Sunday, October 21, 2007

Wading into anthropology...

I've always been interested in human evolution - well, at least for as long as I can remember. My parents were from Eastern Europe, although actually "Central Europe" is a much better label. My name is Lithuanian and Lithuania lies at the geographic centre of the continent, whereas my mother was born in the Banat region of Romania which is also pretty central. Just about the only other thing they had in common was that they were both catholics and so, naturally, they started raising me as a good little catholic boy. Somehow though I managed to get enough independence of mind to resist the exercise of attempted brainwashing that went on around me every Sunday at St Thomas' Catholic church in Kirkby-in-Ashfield in the late 1960s. I am proud to say that at the age of eight I declared to my father that I no longer believed in God and that I wasn't going to church any more. The trigger was a 'lesson' at Sunday school about the origin of the universe. See, I was fascinated by the Apollo space programme and I'd been avidly watching my early scientific heroes Patrick Moore and James Burke on television talk about space and the solar system and such like. My parents had bought me a two inch refractor telescope which I'd used to glimpse the moon and other celestial bodies on our lawn and so naively I looked forward to learning more about how the universe had begun at church.
It was the first time (of many) I remember feeling like a sucker. The 'teacher' - who must have been all of fourteen - told us that God created the universe and that was that. I remembeer putting my hand up at the end of the 'lesson' and asking "If God made the universe, who made God?" The reply - "ah well, God's always been there" - just didn't ring true and I immediately felt that the whole thing was just plain wrong. When I told my dad that I wasn't going to go to church any more he wasn't very impressed but, to his credit, he didn't get angry or try to force me to go - not physically anyway (but then again he was a paraplegic, having had a mining accident four years earlier.)
Dad did not give up completely, however. My sister told me, years later because I'd forgotten, that the priest actually came round to our house the next week specifically to see me and tried to persuade me of the error of my ways before it was too late and my soul might be on its way to the eternal flames of hell. Apparently The Holy Father came out of my room after half an hour spent with me shaking his head muttering "he thinks we came from monkeys". I followed, in floods of tears, but remained determined that I had to see some evidence before I'd believe in it all.

I think that would make a pretty good foundation for a life in science. Unfortunately I kind of lost my way after that. To cut a long story short, although I did end up doing a Zoology/Pharmacology degree at Nottingham University quirks of fate diverted me into working in Information Technology instead, specialising in databases, noteably Microsoft Access and SQL Server for over twenty years. As luck would have it though, events would ultimately lead me back towards the field of human evolution which I really should have persued.

I was fortunate indeed when I married a beautiful and wonderful person - my wife Lesley who is a midwife. We already had three children when, on bonfire night 1995, my eldest, a boy, asked me "Dad? When did humans start using fire?" I was embarassed that I didn't really know but vowed to try to find out. Over the weeks that followed a spark was truly ignited and my interest in huamn evolution was rekindled. The final piece in the jigsaw arrived on 28th December when Lesley gave birth to our youngest daughter, at home, in front of a glorious fire, with classical music playing and red wine flowing. Being a midwife, Lesley had decided to hire a birthing tub to make the experience a little more comfortable. Rozalija was not actually born in the water but it helped Lesley get through the pains of labour, that's for sure.

So, that night as Lesley recovered from her traumatic day and little Rozy, a tiny scrap of pink flesh between our bodies made sweet little muzzly noises during the night, my mind raced. 'Why would women want to give birth in water?' 'Wasn't there a documentary we'd watched recently about all this? - by Desmond Morris?' I woke the next day determined to find out more. Another stroke of luck was this thing right here - the internet. Being an IT guy meant that I wasn't intimidated by new technology and we'd started to get into it even then. I searched for information about this idea and soon enough I began to find out about this woman called Elaine Morgan and this wierd sounding idea called 'The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis".

I was hooked. The more I learned about it the more interested I became and the more puzzled I was as to why I'd not been told about this at school or even at university. I soon had read all of Elaine's books and the 'aquatic ape theory' had become my latest obsession. Right from the beginning I understood the idea to be suggesting that our ancestors had been more aquatic in the past and in no sense 'truly' aquatic in the way that a seal or a dolphin was. It seemed bizarre to mee that so many people seemed to have simply misunderstood this basic point. But then again it seemed bizarre to me that so many millions of people continued to believe in God and hadn't, like me, realised that that idea too was a complete misunderstanding.

Lesley endured my rantings about the subject for several years before she had the brilliant idea that if I was so interested in this thing why didn't I go back to university and study it?

That is exactly what I did. I wrote to Professor Leslie Aiello the then head of Anthropology at University College London (UCL) and before I knew it I was back at university attending lectures, making notes and writing essays. Wonderful it was too. I doubt there was an anthropology student there at the time as enthusiastic as I was and I sailed through the one year taught MSc course in Human Evolution and Behaviour, passing with a distinction.

I went back to academia to find out why the so-called "aquatic ape hypothesis" (AAH) had been rejected but all I discovered was that really it had just been misunderstood. I remain convinced about that now, in my fifth year doing a part time PhD at the University of Western Australia (UWA). The only thing that has changed today is my enthusiasm to battle against people about it.

I have had a web site for years ( that tries to promote what I call a "mild and moderate" form of the AAH and just today I came across an impressive blog which posted a very interesting interview with Frances White about bonobos and I though that perhaps I should set my own up too.

So, every now and then, when I feel like ranting, I'll post something here to promote what I think should be called "the waterside hypotheses" of human evolution. I'm sure it will make bugger all difference to the big picture but, at least it might make me feel a bit better.

So on these pages, expect to read me wading into the absurdities of anthropology and that although this field of science really cannot say what caused the clear and remarkable ape-human differences we see, the anthropologists who make it up are never-the-less apparently absolutely certain that they have nothing to do with moving through water.

Algis Kuliukas
Perth, Australia
21st October 2007

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