The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis lacks a screenplay. By contrast, we can imagine hunter-gatherers Questing for Fire, living in a Cave Bear Clan, or fighting dinosaurs One Million Years BC. We’ve seen it all, silly or not. The Mighty Hunter cast might include Sylvester Stallone shouldering haunch of wildebeeste home to Raquel Welch, who sits scantily draped in furs by the fire. But the Aquatic Ape is a blank; we haven’t seen the movie.
Winning acceptance for the AAH requires not only good science but also a clear, complete and believable narrative. I’m not interested in fiction (“then Augla showed Oog how to open the oyster”), but a stage-by-stage description of environment, selective pressures and adaptive responses for the hypothetical ape. However odd aquatic life might sound at first, the reader must in the end say, “Yes, I can see them doing that”, and it must seem equally reasonable to return to land.
My model describes the transition from terrestrial to aquatic and back, and traces the ripple effects. I hope that each stage will feel coherent and believable, so the reader can imagine being in that place. These are our ancestors; their responses and preferences must always (in some degree) be accessible to the modern imagination. In this discussion I am most interested in forks in the road, and whether the path that led to us would have been the mainstream or a fringe group. As I followed these trails, it seemed that the forks depended mostly on sex and emotion, though the initial changes were simple and mechanical.
We adapted to aquatic life by swimming differently from other mammals. Other mammals often gallop (rear legs together) but primates don’t gallop. We learned to swim kicking our legs in opposite directions, just as we run. That’s why we never could look like porpoises, and had to keep a strong pelvis though aquatic mammals often have no pelvis at all. Because this kicking isn’t efficient we aren’t very fast in water, and there were probably no schools of aquatic apes navigating open oceans. We stayed in shallows and close to shores. Most important, kicking our legs gave us buttocks and a pelvis that was deep, front to back, and strong enough to bear us when we returned to land.
The deeper pelvis eventually led to frontal sex as the preferred pose, and the corresponding loss of reliable female orgasms. (I think aquatic life is the best candidate for triggering the change to frontal sex, because all mammals that copulate in water do so face to face, but this could conceivably happen simply from bipedalism.) Frontal sex worked better because the buttock/pelvis shape and slippery hairless bodies made rear-entry sex too precarious. In frontal sex, both parties can hold on.
In female apes, orgasm is linked to the vagina’s position just under the belly, close to the pubic bone. The angle/orgasm link is primarily due to female masturbation styles, and is related to “deep touch” sensitivity. When we switched to frontal sex, the vagina changed angle, swinging away from the pubic bone and aligning back near the spine, matching the angle of the incoming penis. The penis no longer could hit the “G” spot, and women lost the reliable orgasms that a hundred million years of mammalian evolution had given them every right to expect.
Females still had the capacity for multiple orgasms; they merely were left unsatisfied by males. When females lost reliable coital orgasms, a new incentive for getting intimate was suddenly required. Females could masturbate, of course, but those who masturbated exclusively didn’t leave any offspring. Natural selection favored any female who thought that so-so sex with a man was better than good sex alone. Those became our mothers. Passion was born by default, as inorgasmic and dispassionate females lost interest in sex with men, and avoided them.
Aquatic living made our social lives as confused as our sex lives. On land, female apes always had known who the alpha males were, and those males enforced their sexual rights with physical punishment or its threat. “Alpha-ness” often depends on female agreement (females form the social core of most primate groups) but still the physical threat is important. Aquatic life disabled dominance. Wannabe alphas couldn’t move fast enough in water to bully others, the dominance hierarchy vanished, and each female had to decide for herself what made a male an alpha or a loser.
Many primate species show personal preference in mating. Males and females aren’t fanatical about partners, but they do go to some extra trouble to mate with certain friends. When easy orgasms vanished, and natural selection favored other reasons to mate, personal preference grew in importance. When the social hierarchy withered and died, personal preference was all they had. As orgasms became increasingly elusive, personal preference grew continually stronger, finally giving us love.
Love is the ability to focus obsessively on the object of your affection. Passion is not one new instinct, but a newly strengthened combination of traits, playing a uniquely human role. Obsession and affection and lust are different, and they all combine in love. Obsession is a mental trait that we can aim at cures for cancer, puzzles of powered flight, or playing chess. Passion is obsessive affection, the ability to focus on one person, forsaking all others, imagining that person to be an alpha. Sexual love is passion with lust, a mental trick that gets sperm and egg together in the absence alpha-ness.
Passion, then, is the accidental (and not inevitable) result of a leg-kicking primate who lives in the water long enough. Other aquatic mammals are probably orgasmic (since the link of vaginal angle to orgasm is probably unique to primates) so they don’t need to fall in love. I’m suggesting that if enough apes switch to an aquatic life for long enough, a few passionate inorgasmic ones will probably pop out the far end of the process.
Primates make lousy aquatics, so wherever conditions on land are good enough, an aquatic ape will move back to land. The more it has adapted to aquatic life, the more difficult that reverse transition is, yet here and there it will happen. But ex-aquatics don’t have a good track record either, being weak, bipedal and hairless. Aquatic life is a trap – it can help a primate survive a short term drought, but in the long run it causes fatal damage to the species. Primates can’t live forever as aquatics (none do today), and rarely survive the return.
Bipedal ex-aquatics have a tough time on land. But if they can focus their minds on problems, if they can obsessively cling in interdependent partnerships long enough to raise children, they can survive. Aquatic life is a simmering pot, where our bodies became handicapped but our minds grew powerful and focussed. When we had simmered long enough in social and sexual disruption, it happened by pure accident that some had evolved a way of mating, a way of thinking, that made survival on land possible again. We were not pre-adapted for land; we merely had some traits that proved useful when the opportunity arose.
Our ex-aquatic ancestors, spreading out to fill the continents, were not just hairless chimps with odd posture. They had endured a trial by water, and a few survived to become the hunter-gatherers that now fill the silver screen. These were passionately paired, talkative, thoughtful people. Whatever problem they found, they could focus on it long enough and hard enough to figure it out. Even the puzzle of our own hidden past.
What I have described here does not rise to the level of theory. There are no testable facts that will prove this scenario is correct to the exclusion of others. The facts we do have can be interpreted in different ways. I refer to the Passionate Ape as a “model”, a way of structuring the data on a coherent framework. As I mention in the book, once the basic theme is clear, the reader can construct variations that might have equal plausibility. The value of the Passionate Ape is in the new perspective, and in the additional questions and implications it raises.
Response to this model has been encouraging. Professor Philip Tobias, (Professor Emeritus of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa), said “Who ever would have thought that the sex life of Australopithecus could have been the consequence of aquatic frolics? This book makes you think, even if you don’t like the water, or sex, or evolution, and shudder (perhaps short-sightedly) at a blend of all three!” Nancy Friday (My Secret Garden, Women On Top, Men In Love) calls it “a serious, thoughtful study that should provoke a lot of interest”. And Elaine Morgan said “It will, as I am sure you are aware, get up a lot of people’s noses.”
Yes, it certainly does.