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.

The cold water reflex

water drop smallAll mammals exhibit a cold water reflex. When our faces hit cold water our heart rate slows down, and if we become submerged the blood to our extremities gets reduced, protecting the core temperature and reducing the oxygen demand. Some evidence might suggest that this is more prominent in humans than in our ape relatives, and proponents of the aquatic ape hypothesis (AAH) point to this as one of the possible sources of evidence for some form of aquatic past for human species.

But that’s not the cold water reflex I’m writing about here. Some humans exhibit a different type of reflex. When they hear a new idea, or see someone excited by the blue sky potential of something different, they have an uncontrollable urge to pour cold water on it. I’ve come across this very many times in my work as an education innovator in universities, but it isn’t confined there. It doesn’t seem to be solely a function of someone’s job either, although that can have an influence. If you have responsibility for a budget then clearly you’ll feel that you have to take that responsibility seriously and not take unreasonable risks. But that doesn’t mean pouring cold water on ideas.

My background in risk has helped me to understand this tendency, or at least recognise some of the worldviews held by people who exhibit this reflex. It seems to come partly from a view that change is dangerous; that the world is basically a risky place, and that the “safest” way to proceed is to try to keep a check on change, or at least attempt to control it in some way. But this is futile. The world IS change. Growth and life are pure change, nothing else.  And, trying to control change is not even the safest way to proceed. Just because something feels safe, it doesn’t mean that it is. We tend to feel safest with things that are most familiar to us, but statistically they can be the most dangerous. Homes are the places we’re most likely to hurt ourselves; close friends and family are most likely to kill us. No, actually, not true. It’s even closer to home than that. We are most likely to kill ourselves. Worldwide, more people die from suicide than murder and war combined. Check it out if you don’t believe me.

As a writer, I guess my gripe is mainly about the difficulty in trying to sell new ideas to agents and publishers. This is a well-known phenomenon, and J.K.Rowling’s difficulties in getting the first Harry Potter book published are legend. Agents and publishers want to work with established authors as they know that they have an audience and that their books are therefore more likely to sell. So how do you become an established author? I’ve tried self-publishing (Watermark is self-published) but your work disappears in the millions of books available now.  Advertising effectively is very expensive; social networking ads just don’t work. So you can imagine my delight when I started to find publishers who are actively seeking out new authors, and looking for new ideas 🙂 I’m going to start making some contacts with them over the next few months, and my only hope is that they don’t have a bucket of cold water balanced on the metaphorical front door.

Time and tides

Sunset off the port side“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune: Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

Shakespeare is my favourite author, by a long way. It seems a bit predictable and trite to say it in some ways, as he’s had such an amazing effect on the English language. But even though I’ve been seeing his plays and reading his work since I was first introduced to him in school at the age of 14, I still never fail to be moved by the way he expressed ideas. The quotation above is from Julius Caesar (Act 4, scene iii) and perfectly captures the masterful way he used metaphor in his writing. Paraphrased, it means “just go for it!” But metaphor says so much more. In Shakespeare’s use of the sea to evoke a sense of rising up to an opportunity, we also are reminded how easily we can get carried along by circumstances (currents) and how hard it can be to steer a direct course to a goal.

I find writing often feels like being on a rough sea. Some days I’m lifted by ideas and experiences; on other days I’m sliding down the wave into a trough of self-doubt. Can I really do this? Is this idea actually any good? Does the story have enough complexity and pace to keep a reader enthralled? And sometimes the sheer energy required to paddle back up to the top of the wave feels like too much. I’ll just stay here at the bottom. That’s much easier.

This week has been a week at the bottom of the wave. My day job is very demanding at the best of times, but at the moment it’s particularly busy. I love it, though, so I’m not complaining. And I’m planning to reduce my working hours in September to concentrate more on writing, so I’m not too worried about the ups and downs. But I’ve still been feeling like I have to expend more and more energy to try to get back up to the top of that wave. Then I remembered the Shakespeare quotation above, and it brought to mind a particularly rough crossing of the North Sea I experienced on a cruise ship a couple of years ago.  Storm force winds and high seas battered the sides of the ship as it ploughed on; up and down, up and down. And then it struck me. It went up and down with no effort. The sea did all that work. As long as the ship kept moving forward, the ups and downs were by the by. It just had to float.

And that’s all I have to do. Just float. Just wait for the ideas and enthusiasm to rise up again. Because I know they will. And I’ll take full advantage of them when they do. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading Shakespeare.

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?