confrontation that takes place…
Although it is the best we have, the “scientific” way of describing cosmos has a flaw. Logistics, descriptions, scrutiny etc are substantial but are not enough. For good or for bad, every single thing in this world is more than the sum of its parts. Everything is a “gestalt”, even Nature itself. Science as we understand it today has not the ability to think and talk the “big picture” of Nature. It does not allow room for the unknown “little somethings” that make the big differences. Even music, which is pure mathematics, is highly depended on “little somethings” that distinct the few real masters from the rest of musicians. For our next step as an evolving species, we need a more ambitious “tool” for looking at the world, and a new understanding of life itself. We need to free our thought from the suffocating embracement of stubborn and pointless materialism.
The conceptions of “genus” and “species” are a useful mean for us to categorize the living organisms, but what exactly do such words mean in reality? They are names of an elusive object, that sometimes correspond to it and sometimes not. This is not bad. The bad thing is the fact that we don’t realize and accept this in order to broaden our perception of nature and look onto life more freely. The Darwinian way of facing life is useful, but only to a certain extend. This is not bad. The bad thing is our arrogant denial of the fact that our comprehension of universe is limited and our insistence in compressing Nature in a narrow mental construction. We call human “Homo sapiens”. This is not bad. The bad thing is to imply by this nickname that we know what we are, that we are yet another species among species and so refuse to see and admit our abyssal difference with the rest of the creatures on this planet – and our huge responsibility to life itself. Every single creature, no matter how humble and low it seems to us, is running the race of life promptly and meticulously, and is completing the Circle of Life faithfully. Do we show the same respect to Life? We somehow earned the power to expand its Circle, yet we use this power to break it.
As long as we see Nature as a clockwork mechanism that forms (and is formed by) mindless robotic animals that prevail through bigger teeth and larger horns, Nature will be alien, hostile, and nothing more than a resource. As soon as we manage to accept Nature as a Vast Active Living Intelligent System (VALIS - according to Philip Dick), with everything interconnected to everybody, we will have the chance to become brothers and sisters with all life forms and find our true place in Gaia.
Our modern way of life -even more, our modern way of looking at universe- is a result of the way our “science” has evolved. Our civilization may look as a brilliant achievement, but since it started being an offence to life it is also a dangerous discrepancy. Nature has always its way to put things back in order. There are voices today claiming that, unless our civilization (as we think of it today) “collapses”, the human species will be extinct really soon. Maybe this is more possible than it sounds. Lemmings are a well-known symbol of such a fate. Perhaps our future is dangerously close to it… Doesn’t this perspective worth the effort to alter the way we think and act?
Anyway, I should stop “wondering” before the number of question marks in this text becomes a three digit one… I’m sorry if I got “a bit” off mark and I hope that I didn’t waste your time completely. Those of you that had the patience to follow me to this end must be really tired by now. Your fish should be hungry, too! Come on, go give them something. A little something, though. You wouldn’t want to overfeed, would you?
where Mr Darwin says it all…
where Elaine Morgan speaks for herself…
which is a serious “anti-AAT ” site.
for a nice brief history of the modern theory on “evolution by natural selection”.
for a reference to Jean Baptiste Lamarck, the great looser of evolution theories.
“The Aquatic Ape” by Elaine Morgan,
where it all started
“Dear Mr. Darwin: Letters on the Evolution of Life and Human Nature” by Gabriel Dover,
a good book with an alternative look on evolution.
“Ten faces of universe” by Fred Hoyle,
for a suggestion on how natural self-regulation might wipe out a lot of what we consider “civilization” today…
(1) Of course here one may wonder why dolphins have not developed a form of civilization since they do fulfill the mental and communicational “criterion”. There’s an open issue on the connection between hand, land-dwelling and civilization. However, are we so sure that dolphins are not indeed civilized – in a way we fail to notice? The fact that they do not have the ability for a material manifestation of civilization should not mean a negative answer on this, as civilization is not the materials that we are used to consider indicative of it. But lets not pursue this issue further – at least for now…
Many thanks to G. Reclos and the rest of MCH staff, as well as to Dr. Michael K. Oliver for his suggestions and corrections. His criticism helped me a lot.
Thanassis Moschou is a fellow hobbyist from Northern Greece with whom we have been exchanging views on various (always water related) issues for some years now. This article, heretic as it may seem at first, is his first appearance in MCH and hopefully not the last one. As always, you, the reader will be the judge. You may contact the author at