Of aquatic apes and ignorant congressmen

Old Tarzan movies aside, elephants don’t really have a secret burial ground, to which old animals travel when they are ready to die. It’s a romantic notion, but completely unsupported by evidence: elephant bones lie where the animal died, wherever that happens to be.

The elephant secret burial ground is an extreme example of a type of wishful thinking that can lead us all into mental traps. We humans want to believe, and seem to be attracted to certain notions, because they feel right in some way. There’s also a tendency toward wanting to give ideas a fair trial, even if those ideas are a bit on the fringe: if they sound plausible to us, we’ll listen or even promote them. Thus, otherwise reasonable people will promote concepts like the non-biological origin of petroleum (which would mean oil is actually not a finite resource after all), cold fusion, or the “aquatic ape” hypothesis.

Elephant graveyards aren’t a damaging myth (at least as far as I can tell), but those others have real-world consequences. Energy policy in the light of global climate change requires understanding where our fuel comes from, so we can make long-term plans. (See Maggie Koerth-Baker’s excellent book Before the Lights Go Out for an in-depth discussion of this issue.) Despite the lack of repeatable experimental results or evidence that nuclear reactions are actually taking place, low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR, also known as “cold fusion”) is still supported by some institutions, including a few people at NASA. I’m sure many of us wish LENR was a legitimate avenue for research, since it would solve so many problems, but cold fusion has yet to fulfill its promise, despite years of effort.

Did our ancestors live in the water?

The “aquatic ape” hypothesis (AAH) is another type of idea, one more common (I think) in physics than in biology. In this model, human ancestors went through an aquatic stage of evolutionary development. On the face of it, AAH explains things such as our relative hairlessness, large breasts, upright stature, and big brains, compared to our closest primate relatives. However, the paleontological evidence used to support AAH works much better as evidence of a dry-land life for our ancestors. In fact, it’s likely many people haven’t even heard of the aquatic ape idea; I think I first ran across it as a footnote in Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, rather than a science magazine or newspaper.

I asked Twitter this morning for a term describing a scientific theory that was once viable, but has since fallen out of use thanks to too much evidence against it. The term that I thought best came from Reed Roberts: “obsolete theory”.

However, Antonia Hamilton proposed another term that describes AAH well: a “zombie theory”. It should be dead by all rights, but still lurches on. If I may extend the metaphor, it feeds on the brains of those who are unwary.

Lest you think this is a strawman argument, set up only to be knocked down, the Guardian ran an article in their Sunday edition (the Observer) giving aid and comfort to AAH, as well as promoting a conference devoted to the topic. Among the speakers: David Attenborough, beloved host of many science programs on television. If you read the article, you’d come away with the impression that AAH is a lot more widespread than it is.

I’m sympathetic—AAH is an interesting idea, with a grand scope to explain a lot of diverse features in human anatomy—but it simply doesn’t hold up under the evidence. (The biggest problem is probably time: whales evolved from terrestrial mammals, lost their body hair, and evolved big brains, but took a lot longer than human ancestry allows for AAH.) If you want some fun with the hypothesis, try this series on the “idea” that humans actually evolved in space, showing how many of the same features AAH explains could have evolved in that rather unlikely environment.

Attenborough aside, I have yet to run into a science writer or communicator who supports AAH, and I certainly have never met an evolutionary biologist, paleontologist, or anthropologist who accepts the hypothesis. Admittedly, that’s anecdotal evidence, but I trust my colleagues and their judgment. I’m no biologist—my last formal biology training was from Mr. Cool (his actual name) in my sophomore year of high school back in 1933. However, that’s why I rely on the biologists and paleontologists and anthropologists: they are in a position to evaluate the evidence, just as I am in a position to help them evaluate the evidence for dark matter or the Big Bang. They act as my gatekeepers, allowing me to say with confidence that the AAH is almost certainly wrong: among the strongest statements one can make in science.

Who is custodian of the custard custodians?

(Joke courtesy of Terry Pratchett.) My ability to trust other scientists and writers in fields that are not mine is a big time-saver: I don’t have to recreate every experiment, read every paper, and become an expert in every branch of science. However, U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) has decided that the Congress should put itself in the stead of experts when it comes to awarding grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Mr. Smith has looked over several NSF grant awards, and concluded they are not worth receiving government money.

Frankly, I would hesitate to evaluate the value of a lot of grant applications in physics, and I have a PhD in physics. However, Mr. Smith thinks that the Congress is in a better position to know whether a grant is scientifically valid than other scientists: the process of peer review currently used. Derek Lowe has a lot more on why this idea is bad, but suffice to say that Mr. Smith has a poor understanding of how science works. We don’t always know in advance what research will be valuable, what ideas will be right, or what experiments will prove applicable in areas that are not directly connected to their original field. Particle colliders are used in medical and materials research, studies of the statistical behavior of particles end up in helping ease traffic on major roads, and the history of science is full of cases where pure research ended up with unexpected technological applications.

U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) gets it, as her letter to her fellow Texan Rep. Smith states in detail (PDF format). In other words, this isn’t a problem with Congress (or Texas) per se. And I’m certainly not saying no oversight should exist: the grant process is imperfect, with peer review subject to personality conflicts or—yes—politics and trends. The solution, however, is not to put the decisions in the hands of those who are even more subject to personality conflicts, political winds, and (very likely) a poor understanding of how science works. The real solution must include more openness from scientists, better public science education, and frankly a wider cultural recognition that science isn’t just a point of view among many that can be gainsaid by asserting an opposing opinion. Update: U.S. President Barack Obama gave a short speech today strongly in favor of peer review, untainted by politics.

In this era of austerity measures, huge budget cuts to research and education, and continuing attempts to remove evolution and climate change from schools, it’s all the more important to keep the importance of basic research in the public eye. Otherwise, we may see ideas like cold fusion, aquatic apes, and other scientific versions of the elephant’s graveyard as policy because they are expedient to certain people in power.

2 responses to “Of aquatic apes and ignorant congressmen”

  1. I used to support the AAH quite strongly, it made a lot of sense at the time. Then I was given information by people who actually opposed the theory and it all fell apart like a sandcastle at high tide.. That said, I don’t think the AAH is damaging in the way climate change denialism is.

  2. “discredited”?

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