Sadness and science

Today is a sad day. I received a letter from the family of Dr Elaine Morgan, author of The Scars of Evolution and other inspirational books on human evolution, letting me know that Elaine died last Friday. She was 92 years old and had lived a wonderfully full life, so her passing is not a tragedy. But it is still sad that such an inspirational, intelligent, kind and humble woman is no longer with us.

She has been a tremendous inspiration to me. It was reading her books on the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH), and her ideas in the seminal “The Descent of Woman”, that led me to write Watermark. But it wasn’t only what she wrote that I found inspirational. Her bravery and dedication in taking on the scientific establishment in arguing the case for the AAH was a wonderful example to us all that there should be no holy cows in science. If science really is an objective search for evidence, then challenges to accepted thinking would be welcomed, you would think. But that wasn’t the case for Elaine, and her trials and tribulations in getting the role of water in human evolution taken seriously shone an interesting light on the difference between the ideal view of what science is, and how it is actually practiced.

The philosophy of science fascinates me. But that term, “philosophy of science” confuses some people. What is there to be philosophical about? Science is an entirely objective pursuit, surely. But, it is carried out by humans, so can it really be entirely objective? And, do we want it to be? Perhaps objectivity is a laudable goal, but maybe one that will never be achieved. In any case, there is something chilling to me about the idea of an entirely objective scientist, motivated only by evidence and not by an acceptance or understanding of the human condition (whatever that may be!). Elaine was motivated by the human condition. By the curiosity and wonder that is characteristic of our species. It may be true of other species, but we have no way of knowing that, at present. We do know it about ourselves, though.

There are four books that have had an enormous effect on my understanding of science:

  • “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” Karl Popper
  • “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn
  • “What is this Thing Called Science?” Alan Chalmers
  • “The Descent of Woman” Elaine Morgan

All four are fascinating, but of those four, Elaine’s book has had the greatest influence on me, probably because I’m a woman who, like her, had become heartily sick of the “man the hunter” theories of human evolution. Men stood up to hunt better, men made and used tools, men have strong upper bodies for spear-chucking etc etc. Women co-evolved as a side-product; they were relegated to picking up berries off the floor, making themselves sexually attractive to men and looking after the resultant babies. But what about this great big thing in our heads? That’s what really differentiates us from all other species on the planet. All the time our brains were evolving to be larger and larger, there was very little change in the tool sets we were making. Sorry, men were making. We just didn’t need all that brain power to bang rocks together a bit more accurately.

The arguments are very persuasive that our brains developed to accommodate language, and so it must have given us a significant advantage to be selected for so effectively. And with language came music and laughter and empathy and all the “touchy-feely” stuff which had been ignored in theories of what drove human evolution. We are fundamentally communicators, not hunters. Sure, we have to hunt and scavenge to survive. But many species do that very effectively in social groups; lions, wolves, orca etc.  You don’t need a massive brain like ours to do that well. And which sex is generally accepted to be more adept at language? I leave that question hanging 🙂

Elaine has been described as a “housewife” in newspaper and media articles many times, as if there is something truly amazing about looking after a family and being able to think outside the box. I agree with Elaine; humans have evolved the way we have because women were, and still are, adept at doing both.

Rest in peace Elaine. You lived a wonderful life.

Why stand up?

wading baboon“Baboons don’t enjoy getting their feet wet. But the banquet of flowers and juicy snails is just irresistible.” David Attenborough, Nature’s Great Events, BBC1, 15th June 2013.

Walking on your two back legs isn’t that unusual in nature. Birds have evolved to do it, most likely from dinosaur ancestors that walked on their back legs. Kangaroos get about very efficiently on two legs too. But it is more common for mammals to stay on four legs, as it takes less balance and generally means you can run faster, either in the direction of prey, or away from predators. Humans are the only apes that habitually walk on two legs, although other apes, and monkeys, aren’t totally quadripedal as they do sometimes stand up and walk.

So what makes an ape start to walk on two legs? It can’t be because it would make them good hunters in the future. It can only be because it confers an advantage at the time. That’s the way natural selection works. And that’s the problem I have with the idea that we began to walk and run on two legs in order to hunt more efficiently. Sure, our large bum muscles do make us good walkers and runners now, but in the earliest days of transition from walking on all fours to walking on our back legs, we didn’t have those developed muscle groups. We were probably as slow and awkward as the baboon in the picture above. So why did we do it?

The baboon is wading through flood waters in the Okavango delta in Botswana, an inland river delta that doesn’t reach the sea. The delta is a large geological depression in the ground and the water, which comes from highlands in Angola, is evaporated in the baking heat of the desert and transpired by the plants in the delta.  Once a year this desert area receives a flood of around 11 cubic kilometres of water. And it isn’t unique in Africa. There are similar inland deltas today in Sudan and Mali.

Suppose a group of apes, some of the common ancestors of humans and chimps, were living in or near an area that was affected by geological land movement. This movement effectively cut them off from other apes of the same species when it became permanently flooded.  The stranded apes would have to wade from small island to small island. Good waders would be more likely to meet mates who were also good waders. Mums that stood up and waded wouldn’t risk drowning babies that were hanging onto their belly fur. Natural selection at work. And we’d be very likely to eat quite a bit of fish and other aquatic food sources rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. Brain food.

It’s not that fanciful, or unlikely. It is at least worthy of consideration as a possible root of bipedalism.

Transmedia storytelling in virtual worlds

dragons in the den 1In my day job as an education innovator, I do a lot of work in virtual worlds. In fact, I’m the director of a Master’s degree that runs entirely in a virtual world called Second Life. Over the past 6 years or so I’ve become fascinated by these environments. They are such powerful places for simulations and role play in almost every academic subject you could think of. That’s not to say they replace activities and experiences in the physical world. Not at all. But virtual world simulations and role plays can help students to have experiences that are dangerous, unethical or just downright impossible in the physical world, but that are valuable learning experiences for their future practice. For example, I’ve led students through very realistic accident investigations in Second Life to prepare them for undertaking such investigations when they qualify. And, we’ve built a dragon’s den where students from a range of subject disciplines can pitch ideas for their assessments. Of course, on one occasion we tutors couldn’t resist dressing up our avatars as dragons for a pitching event 🙂 .

As a writer I’m also fascinated by the potential of these environments for extended storytelling. “Transmedia” or multi-platform storytelling has been around for a while, and has come to prominence more recently with examples like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, an updated telling of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice through the medium of video logs (vlogs) on YouTube. The audience can also leave questions for the characters and they answer them in later videos at particular points in the series. I like the idea of including an audience in a story and seeing how it evolves. And I’m captivated by the idea of creating an environment in a virtual world that enables that to happen.

Watermark book coverThere are two stories in Watermark. One takes place around 1.5 million years ago, and one in the modern day. In the book it’s the modern day story that’s developed and told to a conclusion. A conclusion. Not the only possible one. And the ancient story could also be developed in its own right. Because those characters are pre-human, there is a lot of scope for playing with ideas. Participants’ Homo ergaster avatars could roam the shores of what is now Lake Turkana in Kenya, playing out what might happen after Nimue is murdered.

I’m intent on doing this some day, hopefully not too far in the future. I have a good friend who is a great virtual worlds designer and we’re already hatching plans. We’ll have to see how they evolve.

Humans, water and polarised arguments

Lightmatter_chimp_thinker GNU licenceI have to admit that I’m unconvinced by the full-blown “immersion” Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH) for a number of reasons. Not least because the human characteristics that the hypothesis attempts to explain appear to have developed at significantly different times in our evolution. For example, the fossil record seems to show that bipedalism developed well before hominin brains started to get appreciably bigger. A long time before. But that doesn’t mean that water didn’t play an important part in human development. In fact, with the amount that leaks out of us every day, it’s hard to believe that we could have evolved far away from significant supplies of fresh water. We swim well and and there are a number of physiological differences between human species and other apes that are at least worthy of consideration in relation to water.

And that seems to me to be the problem. When I was writing Watermark, and still now, it was/is actually quite hard to find balanced discussions about the role of water in human evolution in scientific papers. I wonder if that is because some researchers and writers fear the spectre of the AAH arising in criticisms of their work. And that means that we end up with the role of water being an “unmentioned” element; almost taken for granted, or at least unexplained. In some blogs and commentaries the possibility of some aspects of human evolution being the result of hominins living close to water, rather than being immersed in it, are described as “the AAH backpedalling“, or similar derogatory terms. This is a shame. Water is clearly vital to us, and must have been so for a long time. In Alice Roberts’ excellent TV series “The Origins of Us”, first broadcast in October 2011, the first programme shows how we are built to run over long distances, “sweating 3 litres of water per day.” It is surely a legitimate question to ask how that method of cooling could possibly evolve in the absence of reliable access to a significant supply of fresh water. And if we had to be living close to such supplies, what other effects might that have had? For example, there is intriguing evidence of humans having a long history of eating marine and aquatic foods, unlike the other great apes.

Surely it’s time to move away from “water vs. something else” arguments, and towards “water as part of the environment” discussions?

Watery apes and small-minded columnists

Blog skull mediumI wrote Watermark partly because I love crime fiction and wanted to have a go at it myself, and partly because I have an interest in human evolution. I admit in the book that I’m not completely convinced by the whole argument in the aquatic ape hypothesis, but that there are some interesting and thought-provoking questions that the theory postulates answers for. On the 9th and 10th May this year there was a conference at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, attended by professional scientists who are undertaking research into human evolution. The conference was about anthropological, medical and nutritional aspects of human evolution, and concentrated particularly on the role of water and how we may have been influenced by it as a species. There were pro and con views of the extent to which water played a part, of course, which is what you expect in balanced scientific debate.

And then I came across an article in the Guardian by the editor of Nature, Henry Gee, and my heart sank. It’s sarcastic, dismissive and really demonstrates the worst excesses of “smarty-pants” scientists. Oh, and at the end of the article he plugs his own book that’s coming out in October! As he seems to be a fan of Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanations are often the right ones – OK massively paraphrased but you get the gist!) perhaps I could apply the razor to his article and shave away the bigotry to reveal a shameless bit of self-promotion? Perish the thought! We all have to promote our books Henry, but not at the expense of rubbishing the commitment and hard work of others.

If your interest is piqued, try reading some of Elaine Morgan’s books on the subject. She is now very elderly and quite poorly, but has spent a large part of her life in well-informed and very able pursuit of a fair hearing for alternative theories of human evolution. Henry Gee doesn’t name her at all, but lumps together all protagonists of the AAH as unqualified people whose opinion is worth nothing. To caricature such a modest, generous and hard-working woman in this way when she is now too ill to respond, is appalling. She was very kind and supportive of me when I was writing Watermark, and I will always have a great fondness for her.

See BBC “Great Welsh Writers” series.