Releasing the Brakes with Water
Learning from women
My own interest in the powerful influence of water on human beings developed at a time when I was exploring how the environment might influence the physiology of birth. It was apparent that many laboring women are attracted to water, wanting to have a shower or a bath. One day I went to a shop in the high street of our town and I bought an inflatable blue children's paddling pool.1 This was the beginning of the history of hospital birthing pools. As soon as the pool was installed I was faced with the most intriguing aspects of the human fascination with water. I could tell countless stories about laboring women whose attraction to water was so irresistible that they frustrated the best laid plans of the hospital staff. As soon as the tap was turned on, some of them could not wait to get into the pool and stepped in while there was no more than an inch of water in the bottom. The first lesson we learnt was that while the laboring woman is anticipating getting into the pool - hearing the noise of running water and seeing the blue water in a room that was painted blue with dolphins on the walls - it was as if a brake was already being released.
Beyond daily practice
Some time afterwards I began to realize how universal that tremendous attraction to water is during labor. In tropical countries, in places where quiet water was available, women often gave birth close to a river, or a lake or the sea. The aborigines of the west coast of Australia used to walk in shallow water before giving birth on the beach. It is probable that women relaxed and even gave birth in warm calm water in places as far apart as what is today called Colombia and Panama, some of the Polynesian islands, or some of the southern Japanese islands. It is also probable that in countries with non-tropical climates, the attraction to water in labor may have been stifled simply because hot and cold water from the tap was not available. However, this attraction could express itself in other subtle ways. At the beginning of this century, when most babies were born at home, the father used to spend hours boiling water. This ritual could be seen as an unconscious attempt to include water in the process of birth.
The similarities between the mysterious influence of water on the birth process and the erotic power of water are striking.2 It would take volumes to make an in depth study about the way in which the erotic power of water has been an inspiration to poets, painters, film makers, novelists, advertising agents, or restaurant owners, for example. And where do a young couple dream of going when they plan their honeymoon?
A watery environment also seems to beneficially affect the "milk ejection reflex". Certain breastfeeding advisers know how to take advantage of the sound of water. It can help women who have to express their milk with a breast pump if they do it in the shower. What is more, the "oceanic" feeling of mystical emotions is more likely to manifest itself on a beach, or by a river, or a lake.
Interpreting the power of water
It is easy to convince anyone of the mysterious effect of water on our human neocortical brakes. The real question is, Is this effect an aspect of our mammalian condition, or is our powerful relationship with water a specifically human trait? After all, all mammals, including the primates, spend their fetal life in water; yet there are some compelling reasons to claim that humans beings should be studied in depth from that point of view.
Today there is a tendency to consider Homo as a primate who adapted to living on the coast during certain phases of the evolutionary process. Any study of human nature should start from one fundamental and inescapable question : what sort of environment was homo originally adapted to?
In the case of other species of mammals in general - and primates in particular - it is easy to answer such a question. It is clear, for example, that the common chimpanzees were originally adapted to the African tropical forest and spent much of their time in the trees, while baboons adapted to the drier areas of Arabia and Africa and lived mainly on the ground. As for Homo, scientists can only offer hypotheses and theories.
In the current scientific context, it is well accepted that Homo separated from the other chimpanzees about six million years ago. Until recently, the favorite scenario was that our ancestors abandoned life in the trees to live on the open plain. According to the "Savannah" theory this change of habitat is the crucial factor that precipitated the emergence of Homo. Yet today there are many serious reasons to dismiss the "Savannah" theory - principally because the presumed period for the emergence of savannah conditions in Africa has been reassessed by new dating of the explosion of different species of hoof-footed mammals, pollen analysis, and closer examination of fossils of small mammals found in association with fossils of hominids.3 It appears that the emergence of the savannah occurred after the origin of the human family. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that the bones of our ancestor, the famous Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) were found eroding from the sand, lying among turtle and crocodile eggs and crab claws. And the bones of an older Australopithecus, found near Lake Rudolph in Kenya in 1995 were surrounded by many fossil vertebrates including fish and aquatic reptiles.4
We must also keep in mind that even though the human family emerged several million years ago, Homo Sapiens - the modern human being - is a young species. It is worth noticing that the oldest known footprints of a modern human being - dating back 117,000 years ago - have been found on the shore of a South African lagoon.
At the very time of the collapse of the "Savannah" theory, an alternative hypothesis - often called the Aquatic Ape theory -is gradually gaining ground and filling the gaps. Quite independently, Max Westenhofer in Berlin (as early as 1942)5 and Alister Hardy in Oxford in 19606 underlined that several of the differences between Homo and the other apes suggest an adaptation to a semi-aquatic environment. Since these pioneering works, the aquatic ape theory has developed and has been constantly updated thanks to the enthusiastic, creative and persevering work of Elaine Morgan.7,8,9
Although, from a genetic perspective, we are a sort of chimpanzee (sharing 98.5% of our genes), dozens of features make us different from our close relatives. All these features are compatible with an adaptation to the coast.
Bipedalism - standing, walking and running upright - has been at the root of the theory from the beginning. Both Westenhofer and Hardy suggested that bipedalism was first adopted under duress, by ancestors of the human family confronted by the necessity of wading through water. It is well known that human babies can walk in shallow water before being able to walk on dry land. It is also noticeable that the only primate in the wild who regularly walks on two feet is the proboscis monkey of Borneo - a primate that is frequently constrained to walk in shallow water. One possible scenario among others is that some of our ancestors were isolated on an island when a part of East Africa was covered by the sea.
When ancestors of the human family established bipedalism as their usual mode of locomotion, favorable conditions were met for a dramatic development of the brain. An upright posture is easily compatible with an increased head weight (we can only carry heavy weights on our heads when we are upright). Also, the coastal food chain is the best possible environment in which to find unlimited quantities of all the nutrients that are essential for brain development. Among these nutrients are the long chain omega-3 fatty acids that are abundant and preformed in seafood.10 As soon as they had access to the coastal food chain our ancestors had an ideal balance of nutrients from the land and from the sea at their disposal, and so could develop their full potential.11,12
In the 1990s a further factor has added its weight to the list of scientific data supporting the aquatic ape theory, which is our better knowledge of the specific nutritional needs of the developing brain. Until now it was impossible to explain why the human brain is four times bigger than the brain of other chimpanzees and that, in terms of the proportion of gray matter to the total brain mass, there is no difference between homo and unrelated mammals such as dolphins. One of the most mysterious aspects of human nature for modern biologists is that we have to feed an enormous brain yet our body is not very efficient at making one of the molecules ("DHA") which is essential to meet the needs of the nervous system.
Nakedness has been identified as one of the most specifically human traits since the biblical book of Genesis. It was being discussed as a scientific mystery at the time of Darwin, who rejected the notion that it was our best protection against the many skin parasites found in tropical regions, arguing that, if it was the case, other animals living in the tropics would have got rid of their hairy coats to cope with the same problem. In fact, any attempt to interpret human nakedness should start with a reminder of the main function of fur, which is to protect from variations in temperature by maintaining a layer of air around the body. In water there is no need for fur. The absence of hair is a characteristic of most sea-mammals. The only ones that keep their fur are those that can get out of the water and stay on land in a cold climate, such a seals, otters and beavers. Our subcutaneous layer of fat is as mysterious as our nakedness. It is not a feature we share with other apes although it is a point we have in common with many mammals adapted to the sea. In addition, we sweat in order to control our body temperature, and of all mammals we have the highest sweat production. Sweating has long been considered an enigma, or a mistake of nature as it depletes the body of large amounts of water and salt. This makes no sense at all to those thinkers who see humans, first and foremost, as primates who keep the characteristics of a fetus or a baby until adulthood. (In fact the human baby does not control its temperature by sweating for the first few weeks after birth). New interpretations of this sweating mechanism become possible when we consider human beings as primates who have adapted to environments where water and salt are freely available. In fact, fur seals are the only other mammals who sweat when they are overheated on land (they sweat on their naked hind flippers). Therefore sweating is yet another human trait that is compatible with adaptation to the coast.
We might focus on many other intriguing human traits such as the triangle of skin we have between our thumbs and forefingers (similar to the webbing on a duck's feet), the fact that our big toes are jointed to the others, the anatomy of our respiratory tract, or the number of blood cells per cubic millimeter. All these features suggest that we are adapted to a semi-aquatic environment.
Another feature peculiar to humans is the expression of emotion with tears. This is not incompatible with an adaptation to the sea, since marine iguanas, turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, seals and sea otters weep salt tears, while land mammals have no tears or any sort of nasal salt gland. The human lachrymal glands might be interpreted as a vestige of an extra mechanism for eliminating salt.
We might also look at one of the main obvious differences when you compare a photo of a man and a photo of a chimpanzee. One has a nose and the other only has two breathing holes. The long nose is a feature we have in common with the proboscis monkey who is a swimmer adapted to the coast.
Another intriguing phenomenon needs interpretation and is also supportive of this new vision of homo sapiens. Consider the fact that the two wonder drugs of the last half of this century are fish oils and aspirin. It has been claimed that these can remedy an astonishing variety of conditions and, particularly specifically human diseases. Fish oil capsules have been found to reduce the risk or the effects of coronary heart disease, hyper-cholesterolemia, hypertension, psoriasis and other skin diseases, migraines, painful menstruation, different forms of rheumatism, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, poor adaptation to darkness, allergic diseases, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, pre-eclampsia, fetal growth retardation, and even some cancers. As for aspirin, it is undoubtedly the most commonly used medicinal agent in the world, and, like fish oils, can modify the metabolism of an important family of cell regulators called prostaglandins. It is as if a very large number of humans are finding they need the same sort of correction to their metabolism of prostaglandins. Theoretically, from a biochemical point of view, people who have easy access to the sea-food chain would have no need of such correction. Perhaps these modern panaceas offer us a new perspective from which to explore human nature.
This new vision of homo sapiens as an ape adapted to life on the coast represents such a radical change in the current understanding of human nature that it will take a long time to digest it. It signifies another vital aspect of the scientific revolution going on today. It is developing at the same time as the scientification of Love. It helps us to understand why human beings feel more secure in a watery environment and enables us to interpret the magic power of water on human beings.
There are similarities between the erotic power of water, the mysterious power of water on the birth process and the way in which an aquatic environment can be used to facilitate lactation. Water, as a symbol, helps humans to feel secure in a great variety of circumstances. What is the root cause of these cross-cultural effects?
1 Odent M. Birth under water. Lancet, 1983:1476-77.
2 Odent M. Water and Sexuality. Arkana (Penguin), 1990.
3 Leakey R, Lewin R. Origins reconsidered. Little, Brown. 1992.
4 Leakey MG, et al . New four million year old hominid species. Nature, 1995;376:565-71
5 Westenhofer M. Der Eigenweg des menschen. Mannstaede and Co. Berlin, 1942.
6 Hardy A. Was Man more aquatic in the past? New Scientist, 1060;7:642-5
7 Morgan E. The Descent of Woman. Souvenir Press, London 1972.
8 Morgan E. The Aquatic Ape. Souvenir Press, London 1982.
9 Morgan E. The Scars of Evolution. Souvenir Press, London 1990.
10 Crawford M, Marsh D. The Driving Force. Heinneman, London 1989.
11 Odent M, McMillan L, Kimmel T. Prenatal care and seafish. Eur. J. Obstet. Gynecol. 1996;68: 49-51.
12 Odent M. The Primary Human Disease: An evolutionary Perspective. ReVision, 1995;18, 2:19-21.
Excerpted and reprinted by permission of the author from Chapter 15 of The Scientification of Love.