Sunday, 21 April 2013


To some people, evolution is to blame for everything. Which of course it is, considered in rather general terms. If we'd evolved from moles instead of monkeys, playgrounds wouldn't have climbing frames but would be tunnel-rich environments.

See what I did there? I indulged in the sort of wanton, evidence-free speculation that often counts as 'evolutionary science' in the media. Hence BAH!, a proposed festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses: 'The major criticism for evolutionary theorists is hyperadaptationism, "over-the-top" evolutionary ideas that try to explain too many of an organism's features as adaptations'. So, from a scientific point of view, this sort of thing can lead to a laff-riot.

"Please note," the guidelines state, "Being funny is not a good defense. We want to see you actually defend your terrible, terrible theory!" 
The winner of BAH! Fest, chosen by a panel of bona fide scientists, will earn a 3D-printed version of the trophy first imagined in the SMBC comic — a "depressed-looking Darwin,"(...)

Sad to note, though, that one of my favourite ideas in my younger days, the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, is cited as a classic instance of a duff brainwave.
First proposed in the 1940s, the theory imagines that human ancestors went through a sea-based stage, which would explain things like the species' relative hairlessness and greater ability to digest fish compared with other primates.  
Despite seeming coherence, though, that theory has very little (if any) support from serious evolutionary theorists. "Clearly, it's crazy," Weinersmith said. BAH! Fest just takes that craziness to the extreme. And, serious satirical intent aside, the event has captured the enthusiasm of scientists and science fans alike.
Is it 'clearly' crazy? Well, the AAH is certainly seductive to non-scientists, and that is often one of the warning signs. And it's not just ordinary members of the public who've been won over. Check out Desmond Morris and David Attenborough, both being very pro-AAH, here.

You can still find references to it all over the place. I searched for it on the BBC site and got a few hits. This one is a passing, properly sceptical reference. This one from BBC Wales is understandably respectful of the feisty Elaine Morgan, who promoted the idea as part of a broadly feminist agenda, and has just been honoured for her writing. And she's a damn good writer, which in part explains the idea's tenacity.

Anyway, the BAH! event is clearly a fun idea that has survival potential. Sadly, though, it didn't take place last week because it was to be held at MIT in Boston. I think it's reasonable to conclude that some very bad ideas were responsible for the whole city being on lockdown.

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