Apes and cranks

I’m thinking a lot about pseudoscience, crank magnetism and science fiction authors at the moment. Partly what I’m interested in is the aesthetics of scientific hypotheses i.e. what is it about some ideas that they gain longevity beyond their empirical life span. The specific idea I was looking at is the possibility of an ice age in the very future. Sci-fi loves ice ages and the idea had a revival in the 1970s in some pop science accounts, even as the evidence that global warming was the actual problem was rapidly mounting. Of course, looming ice ages remain a popular idea in global warming denial circles to this day for a host of obvious reasons, not least of which is money from the fossil fuel industry fuelling anything that can stall action against CO2 emissions.

So probably, even if a sudden ice age was an aesthetically dull idea, we’d still be getting denialists promoting the possibility. Even so, I think it is one of those ideas that people interested in the aesthetics of potential realities will naturally gravitate to. It’s just that bit meatier as an idea for fiction than heat (Dune and Tatooine, notwithstanding).

Which takes me to aquatic apes. I won’t unpack everything about the aquatic ape hypothesis. If you aren’t familiar it is a spectrum of hypotheses that suggest that many elements of human evolution were due to an adaptation by our more ape-like ancestors to life in or around water. The Wikipedia article has a good overview https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquatic_ape_hypothesis but the key takeaway is that, in the end, there is no substantial evidence for stronger versions of the hypothesis.

Still, it is a fun idea. It is also a neat example for considering the boundaries between science and pseudoscience. Part of what makes it a neat example is that the hypothesis itself doesn’t have the same kind of baggage as ice ages, catastrophism, AIDS denial, flat earthism etc etc. It retains fans not because of religion or money from FUD-funding lobbyists but just because it is kind of neat.

The neatness arises from things like providing an explanation for noses, human hair, body fat, bipedalism and other weird aspects of human biology that mark as different from other great apes. It is easy to mistake those explanations as evidence for the hypothesis, even though they fall less into the category of “evidence” for a hypothesis than they do into things we are trying to find explanations for.

I’m personally really bad at swimming and that is not, in itself, a good reason to reject a scientific hypothesis. After all, I would also probably be really bad at living on the savannah and avoiding murderous big cats. However, when we consider hypotheses not in terms of how we would validate them empirically but in terms of why people might find an idea appealing, it is personal elements like this that make a difference. I don’t doubt that somebody well-versed in the stronger versions of the aquatic ape hypothesis could give me a detailed reason as to why humans are comparatively shitty swimmers compared to other mammals (even cats can swim better, even if they hate it). My swimming incompetence isn’t evidential against the aquatic ape hypothesis at all, but it does undermine the aesthetic appeal of the idea.

Where am I going with this? Personal individual appeal plays a role in the crank theories that people adopt. You can see that when looking at, say, covid denial sites were you get a plethora of positions that together can’t make a coherent whole. Individuals buy into the broader mission statement (i.e. in some way the “official” story about covid isn’t true) but then pick and mix from the potentially infinite ways that the “official” story might not be true. You can see the same in global warming denialism where specific individuals claim to accept points A, B and C of the science but not D, E and F but the people they share a blog or a conference with have a different combination of belief around A, B, C, D, E or F. Strictly speaking it is false to say “global warming denialists don’t believe in the greenhouse effect” because many notable ones claim that they do, for example.

For the purpose of science communication and public policy, this personal aspect of crankery is largely irrelevant. However, when we encounter specific people who have adopted weird ideas, I think it can be illuminating.

, , ,

28 responses to “Apes and cranks”

  1. I suppose Young Earth creationists and Old Earth creationists would be another example. I read a book on American Creationists way back when and it’s impressive (though not really surprising) the amount of petty feuding and backbiting that went on in such a small group.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Each of them sees the wealth of esteem and respect held by science and wants it for his own – therefore, other potential overthrowers of the current paradigm are rivals for that glory.

      I remember a bunch of aquatic ape SF from the 1990s (short stories from Asimovs magazine are the ones I remember, but I’m sure it was elsewhere as well).

      Liked by 1 person

      • The only aquatic ape story I recall is Poul Anderson’s Homo aquaticus (aka The Horn of Time), but that’s more of a Punc. Eq. (a minor theme in Poul Anderson – see The Night Face and Starfog) story.

        But Ringworld does have aquatic-adapted hominids among the adaptive radiation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I forgot a 4th Anderson Punc. Eq. story – The Dipteroid Phenomenon.

          And bordering on aquatic apes – the Benthics in The Godwhale (and Half Past Human?)


        • There’s a Brian Aldiss story, “The Small Betraying Detail” which assumes land humanoids evolved from cats while homo sapiens never left the water.


  2. On the contrary, personal appeal is the most important thing about these theories. Cranks start with an attraction toward a theory — it validates their racism; it makes them feel special because they know something other people don’t; they don’t want to wear a mask because Democrats are pushing it, and Democrats are always wrong — and then find reasons to believe it. A hundred climate scientists say that global warming is real, but there’s this one guy on the internet, with sketchy credentials, who’s saying it’s not, and that’s the guy they follow. And of course the internet makes this much easier, because soon they’re reading only these opinions, and the people commenting all agree with them.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we taught the scientific method in schools?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The personal appeal aspect reminds me of that brief time when everyone on the proto-alt-right insisted they were descendants of Neanderthals.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Damn near everyone’s descended from Neanderthals, except for the few people who have strictly sub-Saharan ancestry. Who are way outnumbered by all the other billions of people on the planet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Everybody is descended from Neandertals; the latest common ancestor of all humanity is strikingly recent. That doesn’t mean that everybody has inherited DNA from Neandertals, but Subsaharans average a few tenths of a percent Neandertal ancestry, compared to the 2-3% for Suprasaharans.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’m pretty sure that “everybody” is descended from H. erectus, including H. neanderthalensis (or H. s. neanderthalensis), and Neanderthals are thus a cousin/sister species/subspecies, not directly ancestral.

          That doesn’t mean that everybody has inherited DNA from Neandertals

          Right, because we don’t inherit DNA from our cousins.


          • Interbreeding with Neandertals occurred when anatomically modern humans moved out of Africa (and subsequently). The result is that descent from Neandertals spread into the modern human population. You only have to go back a few thousand years to reach the point where everyone then alive is an ancestor of all or none of the modern human population, and some of those people were descended from Neandertals (as evidenced by the presense of Neandertal-derived alleles in the modern human population) so everybody is descended from Neandertals.

            Interbreeding also occurred with other human populations, such as the Denisovans. (Where we have a genome, but very little in the way of physical remains.) By the same argument as for Neandertals everyone is descended from Denisovans, though I’m not sure that Denisovan-derived alleles have percolated throughout the world in the same way. (Denisovan DNA is more prevalent in East Asian and Pacific populations.)

            Interbreeding also occurred with archaic populations in Africa. Here the evidence is divergent alleles in Subsaharan and African Diaspora populations; we don’t have any genomes, and can’t associate it with any known physical remains.

            My understanding is that the primary ancestry of modern humans lies in Homo ergaster rather than Home erectus (but you might consider the African Homo ergaster conspecific with the Asian Homo erectus). Otherwise the Denisovans interbred with another population, which may have been Homo erectus, and thus we may have Homo erectus ancestry via the Denisovans.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. The idea of a scientific hypothesis looking ‘neat’ meshes with scientists’ own views regarding the ‘beauty’ of their theories. Someone who has explored that in some detail is Milena Ivanova (admission: she’s a friend & someone I’ve collaborated with) who has extended her examination of the ‘aesthetics of science’ to experiments; eg see this accessible piece: https://iai.tv/articles/the-beauty-of-experiments-matters-auid-2038

    Of course, evidence typically trumps beauty in scientific research (although Sabine Hossenfelder may disagree!) although that’s far too simple a statement of course, as what counts as evidence and how much weight ‘it’ should have may be up for discussion, with fortunes sometimes being reversed … which is (partly) why drawing the line between science and pseudoscience can be a tricky business!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! That’s what I was clumsily talking around. Of course in mathematics, this idea of elegance and beauty in proof is a well established idea as part of the motivation but I’m less familiar with the idea in science.


      • There’s a quote from Einstein, as they were getting ready to do the solar eclipse observations for General Relativity bending starlight around the sun, where Einstein had been asked what he would do if the theory proved to be wrong, and his response was along the lines of “Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct.”

        It’s quite possible that his rejection of the implications of quantum theory (a theory which Einstein had helped father with his Nobel-winning work on the photoelectric effect) stemmed from exactly the same sort of assumption of ‘beauty’ in the equations and results.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Hmmm … not sure about that second claim! Dirac, one of the architects of quantum mechanics, famously and explicitly emphasised the role of ‘beauty’ in his work (and his Principles of Quantum Mechanics is indeed a thing of beauty and wonder to behold!). And certainly, once the theory had been codified, not just by Dirac but also, crucially, by von Neumann (one of the great mathematical minds of the time, perhaps of all time) it would have been hard to deny its elegance. For Einstein his concern was more to do with the apparent loss of ‘separability’ between quantum systems which he saw as blocking the route to integrating QM within the framework of field theory (which is what he was really interested in!).

          If anyone is interested in current work on the role of beauty in scientific research, you might take a look at my friend Milena Ivanova’s blog post:


          (She and I recently co-edited a collection of papers on this very topic!)

          Liked by 1 person

          • True, but beauty is still in the eye of the beholder.

            My suspicion is that Einstein just couldn’t get over the whole non-deterministic aspect of quantum mechanics and that made it ugly to him no matter how beautiful the wave equations may have looked to others.

            (Or other formulations; I recall a book I read, I think it was Quantum Reality, which pointed out that the Schroedinger wave equation, the Hilbert matrices, and somebody else’s rotating vectors approach were all actually exactly the same thing looked at via different transformations; they’d all come up with the same results but some were easier for specific problems than others. The only completely different approach was Feynmann’s sum-over-histories approach, which had a ‘successive approximation’ aspect that none of the others did, so it tended to be more work for exact answers but less work for ‘good enough’ answers.)

            All IMHO, of course.


      • In physics at least the idea of beauty or elegance is connected to something being both simple and general. General in the sense of something that unifies a range of phenomena under a single explanation (hence the longing for a Grand Unified Theory). And simple in the sense of Ockham (minimising the concepts involved), not in the sense of being easy. The classic example is the special relativity formulation of electromagnetism in which you can write Maxwell’s equations (four kind of clunky partial differential equations) as a single equation with about 5 or 6 characters in it. You probably need four years of university level maths to understand those characters, but it is indeed a thing of great beauty and elegance.


        • From personal experience, two or three years of university level physics. (Not that I remember it fourty-odd years later.)


        • And, heck, there’s the entire concept of a Hamiltonian equation, where many solutions in physics can be found just by looking for maxima or minima in equations. In one of my classes we once derived Snell’s Law (the law regarding refraction) by assuming that light got from point A to point B in the least amount of time given that light moved more slowly in one substance than the other.

          A lot of classical physics can be reduced to basic optimization problems of one sort or another. Just look for where the derivative goes to 0.


  5. The “aquatic ape” theory is another unusual example, as it (don’t know if it still does) used to appeal quite strongly to left-wingers as “feminist science”, due to its promotion in Elaine Morgan’s “The Descent of Woman”, which claimed that evidence to support the aquatic ape theory could be found by examining elements of female human anatomy which had been neglected by male scientists (eg language developing because of water inhibiting the release of scent signals, female humans having large fatty breasts because their buoyancy makes it easier to feed babies in water without drowning them), as part of its more justifiable denunciation of the macho and sexist tendencies of a lot of sociobiology.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. You can see that when looking at, say, covid denial sites were you get a plethora of positions that together can’t make a coherent whole. Individuals buy into the broader mission statement (i.e. in some way the “official” story about covid isn’t true) but then pick and mix from the potentially infinite ways that the “official” story might not be true.

    Quoting this again:

    Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement.
    The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. In my little world of science (theoretical physics), it is symmetries and finding uses for surprising bits of pure math that sings the siren song. It got a serious boost when electroweak unification actually worked. But the follow on gauge field theory, SU(5), well, it’s time we admit it is dead. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped string theorists from pursuing an even bigger symmetry with even more math, supersymmetry. The LHC should have seen that and didn’t. But string theory soldiers on.


Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: