For some reason, the Aquatic Ape hypothesis has significant appeal to non-biologists. The Aquatic Ape hypothesis, for those who don’t know, is an idea most vigorously promoted by Elaine Morgan that many human traits (loss of hair, bipedal locomotion, the diving reflex, and so on) evolved as adaptations to a largely aquatic lifestyle. In general, it has not been accepted as plausible in the scientific community, but it persists as a popular “folk science” idea that seems to appeal to many non-biologists (including some senior biology students in my classes — it comes up every year when we discuss bipedalism in humans, for example). I’m not sure why, but it’s probably similar to the reason “protection against mutations” is such a popular hypothesis for the presence of non-coding DNA among non-experts, even though it’s quite easy to find violations of pretty much every prediction such a hypothesis entails. Some ideas just seem to survive — indeed, to be defended — even in the absence of supporting evidence and in the face of contradictory information.
Anyway, all of this is just a verbose excuse to post the following, which plays on this kind of hypothesis:
FLOAT: A NEW PARADIGM FOR HUMAN EVOLUTION
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, California
1983. In: The Best of the Journal of Irreproducible Results, edited by GH Scherr. New York: Workman Publishing, pp. 27-28.
Human characteristics have been said to have their evolutionary origin in
seed eating (l), hunting (2), tool use (3), warfare (4), and aquatic
living (5); but the most comprehensive and logically sustained hypothesis
has been ignored, perhaps suppressed. The FLying On Air Theory – FLOAT,
as it is known acronymously (acrimoniously, among the reactionary human
evolution “establishment”) – demonstrates that many puzzling and unique
features of human anatomy and psyche were adaptive during the aerial
phase of human evolution. Human hairlessness clearly represents an
aerodynamic specialization; bipedalism is most parsimoniously interpreted
as a landing adaptation convergent with long-legged, clinging-and-leaping
prosimians and with birds; buttocks and their concomitant fat deposition
in mature females functioned as part of a “saddle” in the small of the
back in which infants rode (steatopygia occurs in populations with
greater than normal air speeds); long head hair constituted the “reins”
held by the infant rider; offspring who were too young to fly
independently but too large to ride safely in the maternal “saddle”
doubtless lay along the mother’s back, accounting for the evolution of
ventral handholds (breasts) in mature females (6).
The Wings of Man?
When flying (technically, flying behavior) evolved is difficult to
determine. Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, do not
fly (or at least do not do so when they are being observed), although
they occasionally exhibit closely related falling behavior. Neither do
they possess human “flight specializations.” But if apes “devolved” into
a more primitive condition to avoid competing with humans (7) the common
ancestor may have possessed flying abilities which were lost in the ape
lineages. (That chimpanzees and gorillas build nests is highly
The fossil man “establishment,” their headpieces filled with straw men,
call attention to the absence of winged hominids in the fossil record.
But behavior, as is widely known, does not fossilize; FLOAT is verified
not in lifeless rocks but in living psyche. The universally experienced
dream (racial memory) of flying testifies that humans flew with will
power, not wings. The hypertrophy of the human cerebral cortex ‹ so
excessive from a modern perspective ‹ represents the mechanism by which
our ancestors “willed” flight. Consider as well the sympathetic stirrings
evoked by soaring birds ‹ hawks, eagles, gulls ‹ as opposed to wing
Why flight evolved is obvious, since there are so many adaptive
advantages to flying ‹ in mobility, in escape from predators, in hunting,
in fighting, in eating fruit at the tips of branches, in locating a
potential mate, in avoiding a mate already acquired. Why flight was lost
is obscure because there are no apparent advantages in not flying, but
clues can be found in dreams, cartoons, fairy tales, and myths. The
dreamer soars at will until doubts assail him; cartoon characters remain
suspended in mid-air until they look down; in Peter Pan, children needed
only to believe in order to fly, and the loss of this ability upon
growing up suggests a relationship between flying and innocence; Daedalus
and Icarus flew, but Icarus, straining for glory and experience beyond
the human lot, was destroyed. Surely the sexual significance of flying is
unmistakable; indeed, flying is a common metaphor for ecstatic,
uninhibited sexual congress. Even today stewardesses exert an almost
magical lure on the male imagination. Flying may have become
dysfunctional owing to the extremes of sexual inventiveness possible to
advanced, airborne hominids, resulting in collisions, entanglements, and
other copulatory aerial disasters. Natural selection thus began to favor
hominids who repressed their knowledge of flight and hence their
undisciplined sexuality (8). (In Judeo-Christian myth, not only is heaven
in the sky, but by tempting Adam with [sexual] knowledge, Eve assured his
[and her] “fall.”)
This hypothesis can be tested by considering instances in which
contemporary humans fly. Flying is expected: to occur only in unusual
circumstances; to be associated with feelings of sexual abandon; and
hence to be accompanied by psychosexual conflict. Fortunately, relevant
data are available. Wilbert (9) reports that all shamans of the Warao
Indians of Venezuela (10) fly to visit the supreme spirits. But the
novice shaman can fly only after extensive fasting and ‹ significantly ‹
sexual abstinence. Although flights are repeatedly characterized as
“ecstatic,” the novice must overcome obstacles and temptations if he is
ever to return. He begins his maiden voyage by smoking an enormous
quantity of tobacco in the form of a “long shamanic” cigar. Once
airborne, he is tempted by women: “…he sees them making bark cloth for
pubic covers but must not linger with them, much less have sexual
intercourse” (ibid., p. 64). Still airborne, he plunges through a hole
with rapidly opening and closing doors in the trunk of an enormous hollow
tree, within which he encounters a huge female serpent “with four
colorful horns and a fiery-red luminous ball on the tip of her protruding
tongue” (ibid., p. 65). While the foregoing may be a straightforward
account of actual events, it seems more likely that reported events
merely symbolize severe psychosexual conflicts experienced by the novice
shaman while air borne, which is not surprising since he is engaging in a
behavior pattern that has been, for countless generations, disfavored by
natural selection. The Warao data thus unequivocally support both the
above outlined predictions and the FLOAT itself.
(1) Jolly, C. ³The Seed-eaters: A New Model of Hominid Differentiation
Based on a Baboon Analogy.” Man, 5:5-26, 1970.
(2) Laughlin, W. S. “Hunting: an Integrating Biobehavior System and its
Evolutionary Importance.” In Man the Hunter, edited by R. B. Lee and I
DeVore. Chicago: Aldine, 1968.
(3) Washburn, S. L. “On Holloway’s ‘tools and teeth’.” American
Anthropologist, 70:97-101, 1968.
(4) Alexander, R. D. “The Search for an Evolutionary Philosophy of Man.”
Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, 84:99-120, 1971.
(5) Morgan, E. The Descent of Woman. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
(6) Noting that adult males probably taught their offspring to fly, B.
Langefeld (personal communication) suggests that genital hypertrophy
reflects the male’s role as parachute.
(7) Kortlandt, A. New Perspectives on Ape and Human Evolution. Amsterdam:
Stichting voor Psychobiologie, 1972.
(8) Alternatively, G-A. Galanti (personal communication) suggests that
the hominid’s loss of flight resulted from aerial competition with
astronauts from outer space. FLOAT can accommodate this suggestion. Owing
to the exuberant aerial sexual acrobatics of early hominids, some
hybridization with astronauts was inevitable, accounting for the
universal myth of godlike ancestors. Since hybrids generally are of low
Darwinian fitness, and female hominids have exceeded males in parental
investment (11) at least since the Upper Epicene (12), selection would
have operated much more strongly against female than against male matings
with astronauts. Even today, flying-related words and phrases (“my
angel,” “my little chickadee”) are used as terms of endearment by men but
never by women, and men often display affectionate tolerance for flighty
women, but the reverse is seldom, if ever, the case.
(9) Wilbert, J. “Tobacco and shamanistic ecstasy among the Warao Indians
of Venezuela.” In Flesh of the Gods, edited by P T. Furst. New York:
Praeger, 1972. While, strictly speaking, D. E. Brown actually brought
this article to my attention, surely C. S. Lancaster would have done so
had he been aware of its existence. Since Lancaster’s career is being
built largely via acknowledgments in footnotes, I would like to take this
opportunity to thank him for his virtual contribution.
(10) Not to be confused with their neighbors, the Yawnomamo (the bored
(11) Trivers, R. L. “Parental Investment and Sexual Selection.” In Sexual
Selection and the Descent of Man 1871-1971, edited by B. Campbell.
Chicago: Aldine, 1972.
(12) Alii, E. “Snags ‘n Snails ‘n Sugar ‘n Spice: Post-Epicene Sexual
Dimorphism in the Hominidae.” Journal of Implied Anthropology, 4:1-45,