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The Aquatic Ape

Once upon a time, I watched way too much television. Much of that television was pure junk TV, like America’s Next Top Model, but some of it was junk TV disguised as something educational. If you’ve watched much of the programming on the science or history channels, you are well aware that many of these programs feature hokey reenactments of bad science and/or bad history.

One such program, a favorite of mine, is a show about the aquatic ape. To my way of thinking, the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT) is the chindogu of evolutionary science. That is, just as chindogu or “unuseless inventions” solve a real problem by way of an invention that causes so many concomitant problems as to render the solution useless*, the AAT has so many holes in it, that it fails to solve the problem it was designed to shed light on.

Let’s back up a minute. The basic thesis behind the AAT is that it seems unlikely (to AAT proponents anyway) that modern humans developed on the savanna, and that a period or periods of aquatic life can account for some key differences between humans and apes. Some of these features include humans’ relative lack of body hair, large breasts, and downturned nostrils.  Of course, most aquatic creatures don’t have human sweat glands or enlarged breasts either, thus shooting some holes in the AAT. To say nothing of the fact that humans are non-native swimmers, which really puts the kibosh on it.

But the part of the AAT that is the most intriguing and almost persuasive–at least until you think about it for more than five seconds–is bipedalism. Why would an ape on the savanna ever stand on two feet? Doesn’t it make more sense that this trait would develop in an environment where buoyancy would encourage bipedalism and a watery surrounding would make being on all fours less desirable?

Eh, probably not. Chimps and gorillas and orangutans can all stand on two feet. They just usually choose not to. What’s more, their preference for tree-swinging (orangutans) and knuckle walking (chims and gorillas) may be themselves evolutionary developments that place a premium on speed.

And what does all of this have to do with Simon? So glad you asked. Today at the pool, after three or four failed attempts on previous outings, I got Simon in the baby raft. At first, he cried.  He was leaning forward in the raft, and that was way too much like tummy time for his liking. But then, encouraged by a desire to keep his face dry and empowered by buoyancy, Simon stood up and moved from one side of the baby pool to another.

Imagine that, his face seemed to say, I can actually stand up and move from point A to point B without being carried. Amazing! And certainly nothing he’s considered home on terra firma.

Based on this exercise, I’ve decided that while the AAT may be a bunch of unscientific speculation, buoyancy may well be what finally encourages Simon to stand and walk. All of which is disconcerting because I leave town next Friday and the pool closes for the season next Saturday.

Wonder how high I can fill the tub….

* An example of a perfectly chindogu invention is a tongue cover designed to prevent burns from hot food. Of course, if you actually use this sucker, you also won’t be able to taste your food, which takes away some of the pleasure. For more chindogu, see the book by the same name by Kenji Kawakami. And prepare to laugh yourself sick.

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