Re: The straw man.

Phil Nicholls (
Fri, 13 Oct 1995 19:14:56 GMT

Elaine Morgan <> graced us with the following

>I've noted two new anti-AAT ploys. One is to rename it AAH or AAS. No
>hassle. A rose by any other name...Personally I'll stick to AAT because
>I@m used to it, but the other terms are equally accurate. Like any
>other attempt to explain the differences between apes and humans, it is
>of course a hypothesis. It is of course a speculation. Renaming it is
>an attempt at philosophical pseudo-speciation, implying "What you are
>doing is qualitatively quite different from what we are doing." That
>is not the case.

I believe I can take credit fo originating the "AAH" in that the
aquatic ape is AT BEST an hypothesis. A theory, in my opinion, is a
broad explanation for a group of related observations that has been
extensively tested and has not been disproven. Hence evolutionary
theory is true theory and is quantum theory and the big bang theory.
Theories are tested through the hypotheses generated by them.

The AAH is not a broad explanation and it has not, to my knowledge,
been tested. It is at best an untested hypothesis and that may be a
stretch. It may be untestable, in which case "story" is more

Adrianne Zihlmann and Nancy Tanner proposed a "gathering hypothesis"
to explain the origin of human bipedalism to replace the "hunting
hypothesis" and Pete Wheeler has not called his heat rejection
argument a theory to my knowledge and I would call it a hypothesis.

Applying the word "theory" to something like the aquatic ape indicates
a lack of understand of how science works and I would think you would
want to put the best foot forward in this regard.

>The other is the charge that AAT constructs a "straw man" in the shape
>of the late savannah theory and attacks it because it is easier to
>demolish than the more solid and unassailable scenario which has
>replaced it. Rubbish.

>AAT's case against the savannah theory as presented in the 50's and
>60's was not that it did not accurately represent the ecologoical
>conditiond in Africa at the timr of the split. We now know that it was
>in fact inaccurate but neither side knew it then. The argument was that
>even if it was accurate, it failed to explain the main physiological
>differences between apes and humans i.e. it cannot be predicted that an
>ape moving to the grasslands would become naked and bipe=dal.

[I am deleting the remainder of this post as it merely reasserts the
above several times and since the above is based on an incorrect
premise the remainder of the argument is pointless.]

I believe I am also the first person to raise the point that you have
created a "savannah theory" to push your "aquatic ape theory" against
and that the savannah theory is a straw man of your own creation --
not some old model of the 50's and 60's no longer in vogue but your
own creation entirely. There is and never was a "savannah theory" in
which simply living on savannahs somehow magically transformed
arboreal apes into bipedal hominids.

I have several textbooks in physical anthropology on my bookshelf.
Some of them are classics I have collected at used book stores. I
have searched through each of them for reference to a "savannah
theory" and I can find none.

The savannah plays a role in most scenerios of human evolution because
we KNOW that hominids occupied savannahs. However, other primates
have also adapted to terrestral environments. It is therefore not the
savannah itself but something hominids did on the savannah that other
primates don't do that promoted bipedal locomotion. Every author I
have read has pointed out the traditional nature of the
savannah-woodland habitat as providing trees for ready escape from
predators and open space to practice bipedalism. This is not a
theory, it is a setting which numerous authors exploit in developing
possible behavioral scenerios that might have lead to bipedalism.
Many of these were simplistic, focusing on a single behavior such as
food carrying or intimidation. What these hypothesis have in common
with later hypothesis is that they propose the following scenerio:

[1] Preadaptation = most primates can walk bipedally. Apes are the
most bipedal of all primates with chimpanzees reported to engage in
bipedalism something like 10-11% of the time they are on the ground.
This means that the common ancestor was at least as proficient at
bipedalism as living apes and may have been more so as they had not
yet become knuckle-walkers.

[2]Behavioral Shift more than likely early hominids undertook a
behavior shift toward increased frequency of bipedalism. Very likely
it occurred under conditions that are likely to result in bipedalism
in living apes today (Goodall, ;Kortlandt, 1962)

- when hands are need to carry food.
- to obtain a better view of the surrounding area.
- jumping across small brooks
- treat displays.
-when watching an unusual part of the surroundings
-when locating another member of the group
- greeting and courtship displays.

[3] Biological Changes = simply put, morphological changes follow
behavioral ones.

Hence the role of the savannah is important to all of these scenerios
because it provides a transition from an arboreal to a terrestrial one
and because hominid fossils are found in association with
savannah-woodland environments. ANY explanation of hominid
evolution must involve the savannah because it is obviously important
to our evolutionary history. This does not justify taking all of
these explanations and calling them the "Standard Savannah Theory."
Do do so is a classic strawman exercise which is why myself and others
have called you on this.

There are almost as many explanations for the evolution of various
aspects of hominid morphology as there are paleoanthropologists -- a
large but finite number. Yours is certainly no worse than some but
that is not saying a lot. If you really want to impress people I
suggest you spend less time complaining about ill treatment and more
time proposing a way to test the AAH. If it is not testible I am
afraid it doesn't even deserve the "H".

Phil Nicholls
"To ask a question you must first know most of the answer"
-Robert Sheckley