The aquatic ape

The Prince of Pessimists, Joseph Arthur, self-elevated Compte de Gobineau (1816–82), put it this way against the Darwinians: Nous ne descendons pas du singe, mais nous y allons. (“We do not descend from the ape, rather we are going there.”)

One may read a hatchet job on him in the Wicked Paedia, based on the ravings of his Canadian biographer, the half-wit, Alan T. Davies. Or one might dig for a rounder picture in long forgotten, pre-Internet sources. Or one might even condescend to read Gobineau himself, starting with his delightful travel sketches, and continuing with his rather joyous attacks on the degeneracy of the post-Mediaeval world. True, he could be read as an outrider of Nietzsche, with half-baked racial theories that anticipate Heidegger and Hitler. But that is to read him anachronistically. His preferential option was for art and aristocracy, not for low-class thugs.

Suffice to say Gobineau did not think well of democracy, and more or less correctly predicted the course of world history through the century after his death. For that, he may never be forgiven.

Indeed, the only reason I can think of to read him today (and one will not often find him in print) is that he is coruscating, luminous, dazzling, transformative, penetrating, incredibly funny, and wildly entertaining. Try to defend him in the academy, however, and you are a dead man.

Now here I am wandering astray. (Gobineau’s asides are extensive and wonderful.) I had intended to comment today on Evolution, as a matter of conscience, having not taken a good kick at the Darwinoids for some time. Let’s see if I can get this Idlepost back on track.


The notion of Evolution is very old; all of Darwin’s and Wallace’s ideas were discussed among the ancient Epicureans. Anaximander of Miletus anticipated the whole argument for “natural selection” twenty-four centuries before the publication of The Origin of Species. Indeed, he delved much deeper into that cosmology with his hypothesis of the apeiron as the boundary condition of this and all worlds: our origin within “the indefinite.” (Darwin was no philosopher, as howlers throughout his works reveal.)

What Darwin added was the cheap veneer of the Victorian idea of progress: the undefended (and indefensible) assumption that evolution was moving onward and ever upward. A trained philosophical mind would hardly take this for granted. As Gobineau points out, “descent” should instead be visualized as a movement downwards; as a true descent from the primary and original, through fissure, into the chaos of multiple competing species; and in the case of the philosophical monkeys, down from the trees.

Of course there are “causes.” Everything has “causes,” till we trace back to the singular and irrefutable Fact of God.

Take bipedalism for instance. True, there is a post-modern school that has advanced the “endurance running hypothesis,” which holds that various human characteristics developed from what they imagine to be the advantages of marathon running — which we can do better than pretty much any other species. Those others may often run faster, but we have stamina. (So have the four-legged horses, but put that out of your mind.) This developed, along with our gangly long legs, out of bipedalism. Meanwhile our freed-up arms “evolved” the capacity to throw rocks with telling accuracy.

Like all evolutionary arguments, and other just-so stories, it is circular. Man developed marathon running skills because he became so adapted. We can prove this because, look, he developed marathon running skills. Another way to describe this form of reasoning is, “fatuous.”

Ditto the timelines. According to the experts, using their expert reasoning, we have a coherent, “progressive” series. It goes something like this. … Primates, 70 million years ago. … Apes, 30 million years. … Homonins, 2.5. … Homo sapiens, 0.5. … Homo sapiens sapiens, 0.2. … Artists, 0.05. … Farmers, 0.02. … (Jews, 0.005; Christians, 0.002; Hippies, 0.00005; et cetera.) … This does not show that things are speeding up. Instead it displays the logarithmic, slide-rule mentality, gradually converting to the metric system.

But we might get somewhere by turning this backwards and upside down. Our hairy quadruped ancestors, in my view, must have been running fast, being the pointy-head sort of quadrupeds, who don’t notice predators coming at them till it is almost too late, then must tear off so suddenly as to become half-airborne. This is how bipedalism developed. The stamina followed, because they were so terrified they didn’t know when to stop.


Now, my favourite evolutionary theory emerged only in the last century. Technically it begins with some German pathologist, Max Westenhöfer, inhaling fumes in his surgery back in the 1920s. He was I think the first to propose that man evolved from some sort of “aquatic ape.” But his dull Teutonic colleagues eventually talked him down, and so he exits from the evolutionary picture. (He also had the cool idea that bipedalism preceded quadripedalism in mammals, as in reptiles — before he ran off to reform the public health system in Chile.)

Instead we turn to my childhood hero of marine biology, Sir Alister Hardy. (His two volumes on The Open Sea, from the late ‘fifties, are mesmerizing, boy’s-own classics.) He also came up with this clever and highly amusing wet-ape idea about 1930, independently, but kept it to himself for another thirty years, in view of his need for professional advancement. By the time he mentioned it, he had managed to make it sound tediously Darwinist. And besides, he had already copped all those honours that universities are shy about taking away.

Hardy’s version is the best, because when it comes to oceans, he “knows everything that can be knowed.”

You see, our ancestors from the primitive ape-stock were forced out of the trees by competition from other, tougher monkeys. They wandered, homeless, down to the seaside, to live on clams, oysters, sea urchins, and various intertidal species that are notoriously easy to catch. This must have been in the tropics, where it doesn’t get so cold, for he soon found himself out there in the water, with perhaps the tougher monkeys hissing from the beach. … Take it from there, labcoats!

The academy politely ignored this hypothesis. Hardy himself, after feyly attempting to defend it in the pop-science press, moved on, as we say.

But meanwhile Desmond Morris, with his tabloid eye, picked up on it in his bestseller, The Naked Ape (1967). And then the feminist, Elaine Morgan, saw the sisterhood angle, and followed it through The Descent of Woman (1972). She continued, dragging it from there to her death, a couple of years ago — more welcomed in the academy than her predecessors who had been, to put a fine point on it, white males. Homo sapiens, you see, evolved the way we did thanks to our dusky, female qualities.

Her presentation of the hypothesis, somewhat less sophisticated than Hardy’s, is nevertheless as plausible as any in the “evolutionary biology” field. And it is more attractive than most. Just think: Mermaids!

And the environmentalists could buy in, too. Just think: Littorals! Wetlands!

And the sociologists: How we love to take baths!

And hooo, there were a lot of galleries to which she was playing.

The palaeo-anthropologists had some trouble; still have some objections to the hypothesis in light of innumerable awkward facts; but given the times, they went easy on her. She was after all a big hit on TV.

Proboscis monkeys! (They always get my attention: the ones in Borneo with the funny noses.) I’ve forgotten how they come into it, except, they like to hang around mangrove swamps.

Let me be clear: I love this hypothesis. Please don’t put it down! … There may be no fossil evidence, whatsoever; but don’t be so negative. For this is all soft-tissue stuff. Hardly ever makes it into fossils.

A hairless monkey, flopping about like a sea otter, were it not for those groovy prehensile ape limbs and toes. And with a brain developing like a dolphin’s, from the high nutrients in a seafood diet. Soon we are far ahead of our old neighbours, the brutish chimpanzees, through encephalization (rising brain-to-body meat ratio, and thicker synaptic density, too, as in the case of the clever squids). One might argue that not all fish-eaters get so smart. But as a Catholic, I don’t want to ruin this story.

It explains, for instance, why our larynx descended, from nose to throat. This was needed to close off the trachea, while diving. Helps, too, in gulping air when returning to the surface. And we can hold our breath way longer than any ape. This made our rivals so much easier to drown.

Did you know a human baby can hold its breath underwater for nearly a minute?

That’s where I bought in, at the end of the ‘eighties. You see, I had a human baby with me at the time, and took him to a pool to teach him what water is like, and maybe how to float. Matthew, let us call him; my “wiggly worm.” (Multiple double-jointed thanks to Down’s syndrome.) Carried him gently into the shallow end of the pool, but then he broke free. Squirted right out of my arms, then surfaced twenty feet away — in the deep zone, giggling and rather pleased with himself. Meanwhile I had been panicking, of course. Took me quite a while to catch him after that, as he jetted about, like a merry octopus. Decided I’d have to learn swimming from him.

Consider, gentle reader: the buoyant adiposity, or chubbiness of babes. And then, this cheesy varnish on their newborn skins, like the pups of certain pinnipeds. And then, the many delivery complications that could be neatly avoided if mommy would only agree to give birth in a water tank.

Slam-dunk, I would say.

Yet it gets better. We can explain our bipedalism by this buoyancy in the water. … I can’t, perhaps, but there are others who can. For Ms Morgan was joined by other researchers, once funding was raised: old pros who could supply “the gods in her gaps”; master craftsmen of the just-so story; people with degrees in biology.

Go for it, gentle reader. We are all secretly aquatic apes. And this is great news, now that rising sea levels have been identified as our most pressing planetary concern. Hardly a problem for us, surely. All we need do is go back: … Weee!

(It’s true, I am like Gobineau. But more optimistic.)