Who is Talking? Paradigm Shifts, Knowledge-Power and the Aquatic Ape

One cannot help but notice an ongoing tension in academia between the active pursuit of new knowledge and a tendency to cling to old ideas and theories. Kuhn (1970) wrote about the resistance of academic disciplines to change, coining the phrase “paradigm shift,” which embodies, rather than a simple series of logical/rational decisions, a number of political considerations, social factors, issues of identity negotiation and elements of culture. But what does a paradigm shift look like in “real time”? And, just because we understand Kuhn’s idea, does that make it any easier to recognize a new knowledge claim as a new paradigm (or part of one), or something that is just “out there,” given that we each have our constructed understanding of knowledge, which, in the case of the academy, is considered to be legitimate, vetted and valorized in society? Using the intriguing example of the aquatic ape hypothesis of human evolution, I explore paradigm shifts in the academy in this article, and how they are intertwined with social and cultural factors.

In 2002, while studying Biology at Longwood University, I enrolled in a Human Evolution class. The beloved professor leading that course, Lynn Ferguson, who was known for his love of creepy crawly cave insects and his tangents about banjo playing, had us read about the “aquatic ape hypothesis,” a little-known idea that suggests that humans may have evolved on the water’s edge as semi-aquatic marine mammals (see Vaneechoutte, Kuliukas, & Verhaegen, 2011). I was very interested, but my life and studies led me elsewhere and the construct became an occasional fleeting fancy on which to muse when on a beach vacation.

Flash forward to last summer, when I attended a seaside wedding, where I met a doctoral student of anthropology, studying human evolution. Whether it was the sound of the surf, the crying gulls or the champagne, I dared to ask her whether she had studied the aquatic ape hypothesis. Her reaction was unexpected. She seemed suddenly cagey and offered only a few ambiguous remarks about how that theory was “a little out there” and her professors “didn’t really believe in it.” She explained that “no one really talks about it.” I was a little surprised, thinking the idea to be a fascinating hypothesis concerning human evolution, one that surely, in the decade and a half since I learned of it, scientists had sought to develop or debunk. I was again intrigued, this time less about the theory itself, and more about the question, what is it about academics that makes us resist new ideas and change? To paraphrase ethicist Paul Thompson (2015), social critics should learn a little something about the things about which they theorize. In that spirit, I briefly describe the aquatic ape hypothesis before discussing knowledge politics more broadly.

In 1970, Elaine Morgan, an educated—but nonacademic—BBC journalist in Wales, read a then-popular book, The Naked Ape (Morris, 1967), which briefly mentioned Sir Alister Hardy’s (1960) little-known theory that humans evolved as semi-aquatic. She was captivated by the concept and researched and compiled evidence of the aquatic ancestry of modern Homo sapiens. Soon, she was attending academic conferences to present the idea to trained anatomists and evolutionary biologists. Indeed, she wound up writing several books on the subject (Morgan, 1973; 1982; 2011).

Lest you think the theory does not “hold water,” allow me to explain a few key points. As the argument goes, early hominids probably spent much of their time at the water’s edge (near a wooded saltwater marsh, perhaps), swimming and diving for fish and shellfish. Since our closest relatives are chimpanzees, we can compare our differences with those primates to lend insight into what may have changed to create conditions to develop humans as a new species. Unlike chimpanzees, we are strictly bipedal, with our lower limbs in line with a flexible spine, an arrangement that makes us good swimmers. Human infants instinctively hold their breath and kick to the surface under water, unlike baby chimps, who do neither as a matter of course. Unlike chimps, we can control our breathing and hold our breath, and that capacity makes complex speech possible. Unlike land animals, we lack the ability to conserve salt (like marine mammals, we sweat it out, whereas salt is scarce on land) and we need to drink more water each day than do most terrestrial species. Like marine mammals, we are largely hairless, and instead, even the thinnest of us has a layer of insulating fat just below the skin (think blubber). This fat layer provides excellent insulation in the water, but its weight and heat-trapping abilities are disadvantages on land. Many other explanations exist for why humans differ so greatly from chimpanzees (involving weapon/tool use, thermoregulation, ability to run, sexual behavior, etc.), but they have all been dismissed by evolutionary biologists/anthropologists. So, the aquatic ape hypothesis is a fascinating notion that seems promising.

Despite the intuitive appeal of the evidence she had amassed, however, when Elaine Morgan presented her ideas at academic conferences, she was openly ridiculed by members of the scientific establishment (Vaneechoutte, Kuliukas, & Verhaegen, 2011). So, why did researchers initially largely ignore, deride or dismiss her work? In fact, in recent years, scientists have begun to take Morgan’s ideas more seriously (Foley & Lahr, 2014; Kuliukas, 2014; Rae & Koppe, 2014; Rhys-Evans & Cameron, 2014; Tobias, 2002; Vaneechoutte, 2014; Vaneechoutte, Kuliukas, & Verhaegen, 2011; Verhaegen, 2013), and she has recently been awarded two honorary doctorates. These facts beg the question of why it took the scientists in her chosen field so long to examine her hypothesis.

Indeed, only one peer-reviewed critique had been published concerning the aquatic ape hypothesis until recently. That article became well known, and even years later, Morgan was repeatedly informed that her theory had been debunked. In his critique, John Langdon (1997) argued:

Umbrella hypotheses ranging from mainstream science to the paranormal maintain their popularity among students, general audiences, and scholars in neighboring disciplines. One reason for this is that simple answers, however wrong, are easier to communicate and are more readily accepted than the more sound, but more complex solutions (p. 479).

However, Langdon’s appraisal did not seriously consider the basic arguments of the aquatic ape hypothesis and misunderstood those contentions in any case.  Kuliukas later criticized Langdon’s effort as “based on cursory and superficial comparisons” (Kuliukas, 2011, p. 213). Given this reality, it appears fair to ask what scientists saw as so compelling about his article.

Williams (2011) has observed that the history of the aquatic ape hypothesis reveals much about the “constructions of scientific authority and knowledge” (p. 199). Langdon’s (1997) language concerning “umbrella hypotheses” that amount to “simple answers” constituted a strong rebuke to any student or more junior researcher/faculty member who might otherwise have found the argument interesting. Also, this rhetoric clearly drew a line at the boundaries of the discipline (biology), by suggesting the hypothesis was popular among “students, general audiences, and scholars in neighboring disciplines.” A mention of students, the lowest rung on the academic ladder, signaled that your status as a scholar would be compromised if you found the hypothesis intriguing. Langdon’s language also suggested that even if scholars from other fields might be interested, they were not members of the club with purview of the topic. And so, Langdon drew a line in the sand: his critique clearly communicated that serious consideration of the hypothesis should be off-limits for card-carrying members of the evolutionary biology field.

Nowadays, as a student of social theory, the aquatic ape hypothesis has come to represent a perfect example for me of knowledge politics in action. The history of this idea reminds me of Lave and Wenger’s (1991) situated learning theory, which explains how a community of practice forms as a group mutually engages in a joint enterprise over time. A community of practice emerges around the teaching, learning and research activities in any university department or field of study, such as evolutionary biology—which is why we call it an “academic community.”  Lave and Wenger contended that repeated social interactions foster common cultures among participants, complete with rules of engagement, social norms and boundary objects that govern who is “in” and who is “out.” Newcomers in a field must negotiate this identity and follow the rules that existing members have created to become “experts” in the community. Unfortunately, such behavioral norms are notoriously tacit in character (Collins, 1970). Nonetheless, this system builds knowledge via the social interactions and learning of its participants.

Lave and Wenger (1991) were careful to point out that the experts in a community are likely to mount a powerful defense when the existing rules and social norms governing their work are challenged. As I mentioned above, Kuhn (1970) famously argued that such calls for basic changes in an academic group’s self-understanding may constitute a “paradigm shift.” He suggested that such changes were fraught with political dimensions, including the vagaries of scholarly careers and other social and cultural factors, not to mention power considerations linked to academic institution status and roles. Foucault (1980) famously argued that knowledge claims cannot be divorced from power, since we, as humans, balance our perceptions of the world against what we find to be socially acceptable, in line with our ideas of cultural norms and socialized identity. Our ideas of social acceptability come from our sense of who we are, how we have been acculturated, and the coded behavior of the symbols with which we surround ourselves. For example, what is socially acceptable for a particular woman is not always socially appropriate for a man, or for an individual from a different background or status (Fausto-Sterling, 2008).

Humans build new knowledge by viewing it through their existing paradigms. The problem is, individuals often forget that those ways of knowing are guiding their understanding. That is, the assumptions underpinning those frames very often go unexpressed or are taken for granted to the point that they become invisible to those embracing them. As Gramsci (1995) observed, certain ideas attain cultural hegemony. These concepts are constantly reinforced, reified and ultimately reproduced through a multitude of unnoticed and unacknowledged actions. Bourdieu (1977) has similarly theorized that societies reproduce ideas, identity and social behavior (including academic research, teaching, learning and writing) by means of cultural symbols and coded behavior, of which individuals are not often cognizant.

Knowledge generated and vetted by academics is the most important knowledge there is, at least as far as individuals in our society are acculturated to believe (Giroux, 1992). Part of producing scholarship accepted by others involves speaking, acting and writing using accepted symbols and coded language that result in positive responses from those audiences, whose members are recognized in their fields. Some of this process of legitimation makes sense (such as when the peer review process works), and some of it does not (such as when a dazzling presentation at a conference leaves everyone initially satisfied, but further reflection reveals a lack of originality or substance). So, if one can successfully engage in the rules of the game and (re)create an acceptable symbolic interaction, one can produce a perspective that is acknowledged and venerated by those engaged in one’s field of social action.  But, if this is so, that fact implies that the rules of the game may be stacked against all but the relatively few who are able to discern them and act in acceptable ways.

In light of this argument, please imagine Elaine Morgan, an intelligent and thoughtful journalist, but also a mild-mannered country woman, daughter of a coal-miner and evidencing a strong Welsh accent, presenting on the aquatic ape hypothesis at an academic conference of mostly English male scientists in the 1970s. Her profession, look, demeanor and gender were all unlikely to result in her inclusion in the prevailing community of practice to which she was appealing. By her symbolic and coded behavior, she likely violated the rules of engagement and social norms of the field to which she was seeking to contribute. She also lacked the accepted boundary object—the “entry card” to the club—a doctoral degree in the discipline. Moreover, the substance of her ideas was far different from the usual, and her language was that of a writer, not a trained scientist. In short, she lacked the correct codes and symbols to demonstrate her compliance with the rules of the game, the long accepted hegemonic assumptions of evolutionary biologists. As a result, powerful experts in the field did not grant her or her work legitimacy (Langdon, 1997).

The result was a marginalization of Morgan’s ideas. Now, however, because her arguments truly were arresting and original, they are slowly being considered seriously by evolutionary biologists and anthropologists. But for a baffling forty years, were these ideas rejected simply on the basis of “who” was talking, or how it was said? And are we comfortable with such factors shaping our collective understanding of the origins of humankind?

I think of my own discipline, agricultural and adult education, and wonder what new radical, profoundly different and at first apparently strange ideas have been pushed aside by the academic community, who carefully guard and protect the holy grail of professional legitimacy. I would like to think that academia is changing, breaking boundaries and embracing new forms of knowledge. But, perhaps, our collective grasp of reality is actually so tenuous that we become sufficiently distracted by the socialized symbols and coded language surrounding new knowledge that we reject fresh ideas that do not accord with our prevailing assumptions and frames. I end with this uncertainty and promise myself that I will listen, really listen, to the intellectual substance of (what seems to be) the next wild idea I encounter, whether in conversation or at the next academic conference in which I participate.


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lorien thumbnailLorien MacAuley has worked in Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington State in programming and evaluation for community food, environmental education, public recreation facilities and community gardening. She is currently a PhD candidate in Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and works for the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition. Her research interests are centered on agricultural education and extension, community viability, community development programming/planning, alternative agrifood movements, food ethics, performative food practices and knowledge politics. Her dissertation focuses on on-farm apprenticeships as they relate to alternative agrifood movements.



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