Lessons of the Aquatic Ape

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By Mark Lundegren


There is a good chance that you know where your recent ancestors are from. Perhaps they lived where you are now, or maybe they were from another part of the world. If you are in doubt, low-cost genetic tests today can shed light on your immediate ancestral history.

But do you know where, and how, your ancestors lived in the more distant past – say, 5 million years ago? Through the archeological record, we understand that all modern people share a common set of ancestors – humans and pre-humans who lived exclusively in Africa until roughly 100,000 years ago.

This bit of science answers the where part of our ancient natural history (though in simple terms, since it omits later interbreeding with Asiatic Homo erectus people by some of our Homo sapiens ancestors as we left Africa).


Similarly, the how part of the lives of our distant ancestors is nearly as settled science. But there is an interesting controversy about our earlier life patterns that is instructive about scientific understanding and everyday knowing more generally.

In practice, examining this and other controversies, or questions about the quality of our understanding, can help us to better navigate a variety of modern challenges and uncertainties, and ultimately to think and act more optimally amid contemporary life.

As you may know, today’s scientific consensus is that, 5 million years ago, pre-humans of this time had descended from trees and begun to move out from forest cover in small foraging or hunter-gatherer bands, ones who would gradually come to dominate the increasingly dry and deforested savannas of Africa.

However there is an alternative view or hypothesis, touched on in the Our Past section of HumanaNatura’s Personal Health Program. This hypothesis proposes that we were aquatic apes for a time in this larger evolutionary transition. Though our distant ancestors clearly began as tree-dwellers and ended as land-dwellers, the aquatic ape hypothesis asserts that this transition might have been marked or interrupted for a time by an aquatic mode of pre-human life – with our ancestors spending many hours each day swimming and fishing in coastal waters.

The graphic above summarizes key features of the aquatic ape hypothesis, which in its essence emphasizes that a number of our distinctly human physical characteristics might be explained by an extended period of semi-aquatic life during our evolution (including our tight skin and ability to swim proficiently).

Today, many scientists are skeptical of the aquatic ape hypothesis, and generally point out that our uniquely human physical attributes can be more simply explained within an exclusively terrestrial model of human evolution. But the aquatic ape hypothesis has an appeal. On its face, the hypothesis and its various proposals seem compelling, remarkably explanatory, and even apt to be true. Significantly, the hypothesis has not been categorically disproved, owing to gaps and ambiguities in the fossil record. And in the end, it may be found to be correct.

As suggested before, however, the aquatic ape hypothesis is more than interesting or curious as a historical artifact or scientific debate. In practical and personal terms, it provides an opportunity to consider progressive modern learning, life, and health-increasing choice. As you will see, the hypothesis offers a window on the nature of all thinking and knowing, and therefore on all attempts to optimally choose and act, across contemporary life.

Just as with the idea of aquatic apes, many diverging hypotheses, beliefs, or framings of issues abound in modern life today, in and out of science. Some of these ideas are patently false or can be readily disproved (such as ‘the earth is flat’). Or they can be shown to be less beneficial, adaptive, or predictive (‘people are primarily selfish’) than alternative ideas (‘people are partly selfish’).

Importantly, other ideas (such as those regarding supernatural events and indeterminable facts of all kinds) are not disprovable or falsifiable, and thus are unable to be made demonstrably true or false. As such, they form an inherently problematic body of ideas, from the standpoint of reliably knowing and deciding things, and thus adaptively organizing our lives.

In these and other cases of information ambiguity, we must make estimations of the truth or falsity of ideas, or the degree to which they are plausible and then probable. These estimations can be based on our understanding of the world (an inherently less reliable method, owing to natural bias and limits in our knowledge) or on the ability of these ideas to make accurate predictions about the world (a more time-consuming but far more reliable approach).

But many ideas, inferences, and positions are indeed falsifiable, or provable and disprovable via rational or scientific investigation (such as ‘the sun orbits the earth’). In practice, these ideas and proposals are naturally less problematic than claims that are not disprovable or falsifiable. But this does not mean the ideas are necessarily plausible, probable, true, or optimal, only that they are available to us as objects for careful analysis and consideration.

The aquatic ape hypothesis is in this category of ideas. Beyond being compelling and fitting certain facts, it is likely also provable or disprovable over time. It is also significant and potentially consequential – perhaps partly explaining the notable health effects of fish in our diets, or our frequent penchant for life by oceans and seas. It therefore is worthy of our attention, and in the least demands some amount of humility and caution in the telling of our natural history.

In addition to falsifiable or provable claims, there are two other important sets of ideas. These include ones that are probable and others that are reasonably proven, and thus the basis for reliable knowledge and decision-making amid modern life.

As suggested, these levels of knowledge are met via a large body of objective evidence and repeated successful predictions, normally occurring over a period of time. And when standards of proof are met, a hypothesis becomes an established theory or principle (such as the theory of evolution, or the idea that life evolved on earth via natural selection).

I’ve summarized these varying levels of knowledge or information quality below:

  1. False or readily disproved
  2. Not disprovable
  3. Provable
  4. Plausible
  5. Probable
  6. Proven

This natural or systematic ordering of knowledge, surrounding and immediately aiding our consideration of the aquatic ape hypothesis, offers several useful lessons for contemporary life. First is that the facts and ideas we use are often naturally limited to some degree and less than absolute. They may be distinctly biased, owing to the imperfect and purpose-evolved nature of our minds and human nature, or because of only partially understood or indeterminable information.

Though highly certain and even proven knowledge is possible, in many cases and on a range of topics we must proceed with limited or only probabilistic knowledge. This observation may seem obvious when plainly stated. But the truth is that we often treat the information we use as more certain than it is in fact (including conclusions about our needs, others’ motives, and situational options, to begin a list).

Because of this, we regularly make lower quality choices and decisions than we might, were we more aware of or attentive to the quality of the ideas and information we are using. Compounded over time, the implications of lower quality decisions and actions are of course enormous, keeping us from new health and progressivity in our lives and groups.

Second, and building on this lesson, considering the aquatic ape hypothesis and knowing more generally teaches us that knowledge not only exists at differing levels of robustness, but that this information quality is observable or determinable, independently of particular matters or ideas occupying us or others. As suggested, ideas and judgments with one or more of the following attributes naturally reflect lower orders or more problematic forms of knowledge:

  • Unsupported by evidence or logic
  • Built on extra-natural or non-rational foundations
  • Involving claims that cannot be disproved or falsified
  • Do not facilitate reliable predictions or lead to superior functioning

Of course, even when ideas and proposals are free from these basic imperfections, they may still be false, implausible, improbable, or inferior to other ideas in their ability to explain and predict the world, and thus in aiding knowing and life.

This might suggest avoiding judgments, which is a recurring idea in both popular and philosophical life. But such unnatural or perfectionistic withdrawal from thinking life, to the extent that it is possible, is apt to be enormously maladaptive, and unlikely to stand the test of time and challenge of life. This is both because judgments are integral to advanced life and because superior judgments result in superior natural functioning (two important and provable ideas).

The imperfect, assessable, and essential nature of knowing and judging in turn leads to a third lesson. This is the idea that we should be attentive users of information. Specific practices here include: 1) looking at issues from multiple perspectives, 2) actively probing and testing ideas, 3) employing broad sets of facts and findings, and 4) patiently using the test of time to inform and true our views, especially in crucial areas. All are natural and reliable methods to promote information quality and improve our functioning, as both people and groups.

Ultimately, these steps suggest a commitment to or strategy of ongoing natural probing and learning in the most relevant, important, and health-impacting areas of our lives, and of human life generally – an approach that I call natural progressivity and explain in more depth in the Natural Living section of HumanaNatura’s Personal Health Program and my book The Seven Keys of Natural Life.

While conscious natural progressivity is a learned and patient skill, in practice it is often the surest and even quickest means to inform, consider, and evolve the quality or health of our views, aims, and actions.

The next time that you find yourself facing an important question or problem, and see easy answers that fit facts but might be wrong or less than ideal, I would encourage you to think of our hypothesized and compelling, but perhaps non-existent, or all-wet, aquatic ancestors.

With the provable and plausible but also potentially false idea of aquatic human life in mind, you may be more inclined to patiently, curiously and humbly consider whether more reliable, powerful, and time-testable conclusions and choices are possible.

This is the beginning and essence of progressive learning and knowing, of more informed and self-aware functioning, and of the waiting transformation I call modern natural life.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Photo: Wikimedia Aquatic Ape

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