Not all biological pseudoscience comes from creationists

by Greg Mayer

In unrelated browses through the interwebs this morning, I came across two references to some high-priced gab fest called TED, whose slogan is “Ideas worth spreading”. Both the Dish and John Hawks link to this talk at TED by Elaine Morgan of aquatic ape infamy (see Jim Moore’s website). Whoever TED is, he may want to exercise a bit more quality control when selecting speakers. John Hawks’ own take on aquatic apes is worth reading, and I particularly like his epitomization of what pseudoscience is; it’s spot on.

Is the Aquatic Ape Theory fairly described as pseudoscience? Every statement of natural causes is potentially scientific. What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is social. Pseudoscience is supported by assertions of authority, by rejection or ignorance of pertinent tests, by supporters who take on the trappings of scientific argument without accepting science’s basic rules of refutation and replication. Pseudoscience is driven by charismatic personalities who do not answer direct questions. When held by those in power, like Lysenkoism, it destroys honest scientific inquiry. When held by a minority, it pleads persecution.

I think that the Aquatic Ape Theory in 2009 fits the description. (emphasis added)


  1. newenglandbob
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    TED is usually a good place to go to listen to lectures.

    There have been many excellent ones, some irrelevant ones and occasionally a dumper by Elaine Morgan.

    Her presentation is amateurish and refuted by many scientific blogs.

  2. Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    That “theory” (it isn’t a theory, of course) has to be one of the most bizarre. It should hook up with ID, since it’s hard to see how anything so clearly unadapted to water living (lacking the large amounts of myoglobin and other oxygen-retention systems used by aquatic mammals) as humans could be justified as aquatic by anything except the magic of the Designer that fails to use design principles and processes.

    Just “poof,” and we could hold our breath for 20 minutes, and stay warm in non-tropical waters. Why not? They’d have their “cause” to get around all of the difficulties in it, and we could laugh at them twice as hard.

    Glen Davidson

    • Notorious P.A.T.
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      I’m not a scientist, so I don’t have a horse in this race. Obviously humans have evolved to live on land. Now, supposing we passed through a semi-aquatic stage a few million years ago; wouldn’t we have since lost (after re-adjusting to land) some features of a water-based existence, like myoglobin? Isn’t that kind of like saying “penguins never flew! their wings are so tiny!”

      • Posted August 17, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        No, that would be like a creationist saying that penguin’s ancestors never flew.

        What we lack from the aquatic ape “theory” is what we lack from the IDists–evidence. Just saying that the evidence would be gone (and why would it be? Are humans now wholly non-aquatic, and wouldn’t adaptations for getting food from the water be beneficial?) simply is no answer at all.

        And when were we “aquatic apes” anyhow, or is that just more similarity with ID, that we don’t know, don’t care, and don’t need evidence for such amorphous claims?

        Glen Davidson

      • Notorious P.A.T.
        Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        I’m not trying to pick on you, I’m just an unemployed guy with nothing to do. I just did a Google search for “myoglobin in humans”. The first hit says that myoglobin’s role is not yet fully understood. Also, chickens have none of it (that’s why their meat is not red) while flying birds have lots of it. That suggests a species can quickly lose its ability to produce myoglobin if it isn’t needed anymore. Obviously, since the chicken is a “creation” of humans, its lineage is much, much younger than ours.

      • Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Who said that chickens lack myoglobin? Not all chicken meat is white, you know:

        The primary sequence of chicken myoglobin (Gallus gallus).

        Myoglobin’s role is not fully understood, but that it stores oxygen for use in slow-twitch muscle (mostly) is fairly certain–which is why chicken leg meat does include a fair amount of myoglobin.

        Is there any evidence that chickens have any recent ancestors which flew a lot? I’d have to point out that chickens are indeed flying birds (except for the monstronsities we’ve bred up), but like many other ground birds they utilize primarily anaerobic respiration for their short and explosive flights, which are adapted especially to escaping predators.

        Anyway, I just put in a couple of examples of non-adaptation to water–presumably even an aquatic ape would need to get into cold water in many cases, and myoglobin is just one thing that could point to aquatic apes and which does not.

        Again, what is the point of bringing up the fact that myoglobin levels might diminish relatively easily (this may be true), when what we need is good evidence for the aquatic ape hypothesis? IDists have certainly wearied me of excuses for low to zero evidence claims in that the evidence might have disappeared. The point is, supply some evidence, if you think it’s a worthy hypothesis.

        There is a small amount of evidence for the aquatic ape hypothesis, IMO, but we would expect much better than we have by now if it were true.

        Glen Davidson

  3. Ivence
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Some of the talks are great, they’ve had Steve Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett to name a few…as well as wingnuts like Rick Warren. They’re interesting to watch for the most part, but there are some rather insipid ideas that are presented as well.

  4. Posted August 17, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I understand why an aquatic phase as proposed by AAT is pseudoscience, but is a semi-aquatic hominid lifestyle a completely useless (partial) explanation for some features? At some point in our lineage we got much better at swimming/diving than our concestors with other apes. It may not be considered a significant habitat, but at some point we had to start spending some time in the water, and it stands to reason that skills to navigate it would be effected by selective pressures. No?

    • Notorious P.A.T.
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Linguistics is an easy way to get tied up, isn’t it? I’ve read about the AAT and I never understood it to mean that our ancestors went full aquatic. It should be called SAAT. Bad marketing, I guess.

    • H.H.
      Posted August 17, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      The AAT isn’t absurd on it’s face. Indeed, as you point out, many points seem rather compelling and there’s a certain logic behind it. What makes it a pseudoscience is the complete lack of evidence behind virtually all of its suppositions. It’s one of those ideas that’s been kicked around for decades, and proponents have a tendency to dismiss criticisms and prop up the theory with ad hoc explanations. In short, it’s not a bad idea, but it’s well past the point of being fully considered by the scientific community. Often promising hypotheses become pseudosciences when the people proposing them refuses to accept disconfirming data.

      Wikipedia offers several solid criteria for identifying pseudoscience, and the AAT fits the bill on almost all of them: “Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims; Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation; Personalization of issues” and perhaps most importantly “Absence of progress.”

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Notorious: Please check out this synopsis. It will ave you some time.

    Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim?
    a scientific critique by Jim Moore.

  6. Barry
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a much better (simpler and more honest), definition of pseudoscience: Pseudoscience is whatever the Monday night quarterbacks of science say it is.

  7. Rebecca Harbison
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    One difference between the (S)AAT and Creationism/ID is that you can at least phrase the AAT theory in a non-pseudoscience way and look for things that it explains better than the other human evolution theories. Since there are at least four different types of mammals that took to the seas (whales, seals, otters, manatees), we have some idea about ways mammalian biology adapts to coastal and pelagic living, and can compare them to hominid fossils.

    Granted, that means if it doesn’t work — which it doesn’t seem to — you have to toss it on the scrap heap unless a lot of dramatic new evidence is found that forces a re-evaluation. It doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening here — guess it’s easier to cry persecution and invoke Galileo.

  8. Posted August 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I second the recommendation of Jim Moore’s website:

    It’s the equivalent of the FAQ for AAT.

  9. Posted August 18, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    I just want to say that TED is a great organization and inviting people with differing – or even completely wrong – views to speak at a conference does not undermine the value of organization. By what criteria do we eject people from discussion? That’s what I call censorship. Others in that audience and on the TED website have voiced their concern about the accuracy of the “aquatic theory.” Just don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water. That’s all I ask.

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