Those of us who SCUBA dive enter a realm that is difficult to explain to the terrestrial primates of the world. When I’m on land I look forward to the next giant stride into the blue world. I’ve researched many articles and books to try and explain my fascination with the deep. Since I was a child I’ve always gravitated to the ocean. It seemed as if I was born to live in the wet realm. After reading Wallace Nichols Blue Mind, I came to understand much of the psychological aspects under-girding my desire. For those of you who share my passion, I encourage you to read that book.
It was on a bus ride back from four days of splendid diving that another thought crept in my head. Are we as humans geared through some quirk in the evolutionary process, toward diving? Are we meant to be in the water? When I’m on land, my back hurts, my feet ache, and gravity becomes my nemesis. In the water I’m weightless and the surrounding sea returns me to the womb. The salt water resembles more the stuff of which I’m made than the air that I have to breathe to stay alive. Coral and fish explode all around in a dance of life affirming energy.
My quest for understanding led me to Elaine Morgan and her theory of the Aquatic Ape. In this blog I’m not going to try and sum up her work and the controversy it stirred. I’ll save that for later. Her work has led me to ask fundamental questions that started with inquiry about my own body. I want to share some of my own epiphanies along this yellow brick road. So I figured I’d start at the bottom – the feet.
When we compare our feet to our primate brethren, they look quite different. The big toe – or Hallux (scientists prefer to rename what we all know as a “big toe” to something more obscure) - in other primates works nearly as our opposable thumb. There is controversy among anthropologists as to the nature of evolution of our big toe, and curvature of the foot in general. Anthropologists suggest that our feet are the way they are because we have adopted a unique stance as bipedal creatures. Chimpanzees, some of our closest relatives along the evolutionary scale have a flat lumbar spine and so can’t retain an upright posture. Their foot uses the big toe as a “thumb” used for grasping. This comes in handy as they race through the treetop canopy. Our toe, having shifted forward, has taken on quite a different task. Did you know that every step you make ends with nearly the full weight of your body ending on the big toe?
That in itself isn’t as magnificent as the notion that we, as humans, are the only primate who can stand on their toes for any length of time. Why is this important? Consider our ancient fore-bearers in water seeking out the perfect shallow hunting ground. What is more important? Grasping a sandy and ever changing silty bottom or standing on tip-toe, using the big toe to assist in our movement in a now – nearly weightless – state?
Anthropologists claim that the shape of our foot evolved through our need for bipedalism in the savannah of Africa. They claim that we needed bipedalism for hunting and heat dispersion. That makes no sense because our speed on land is far slower than even our non-bipedal primate kin. We are prey – not predator – in the dry grass-filled savannah.
However in water we can use our feet to balance in an ever changing current, stand a few inches higher to obtain the shellfish and shore-based fish filled with protein.
If we consider the whole idea of evolution, the idea of bipedalism as a transition from trees, through water, then to land makes much more sense than a tree-to-land transition. The displacement that offsets our “weight” (realize that our total mass never changes) allowed for our ancestors to transition our toes to their current position and bear far less weight during the transition to bipedalism. Note that I’m only focusing on the foot, though there were a number of other changes that our body endured along the evolutionary train. Where the foot goes, so goes the pelvis, spine and supporting frame.
So maybe today or tomorrow, I’ll don my fins and hope that someday in the future that my ancestors will be wallowing in the water when the terrestrial world has gone its way. They will have built in flippers and made friends with dolphins and whales. Until then, I’ll massage my arches and crack my back waiting until I can, again, return to the place I consider my aquatic homeland.
Paul Rose is an SCUBA diver, artist and author.
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