Friday, January 20, 2012

Never Cry Wolf

What is it with people and drinking? Have you ever given that much thought? One can imagine chimps hunting together, foraging together, eating together, sleeping together, fighting together, being together together, but can you imagine them sitting around drinking cups of adulterated water together? I can’t.

How about going for a swim? Maybe some fishing? Do chimps ever go after frogs? Turtles? Are chimps inclined to float around on a log for a spell? Perhaps tie—dare we say “raft”?—together a few big logs?

Ever read Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf? There’s a scene in there where he’s trying to see if a wolf, who regularly passed close to his tent, would respect his boundary markings; which he figured meant pissing in the corners, so to speak, just like the wolf did. It worked, but he learned something about peeing in the process. He began by brewing up a pot of tea, having a couple cups, and then waiting.

Until he had to go.

Which he did, and then he’d repeat the whole process over again; but, Christ, he was belting down a lot of tea. He got to wondering, “How does that wolf do it, he doesn’t drink a quarter of what I drink?”

For one thing, he—the wolf—only pees a little bit at each marker, Mowat observed. Unlike people, the wolf was able to turn his urination on and off at will, with no ill effects; he did not walk away with his legs crossed. Furthermore, the wolf’s pee was much more concentrated than his pee; a little went a long way. Compared to the wolf, his pee was, well, weak tea. Farley accidentally came to the realization that people guzzle water like nobody else. At least nobody else out living on the savannah, where we were supposed to have come from. Other animals come to the water hole for a drink; we camp there for the whole afternoon. Us and the elephants.

I wrote a note to Elaine Morgan yesterday. Elaine is the chief apologist for the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT). I Stumbled Upon a 2009 TED presentation by the delightful lady and felt duty-bound to respond. I noted that I wrote her occasionally and was sorry she hadn’t incorporated demographic data into the understanding of AAT. In her video she lamented academe’s reluctance to even consider AAT, and I was reluctant to point out that she treated demographics the same way.

I repeat my note here:

“The failure of AAT to capture its rightful place in human paleontology is due to its insistence on some untenable assumptions, but the unfortunate consequences are worse. I think it's quite true that much of homo sapiens' physiology comes from an association with water, but because AAT focuses on an unlikely interpretation of the evidence, it has turned most of the profession against the demonstrable associations between people and a water-based environment.

“I think you start the argument from the wrong end. The reason there is no fossil evidence for a previous semi-aquatic existence is probably because there was no such stage. On the other hand, there's abundant evidence that our ancestors—at least many of them—lived in close proximity to water. They may have used the savannahs as hunting grounds, but they evidently lived close to the water's edge and in relatively lush environments. For example, it's one thing to live on the savannah; it's another thing to live on the bank of a river that cuts through the savannah.

“All of that, of course, is somewhat speculative; how does one interpret the evidence, and what is ‘all’ the evidence? What's not speculative is modern demographics. Demographically speaking, humans are currently semi-aquatic animals; there is no question about that, it's absolutely and scientifically demonstrable. A) Everyone on the planet lives within close proximity to a source of fresh water; we know that because we know that without that a person will die. There is no exception. Those who live any distance from potable water spend most of their day acquiring that water. In the ‘civilized’ world, most people have running water in their home or an easily accessible common source. No one lives in the desert; everyone lives at the oasis. B) I would wager that 80% of the people on the planet live within four miles of navigable water. That's a guess, but it can't be too far off. Everyone depends on controlling and having access to water. We have been oceanic seafarers for at least 60,000 years; and we surely didn't start out as capable of crossing long distances, such as to Australia. It implies we began crude sailing much, much earlier. Like probably by the time our species evolved 200,000 years ago. And it would be hard to imagine that, if we were sailing by 200,000 years ago, that we wouldn't have been fishing and harvesting clams and turtles, as well. Which it seems we were doing.

“All that means that we, as a species, have most probably been water-side dwellers for at a minimum 200,000 years, but more likely for millions of years. Obviously you and I think the evidence goes back much further than a few hundred thousand, but I think we can safely say it goes back that far. However far it goes back, it evidently goes back far enough to have affected our physiology for, you're perfectly correct, our physiology more or less demands a semi-aquatic environment. But it doesn't require more of an aquatic environment than we currently enjoy. I repeat: we currently are a semi-aquatic animal. The only real question is, when did we become this way? If you put the question this way, then it becomes incumbent on the paleoanthropologists to find a date when that cross-over occurred. I don't think the demographics are assailable.

“The other part of your argument that, I believe, has to be abandoned is the theory that bipedalism is necessarily connected to our semi-aquatic existence. It's the weakest part of the argument with the least fossil support and logically isn't compelling. It's obviously advantageous to be bipedal if one wants to go wading, but it's doubtful than our ancestors ever got so into wading that the best waders supplanted the non-waders. I don't see that we were ever that dependent on or spent that much time in the water. Whatever water we started out next to, it apparently was fresh. I can't see that we were ever about ready to go swimming with the crocodiles. I can, though, see us, as the smartest ape, moving our abode to where the food was most abundant: the water's edge. We didn't have to hang out with the crocs to benefit from the lush water-side. Furthermore, a water-side existence would have aided our survival in times of shrinking habitat. It's easier to defend ones own turf than to dislodge someone from theirs. We could have spent millions of years living alongside and using water resources just as we do today: food, transportation, safety. If that's true, we would have turned out, well, just the way we turned out.

“My guess about bipedalism—though I have nothing like a demographic argument to buttress it—is that it's a result of habitual tool carrying. I suspect that, as meat eating increased in our diet, those apes who were more able to quickly take advantage of hunting opportunities—i.e. those who were always armed with a pointed stick or a rock—ate and reproduced better than their less prepared brethren; and slowly, habitually bipedal apes took over the species. Once everyone carried weapons all the time (and other things, as well, by the time carrying was habitual), those who were physically better suited to upright posture slowly increased their percentage of the species until we were obligate bipedal. Of course, there's nothing to say that those apes living down by the water, who were already the smart apes, wouldn't have figured out the carrying weapons trick first, as well. It does, though, suggest that bipedalism could have arisen more than once and under more than one condition. In any event, if you abandon connecting bipedalism with a semi-aquatic environment, I think you'll have a greater chance of success.”

What surprises me is that I don’t see the “demographic conundrum” being addressed anywhere. Granted, I’m a dilettante, but I don’t recall anyone other than myself ever asking the question of when did we move to the shore where we currently live? Likewise granted, they keep pushing back the age of aquatic resource utilization—only recently reporting 42,000 year old fish hooks—but they appear to think of aquatic resource utilization as an adjunct to a life that was predominantly lived elsewhere. Like on the savannahs. Not as a way of life unto itself.

I’m not here—in the words of Obama, let me be perfectly clear—to argue for any theory about our past behavior (although I have plenty of those, too) but rather to ask, when did our current demographic preference for the water-line take place? Everybody is trying to figure out when we climbed down from the trees, but nobody seems to be trying to figure out when we moved to the lake, river, swamp, ocean, mud puddle, oasis? I guess that’s what bothers me about so much of paleontology, it’s not that their data are wrong, but that they’re asking the wrong questions. Or more aptly put: not asking the right ones. We don’t live on the savannah. Proportionally, the percentage of the population that lives on a savannah anywhere approaches zilch. Even those who look like they live on the savannah, if you look closely, you’ll find they live in a town by the river or they built their house down by the creek. The rest of them? Why, they drive pipes deep into the ground and make artificial springs right where they live. How many of them live out on the savannah—forget about the prairie or the desert? Not a whole lot.

So, I’m not saying here that we didn’t, God only knows, live on the savannah at some distant point in our past; I’m only saying that we don’t live there now. Almost none of us. Every single one of us has moved as close as possible to the water hole, if not a navigable body. When did that happen? If you read current theory, it appears that most professionals think the move to the water’s edge happened after the rise of home sapiens some 200,000 years ago. All I’m looking for is the evidence that makes them think this transfer of habitat took place and when it occurred.

It appears to me that the modern scientific community credits the human species with an incredible plasticity and ability to change its environmental habitat at will. The usual reason given is “culture,” as if culture could change ones resistance to cold or need for water. The current scenario has the early hominin first coming down from the trees, leaning to walk upright, and inhabit the savannahs. That’s the first major habitat change. We know from demographics that said hominins now live next to water courses; which, if the savannah theory is correct, requires a new shift of habitat. That’s two big shifts to get us out of the trees and to the shore where we now live. The simpler scenario, that we came down out of the trees to inhabit the shore line, doesn’t appear to be seriously considered. I would just like the profession—me being a simple layperson—to explain the evidence for those shifts. I simply don’t understand it and would like some help.

For example, I don’t understand what sort of culture an Australopithecine would have had that would have insulated them from climate change; weren’t they some of the people to have first come down from the trees? And doesn’t the theory say that they came down because the forest was disappearing underneath them? That they had to adapt or die? I get to wondering about their cousins, the chimps, wasn’t the forest disappearing under them, too? How did they adapt or how come they didn’t die? Or did their territory and population simply shrink?

Then I get to thinking about the polar bears? I couldn’t begin to count the references I’ve seen to the story that polar bears are in danger of going extinct because their habit is disappearing underneath them. Really? What’s the matter with the polar bears; how come they don’t simply adapt like we did? We had culture? That’s why I wonder what kind of culture the Australopithecines had? Did they really have enough culture to protect them from habitat change? Could someone explain that to me? Being a naive nebbish, I would have thought the Australopithecines obeyed the same natural laws the polar bears do: in the face of habitat extinction, you die. Where did I go wrong?

Why couldn’t it be that we came down from the tree to right where we are now, at the shore line? (Not in the water, silly, kingfishers don’t live in the water; they go in it, but they don’t live in it.) I get it that the profession says we didn’t, but I don’t follow the evidentiary logic. My apologies for being so slow, but I’ve yet to see the fossils that said, “These people definitely didn’t live in the river cut-bank or down by the lake.” Perhaps I missed something; could someone point me in the right direction?

Nonetheless, I think Elaine would have a much better argument if, instead of trying to defend an improbable past, she began chipping away at the props of the current academic position. What savannah? Show me the savannah. I think the savannah is a chimera. Ask them to prove it. And ask when we left it?

Later we can talk about the notion that people stood up to see over tall grass? Oh, come on!

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