The Aquatic Ape

In Reverend Charles Kingsley’s satirical novel “The Water Babies” his central protagonist Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house, dies and is transformed into a “water baby. The novel is both a critique of Victorian England’s treatment of the poor and of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day in their response to Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution.


The Water Babies was also a portent of things to come in the field of human evolution because a century after Kinsley’s novel many paleoanthropologists were to greet another theory concerning the distinctly aquatic origins of modern humans with equal vitriolic scorn.

The aquatic ape hypothesis (AAH) is an alternative explanation of human evolution and theorizes that the ancestors of modern humans developed the hallmarks of our humanity during a period of adapting to life in a partially-aquatic environment

Of all the great apes we are the only one with the ability to swim, to control our breathing under water, to possess a naked and entirely hairless skin and a subdermal layer of fat with sweat glands to control body temperature. And, is it just mere chance or coincidence that the only other species to possess a highly developed neo-cortex just happen to be the mammals (whales, dolphins and porpoises) that spend their entire existence in water?

This hypothesis was first proposed in a 1942 book by the German biologist Max Westenhöfer and later exposed by Sir Alister Hardy in 1960 and later championed and expanded in 1967 by a welsh housewife and writer Elaine Morgan read about the idea in Desmond Morris paradigm shaking book “The Naked Ape”.

Now more the than forty years later, and in the year in which we are now celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species”, we may be seeing another major paradigm shift in our thinking of human origins. After more than four decades of neglect, scorn and being ridiculed as nothing more than new age pseudoscience –the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is finally coming in from the cold.

The Aquatic Ape hypothesis has also garnered support from the greatest names in modern evolutionary science – Phillip Tobias, David Attenborough and Daniel Dennett.

So join us today on Discovery Enterprise as we continue our year long celebration of the life and work of Charles Darwin and explore perhaps the most controversial hypothesis concerning the genesis of humanity since the theory of Natural selection with today’s audio visual selection:

The Aquatic Ape

BBC Radio 4 -The Scars of Evolution

Presented by Sir David Attenborough Scars of Evolution is a two part series looking at the history and current status of the ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’ (AAH), first proposed 45 years ago by Sir Alister Hardy, then elaborated and developed by Elaine Morgan and others.

TED Talks featuring Elain Morgan

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2 Responses to “The Aquatic Ape”


  1. 1 Sheri Fresonke Harper September 21, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Interesting concept. When they found the strange creature in Panama this weekend I couldn't help but wonder if there was a disease that caused hairlessness.:) Sheri

  2. 2 Lobo7922 October 14, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    I was fascinated when I did read Desmond Morris book, The Naked Ape; because the whole concept of the Aquatic Ape, makes so much sense, it's so logical.The problem is that it's very hard to sustain it with proof. Sea and river coasts are not famous for its fossils


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