Many environmentalists subscribe to a materialistic view of man, when all is said and done, he is an animal like all others. They make fun of the creationalists who sustain the superiority of man with respect to the natural world. This gives rise to their attitude towards the human species, accused of exploiting other living beings, and considered as a sort of cancer on earth.
Even though the creationalists’ theory has no scientific basis, the fact remains that man is very different from all other living creatures. He is the only one to possess a real language which has allowed him to grow and develop at supersonic speed compared to the normal rhythms of evolution. He is the only one able to create art, history, science and self determination. He is, therefore the only living being who is truely free, able to choose between good and evil, responsible for his actions. If the aim is to safeguard the environment, it is necessary to call on his responsibility.
This article offers a summary of discoveries made in the field of paleo-anthropology, regarding the “Aquatic theory”, a theory which explains practically all the differences that make man different from monkeys, and paints a picture of how our ancestors were 6 million years ago.
La superiorità dell’uomo messa in discussione.
Arguments against the superiority of man
The traditional view of nature puts man at the centre of creation. It is the Bible which says that man was created in the image of god, and that the plants and animals on earth were to be used for his needs.
The account given in Genesis, taken literally, was for a long time the only explaination of the origins of life, until 1859, when Darwin formulated the evolutionist theory.
With every generation the number of offspring increases. The space and food offered by nature is limited and therefore we have to compete to procure these resources. The result is that only a small number manage to survive and produce further offspring. This is selection. Given that each individual carries a particular genetic patrimony, a combination of random mutation together with the genes inherited from parents, it is the useful genes which tend to accumulate in the population. Evolution is thus a combination of chance and necessity. Random mutation is almost always negative. However, now and again a random mutation of the DNA can increase the utility of certain organs, and therefore the possibilty of survival. In time each animal and vegetable species adapts to their environment thanks to the accumulation of useful mutations.
This is basically the theory of Darwinism, the theory which has provided the framework for all subsequent scientific observations made during the past 150 years in the field of biology, albeit with some modifications. Viceversa, the creationalist theory is based on a literal interpretation of the bible, and includes the recent theory which goes under the name of Intelligent Design, neither of which has any real scientifice basis.
According to the creationalists the extraordinary complexity of human beings cannot be explained in terms of random mutation and selection, and for this reason they believe that some form of higher intelligence was responsible. This theory is based only on religious belief. In fact in any kind of planning there is always some sort of trial and error involved. Any project, for example a computer programme or a car design is the fruit of many experiments and trials conducted over a period of time. Improvements happen as a result of further experience and trials. The difference is that, while in nature everything is decided on the basis on selection, the engineer exploits knowledge which has been accumulated over thousands of years and is able to study or imagine various possible projects or alternatives without necessarily having to realize them. We cannot imagine that a “super engineer” designed the horse, the dog, and man sometime in the past. Living creatures are interested solely in survival, the best way for them to do this is to adapt to the environment. The environment is, however, subject to change, this means there is no final predetermined model (think about climatic changes for example).
If, however, the creationist theory has no scientific justification, does that mean that we can discount the idea that Homo sapiens is superior to other animals? If man is on the same level as other living beings, does that not mean that the people who claim that humans have no particular rights over nature are right? Many environmentalists, in fact, not only the extremists, justify their criticism of man, and his demographic and economic expansion with the argument that we do not have the right to take possession of the planet’s resources. They contest the claims that put mankind above all other living beings in nature, they contest man’s superiority over plants and animals as recounted in the Bible, they even laugh at the position taken by the creationalists and the more recent supporters of the Intelligent Design theory as being antiscientific and anachronistic.
The attitude of environmental movements
After dismissing the creationist movement as anti-scientifice they come to the conclusion that it is science that affirms the similarity of man to other animals; he is not different or superior, he has evolved through the same mechanisms of Darwinism, from some species of monkey and is therefore closely related to this animal. Certainly man has his own characteristics, but none which are particularly radical or essential, similar differences exist in all other living species, nothing more.
This leads to the recurrent affirmation that man is like a cancer for the planet, a metastasis which is destroying all forms of life on earth. This explains the position of certain associations such as “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement” and many others, according to them we must stop economic growth in both the rich and poor countries at all costs, even with acts of terrorism. The president of WWF Italy Fulco Pratesi has said, ”In the western world there is a spread of extremism, for example Earth First, a revolutionary ecological movement which follows a single objective, that of saving the planet. These are the people who have welcomed AIDS as a way of limiting the growth of mankind, considered a “cancer of the planet.” These are the ones who fight against any moves to modify the environment with acts of sabotage and ecoterrorism. I believe that we should not criminalize this tendency, subversive though it may be, it finds its roots in a profound love for Mother Earth or to sum up, there is a strong need for “green” policies which fight against the assumption that mankind is the most important entity in the universe.”
This vision of reality fuses with the communists’ condemnation of a market economy and forms a strong ideological backing for critisizing the western model. Patrick Moore, founder member and director of Greenpeace for 15 years has declared: “Today, the majority of “green” leaders are in reality political activists who make use of environmental rhetoric to promote initiatives which are more concerned with class struggle and with anti-globalization that with ecology and science.”
So, how are we to react to the words of Fulco Pratesi, mankind is not only to be attacked as a cancer for the planet. He is also accused of putting himself on a pedestal, given that he cannot boast of any superiority (with scientific basis) with respect to the rest of the living world.
Is the situation really like this?
What can we learn about man’s nature from a reconstruction of our evolutionary history?
The evolutionary history
The species “Homo Sapiens” belongs to the family of the Primates or Monkeys, within this group of large monkeys we can find orang -utang, gorillas and chimpanzees. Molecular research, which simulates the speed at which random genetic mutations accumulate, suggests that the moment of our “separation” or “breaking away” from the primates must have taken place between 6 and 8 million of years ago. The Miocene (between 22 and 5.5 million of years ago) was the era of the anthropomorphic primates. The primates developed and evolved in Africa, but during the Miocene period they spread to the Euroasiatic subcontinent thanks to a long climatic period of heat and humidity which favoured the diffusion of equatorial forests. In this favourable environment many primates developed – more than a hundred species. At the end of this era, however, the climate became dry and cool once again, leading to the disappearance of the equatorial forests and as a consequence the disappearance of the primates. Only a few survive, in the Far East the ancestors of the orang-utang in the forests of Indonesia, while in the west the ancestors of the gorilla, chimpanzees, and man had returned to Africa. The gigantopithecus, a huge monkey three metres tall, weighing more than half a ton was among the survivors, this species became extinct about 100,000 years ago. The return to Africa and the separation of the evolutionary line of the chimpanzee and and the gorilla must coincide with the end of the euorasiatic forests, 9 million years ago, a date which is compatible with the predictions made by molecular research. After this period the history of man’s evolution took place in Africa, from here our ancestors started to spread into the euroasian sub continent, until the final episode 50,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens arrived to conquer the world.
Who were our oldest ancestors?
According to a hypothesis formulated for the first time by Sir Alister Hardy in 1960, all the principal characteristics which differentiate the human body from that of monkeys, can be explained as an adaptation to a water existence, a process which never reached full completion. First of all, the erect position, the oldest human characteristic according to fossil documentation.
Elaine Morgan, a journalist who has elabourated the various aspects of the aquatic theory (1) suggests that a population on primates, living in a forest near to the sea, started to visit the beach in order to collect sea food, and to enter the water in order to escape from predators. Like other anthropomorhpics they were able to stand up for brief periods, and in times of need they could move away from the shore, enter the water, and being upright could venture further than the felines chasing them. In time the custom of visiting the beach and paddling/splashing in the sea became more more frequent, this new environment offered fewer dangers than the savanah, offering a readily available food source.
From here, we have the adaptation to an existence in water, with the long term effect of “streamlining” the body to make it suitable for swimming, and allowed our distant ancestors to survive when the equatorial forests of Eurasia receded. Probably this took place with the colonialization of the marine coastlines which slowly approached Africa and penetrated into the depression of Rift vally (see the map) where we can find their remains today. During all this period, while the body was adapting more and more to a water lifestyle, during the night time they took to the trees where they constructed homes made of leaves and branches just like the primates, in this way conserving certain characteristics of tree dwelling primates. When terra ferma became a more attractive option they started to move more and more towards open spaces, without completely abandoning the forests or a watery environment.
This theory may seem bizarre, perhaps because it has not yet been studied by anthropologists working in the field of fossil research, however the anatomic evidence that supports this theory is remarkable. Sooner or later, it will be necessary to make a comparison with the reconstruction of our evolutionary history based on fossil documentation, in particular the oldest period.
The first characteristic to be explained by the aquatic theory is the erect position. Only animals which have adapted themselves to living in water have an hydrodynamic, tapering shape. If they are four legged when they return to land they remain in a horizontal position; but if their shape was originally more vertical than horizontal they take on a perfect vertical position. Penguins are one example and we have followed the same trend.
The loss of fur and the formation of a layer of fat under the skin can also be explained by the aquatic theory. Only aquatic mammals, especially in hot regions, lose their fur which would otherwise slow down their swimming speed and would require time to dry out, this fur is then substituted with a layer of fat. Normally it is these mammals which are most suited to an aquatic lifestyle. In addition, the body hair which remains, clearly visible in the foetus when it has not shed its “fur”, is distributed in a different manner with respect to all other primates, to make the body hydrodynamic. Another detail is the sensibility of our finger tips which are able to recognise objects immerged in water, an ability which the primates do not possess. Once again, man, like all aquatic animals is able to control his breathing, while with terrestrial animals breathing is involuntarily, just like the heartbeat. Another characteristic of aquatic animals is the slowing down of the heartbeat when diving into water. We also possess this quality, though to a lesser degree than seals and marine iguana. If this were not the case it would not be possible for us to stay at the bottom of a swimming pool for seven or eight minutes even for athletes like Pellizzari.
Another anatomic characteristic that can only be explained as an adaptation to swimming, is the special shape of our nose which is hydrodynamical and protects our nostrils when we swim. Only one other primate has a real nose, the proboscis monkey, a primate which used to paddle in the water and to move around with a swimming style similar to that of a dog.
In addition humans cry salt tears, this is a characteristic which they have in common only with those animals which can swallow salt water. Given that the only birds which cry are marine birds, and that only those crocodiles, snakes, lizards, turtles and mammals which live in a marine environment cry, we should not be surprised that the only primate to cry was once a marine primate.
Other anatomic modifications regard the female body, once again these modifications are the result of adaptation to an aquatic lifestyle and erect posture. Above all the shifting of the vaginal channel to a frontal position, which leads to frontal sexual intercourse. In reality it is the entire human body which is remodelled. The pelvis is transformed, becoming larger to contain the internal organs, powerful gluteal musles are needed to balance the trunk, the trunk itself becomes more flexibile taking on a “S” curve. One consequence of this transformation is the modification of the birth channel, wider first in one direction and then in the other, forcing the baby to rotate 90° in order to be born. This would have made the presence of a midwife a necessity. Breasts, which are absent in other primates, and found only in some marine mammels, can also be explained with the aquatic theory. Baby monkeys grasp their mothers’ fur to cling to the nipples which protrude from a flat chest. Once the “water” monkey lost its fur, the baby had nothing left to cling to. Two soft, protruding breasts which could be grasped by small hands would have represented the ideal solution. Finally, hair. Try and imagine our ancestor, millions of years ago, in the water with her offspring. The baby is able to float but naturally must stay near to his mother. The simplest way to remain attached is to hold on to her long hair which floats all around her, the only part of her body which remains above the water. The fact remains that women approaching the moment of child birth experience rapid hair growth.
The newborn baby has a natural affinity with the water, in favourable conditions he is able to swim before he can walk. Tiny babies can be left on the beach in contact with sea water. They will teach themselves to swim by exploring the water, bit by bit, without going too far.
To sum up, practically all the principal anatomical characteristics which differentiate us from primates can be explained as adaptation to an aquatic lifestyle and to salt water, they cannot be explained in any other way. In addition to the anatomic characteristics we can also add the adaptation to food resources which are easily found on the sea shore, from sea food to nest eggs easily killed by marine animals like the seals. From anatomical studies on the human body we can also obtain other useful data. In general, the older the anatomic characteristic, the earlier it appears in the child or feteus. This is certainly not a criteria which can provide exact dates, but it can indicate certain information. The shape of our feet, no longer prehensile and the lack of body hair are present at birth, this is an indication that these two characateristics were already formed in the distant past.
It should not surprise us, therefore that erect posture is the oldest human characteristic which emerges from fossil documentation. Fossil documentation, however, can tell us nothing about the loss of body hair/fur, but the reconstructions which we can see on TV in which our ancestors of tens of thousands of years ago appear covered with fur are completely unrealistic. The reconstruction of Neandertal man, able to produce gutteral sounds is also highly unrealistic: in children the ability to produce words appears after few months while a real language appears around the age of two.
As far as language is concerned, in general aquatic mammals articulate sounds better than terrestrial animals (think of the dolphins), due to the fact that they are the only animals which are able to control their breathing, and also because they are unable to use other forms of communication such as body language or body odours in water. An aquatic lifestyle could have represented the definitive mover towards the development of efficient vocal communication.
The aquatic theory, however, is not taken into consideration by paleo-anthropology, perhaps because it has not been possible to find evidence from fossil documentation. It is, however, not incompatible with data which is already available. The oldest humans remains are always found in the proximity of water, in the ancient salt lakes or the rivers surrounded by forests, or else in swampland at the bottom of Rift Valley.
But now, there is a finding which can only be explained by the aquatic theory, it dates back to the right period, 6 million years ago.
The Tugen Hills ancestor
Various remains of what has been called Orrorin tugenensis were found in Rift Valley in Kenya in 2001, this is rather a strange name but it means “ Tugen Hills ancestor”.
These remains include jaw fragments, finger and arm bones and certain parts of femurs. The femur is very similar in shape to a human femur, this would suggest an erect posture. However, if we consider other aspects then Orrorin was primitive, the finger and arm bones indicate a life spend climbing trees. A TAC exam shows a distribution of bone tissue in the femur that is similar to that of a chimpanzee; an indication of strain supported by the legs during locomotion (while in A. afarensis the distribution of bone tissue is typically human).
The combination of seemingly contradictory characteristics has created perplexity among anthropologists. The aquatic theory could dispel this perplexity, we are in the phase in which our ancestors are still adapting to an aquatic environment. They have aquired an erect posture, not for walking upright but for swimming. Swimming would not have required a strengthening of the bone structure, and therefore this would have remained similar to that of tree dwelling primates. At this point we can try and outline a portrait of our ancestors of 6 million years ago, when they were in a crucial stage in our evolutionary history, when almost all the anatomical characteristics which differentiate humans from primates are to be found.
These ancestors would have been about 100/120 cm tall, the females were smaller, with a certain degree of dimorphism. The body was that of a human adult in miniature, nude, dark skinned, but with several differences. The arms were longer, almost reaching the knees, and robust. The feet were already completely human, proportionately larger, with the toes apart, and perhaps webbed according to a theory of Sir Alister Hardy, (still today many of us have some toes which are joined together).
The biggest differences, however regard the head. If he were alive today he would make a strange impression on us, a seemingly human appearance combined with several rather exotic characteristics. The general appearance, starting with the stature is human, because the morphology of the body is already human, including the postion of the head (with lots of hair ) on an upright body.
But, when we stop to study the face through the straggling locks of hair we can note something that is not quite normal. The face is chubby, (due to the thick layer of fat) wide, the lips red and fleshy.
What is most notable, however is the lack of forehead and the prominence of the mouth which gives the face an appearance of a caricature. The result is not ugly, far from it, but due to the prominance of the jaw we have a striking impression when he smiles, we can see the canines, no bigger than ours, but pointed. The skin is soft and smooth the nose rather squashed and fleshy. Then we have the eyes, well protected by bushy black eybrows we can hardly see the whites of the clary.
Overall we are dealing with graceful slightly amusing beings. Good swimmers, they spend hours paddlings in the water, calling out to each other. One of them is always to be found sitting on a rock to dry himself or to rest. In the cooler hours of the morning and in the evening he is to be found in small groups along the coast looking for sea food. Now and again you can hear the sound of the oyster shells breaking. The rest of the day is spent in the trees, not far from the beach where groups of about 60 meet up to sleep.
Why are we different?
But, let us return to our original theme. Are we or are we not different? And, if it is true that we are different, what do we have in common with other animals?
Man has been taming nature for thousands of years. He is the only animal species which is able to profoundly modify the environment in which he lives. He has transformed the landspace in order to farm the land and breed animals, he has construced bridges and streets, he has created a civilization.
For these reasons human beings have always been certain of their superiority over all other living forms, they have expressed this conviction with cultural traditions. The Bible affirms that man is above all other forms of living beings, but the same conviction is expressed in all other cultures, in all eras all over the globe. In more recent times attempts have been made to understand more clearly the reasons for this superiority, and if possible to give a scientific explanation.
The characteristics which define the uniqueness, and the superiority of man, have been identified in: the upright carriage, the large brain, the capacity to construct tools, etc. But many other animals are able to make tools and manipulate utensils, albeit with less skill. Other animals have large brains and socialize well, or else a perfect erect posture, like the penguins. Others are, either faster, stronger or more aggressive or have better sight or a more keenly developed sense of smell, etc. But this does not mean that they dominate the world like us. The truth is that it is our language which makes us superior, and it is this which explains the enormous gap between ourselves, the primates and all other animals.
Animals also possess some form of language, that of body language, different vocal signs and olfactory signs. But these forms of communication are limited. Adult elephants, despite being very intelligent continue to teach the younger elephants the same thing, and have done so for millions of years. They are like a computer with only a screen, no keyboard, nor other forms of input – output. Certain animals possess something more than simple body language. Some dolphins have notable vocal skills, they learn quickly to imitate the human voice, but, despite this they lack a real language. Perhaps they are not even able to use these vocal symbols to indicate real things. On the other hand a small baby is able to start making use of words with their correct meaning before he is able to pronounce them well, and at the age of two he possesses a real language with simple phrases, questions and answers. No other animal has the linguistic abilities of a two year old child. The Bonobo chimpanzees are able to learn hundred of words, pressing a button with a picture of the “thing” that corresponds to the word they hear. But, even here we are not really able to speak of a real language, the monkey is unable to sustain a dialogue, and there is no real exchange of information In any case, these chimpanzees demonstrate that they know many words, words which would, however, be expressed in nature by body language and not with vocal sounds. In fact, apart from some rare exceptions, animals generally express emotional states with sounds, sounds that they are not able to control. This then, is the first hurdle that must be overcome in order to aquire a real language, to emit sounds that symbolize things that are present or not present, and in a controlled way. This step was surely taken by our ancestors in the period of adaptation to an aquatic existence, and it was not a step that involved greater speed in movement, or the increased ability to emit sounds (chimpanzees can emit about 20 different sounds which can be regulated in infinitive ways). What was missing was the ability to emit sounds in a voluntary manner. This was achieved by controlled breathing, and by the need to communicate with others in the group when they were in the water and unable to use body language. Paleo-anthropologists have searched for anatomical modifications related to vocal ability in fossil documentation. From this research it has emerged that the first signs of vocal capacity start to appear about two million years ago with Homo ergaster, while a more mature vocality, similar to ours can be found 600,000 years ago in one Homo heidelbergensis discovered in Ethiopia. The interpretation of this data, however is not very satisfactory.
Man is, therefore free, capable of self determination and capable of choosing between good and evil, this means that we are moral beings and responsible for our actions. The creationalists base man’s superiority on a literal interpretation of the Bible which is not supported by any scientific proof.
In reality the superiority and uniqueness of man are based on sound principles and we must turn to them if we wish to assume our responsibility towards the world of nature.—————————————————–(1) The Descent of Woman – Elaine Morgan – Souvenir Press, London