Transcript of Michel Odent's talk on Youtube: Selling the Marine Chimpanzee Concept

Allan Krill

Youtube video April 11, 2022:

Thank you [Algis] for this comment about Powerpoint. I reported it to say that I have age 92, and people my age don't like Powerpoints. We want to look at the faces of people, eye-to-eye contact and not to be distracted by pictures. So that's my way of talking to you today.

And as Algis said, a point of departure will be to discuss the term 'aquatic ape theory.' Then to wonder: how marketable, if I can say, how popular can this term be? This is not a new issue. We might say how mediatic this term is. It is not a new issue. And somebody, all of us, heard about our friend's issue a long time ago. She was Elaine Morgan. About 30 years ago, at San Rafael in California, Elaine Morgan had an interview with the editor of Mind Spirit Journal (or something like that.) And this clever man asked her, he said: "Why did you use... The title of your last book is Aquatic Ape. Why, after publishing The Descent of Woman, why did you publish a book title Aquatic Ape?" It was a clever question, and Elaine, immediately, without thinking, replied "Ah, yes, I wanted a [...] to stand on. Scientists didn't like my previous book The Descent of Woman, because it was a bestseller. So that's why I called this one Aquatic Ape." Which was a funny way to say: "I imagine, I assume that this term is not really attractive immediately." It was a clever answer, a long time ago, 30 years ago.

Since that time, we can observe that [...], people in the media never mention 'aquatic ape', even when they publish biographies of Elaine. Recently, [with the unveiling of] Elaine statues, and in the well known journal The Guardian biography of Elaine, you cannot find the term 'aquatic ape'. 

People in the media never mention 'aquatic ape'. They mention The Descent of Woman. They give details that always come back. For example, in her autobiography you will read that the first time Elaine went to Oxford University, people thought that she was a cleaning lady. It was the way she was talking. [...] always clear, at [...] level. So it means that we have good reasons to wonder, is this term marketable? Is it, can it become better known and popular, or should we replace it by another one? 

Personally, I must say that when I can, I avoid this term. Algis mentioned the title of one of my books, The Birth of Homo, the Marine Chimpanzee. So that's why I suggest today, that we contrast these two terms. How can we do it, we need a method. So I suggest that we choose a way of finding a solution to this issue. [...] what Stephen Munro said some months ago. It was in January, in his presentation, in this framework of lectures organized by Algis. He started by saying: "Don't lose time by listening to experts." What did he mean by that? He was suggesting that experts will never know [...] And he gave a list of people with whom we should communicate when we have to find a solution to a difficult issue. He gave a list, and the first kind of people he mentioned on this list was children. Children, ah, let's talk to children. 

So, I followed the advice of Stephen Munro. And I spoke with my good friend Lughan, age 12. And I started a conversation, a serious conversation, with a question. I said: "For your birthday, I'm thinking of giving you a present, a book. Can you choose between two titles? One book will be called 'the aquatic ape'rather We are Aquatic Apes. The other book will be titled We are Marine Chimpanzees." Within two seconds I had the reply: "We are chimpanzees. Marine chimpanzees." I ... know of the work of Jane Goodall, [...] fascinated [...] are cousins yes of course, [...]  [...] interesting because I immediately understood his point of view. There are some similarities between the way of thinking of nonagenarians and children. We have something in common, we dare to [...]. We understand each other.

So I had a series of conversations with my friend, Lughan. And gradually, I found some rational way to interpret the point of view expressed by Lughan. Taking into account my career as a medical practitioner, I found some reasons to clarify the nature of human beings, and to provide some, we might say, rational reasons, to suggest that, perhaps, we might contrast these two terms. That is to say contrast the term 'aquatic' with the term 'marine'. To contrast the term 'ape' with the term 'chimpanzee'. And to contrast the term 'theory' with the term 'concept'.

So let's start with the first one, aquatic. [...So, I reply, as I said, as a medical practitioner, known for the practice of obstetrics. By the way, I am not a physician, there was a [...] but I am not a physician. So let's start with the first word, aquatic. How, a vous ris danch to prefer aquatic to the word marine ou reverse. So, I reply, as I said, as a medical practitioner, artz known for the practice of obstetrics. By the way, I am not an obstetrician, I was a surgeon originally, but I am not a physician [?
]. And I mentioned some mysterious questions, that are related to obstetrics. A mysterious issue, the issue of vernix caseosa. Until the 21st century, there was no interest in general, in medical journals, about vernix caseosa. In textbooks, we could find two or three lines saying human babies, when they are born at term, their skin is covered with a kind of cream, vernix caseosa, it means like cheese. It was mentioned, and at that time, nothing exclusive to say, except that only human beings, only human babies are born with this cream and it was common just to wipe it away. When I was one of the medics in an obstetrical department in Paris 1953, they were wiping it away, the vernix caseosa. Nobody knew what it was for, no function. Nobody was curious about that.

So the turning point, we might say, many of you know that, took place during the 21st century, in 2005. And the turning point was not the result of a study published in an academic journal. It was a program on BBC4. A program presented by David Attenborough. And Attenborough, he had apparently conversations with Don Bowen, a marine biologist from Nova Scotia in Canada, an island. And he said in this program, the title had something to do with evolution, eh ... The Scars of Evolution -- that was the full title. In this program The Scars of Evolution, he mentions that according to Don Bowen, an expert in marine mammals, particularly seals, he had learned that baby seals are also born with their skin covered with vernix caseosa. So it was the first time, on the popular BBC radio program, not a medical or scientific journal, that we heard that vernix caseosa is not only human, it is also in this kind of sea mammals. It was a big turning point.

We must [...] previously, it's important to mention that before that, there had been missed opportunities to wonder in what other mammals besides human beings are also born with their skin covered with vernix caseosa. There had been in the country where Algis is living in 1979 and 1981 there have been studies measuring, evaluating, the amounts of squalene in the amniotic fluid as a way to detect fetuses that might be post-term. 
I must recall (it's useless for most of you) that squalenes are fatty substances in marine living creatures. In fact 'squalene' comes from squalus, it means shark in Latin. So it is typically marine. It was known at that time, it was understood, that at the end of pregnancy, the amount of squalene is going up, going up, going up. But at that time nobody was curious enough toward sea mammals. Nobody thought of that, although we knew about squalenes. So it was a missed opportunity.

There was another missed opportunity in 19.., no, in 2000. A team of dermatologists from the US wanted to develop a protective cream in the case of premature babies. A protective cream. And they looked at vernix caseosa. They tried to imitate vernix caseosa and they gave attention of course to corneocytes. In vernix caseosa there are cells like sponges that are protective in case of immersion in hypertonic water, for example. So they were interested in that. But then they never thought of considering what about sea mammals? They did not think of that. That's why, to learn to wait, to 2005, this BBC radio program, which was not listened by many scientific people, but it was not read by many scientific people.

Because in 2008, there was a study of vernix caseosa. And in this study they were interested in branch-chain fatty acid. Branch-chain fatty acid. That was a special fatty acid saturated, special because there was a CH3 attached to one of the carbon atoms of the fatty acid. So that branch-chain fatty acid. They noticed that. They mentioned that. But obviously, although at that time they knew a lot about branch-chain fatty acids. However, they did not know obviously what Don Bowen had found. 
But this venicosa of seals, it was not mentioned, so it was not something which occurred. But they focused on branch-chain fatty acid at that time. And it was an example of a missed opportunity, that they had not heard about seals before.

So finally, there was a last turning point in 2018. A team from California studying the particular case of sea lions. Sea lions are in the same family as seals, and they found that sea lions are also born with their skin covered by vernix caseosa. They looked at the details of vernix caseosa and what was important is that they understood that in vernix caseosa there are branch-chain fatty acids and particles of vernix caseosa are enriching the amniotic fluid at the end of the pregnancy. And fetuses are swallowing this branch-chain fatty acid. And this happens, they understood that the gut flora in this species, and they compared with human beings. They thought of comparing with human beings. Interesting, the gut flora is to a great extent established in such a way that it contains a lot of branch-chain fatty acids. Then similarities have been mentioned with human beings. So suddenly we realize, that to a certain extent, it is something we have to study more in depth now. To a certain extent, the gut flora of human beings is established similar to the gut flora of sea lions, sea mammals. So this is a way to introduce this issue as a medical practitioner interested in obstetrics. And interested in what has been for such a long time mysterious, [...] which is a way to say that we have a nonsuspected similarity with sea mammals, the marine. It's not aquatic, it's marine-marine-marine. It's an example.

There are other reasons to contrast marine with aquatic when human beings are concerned. It is the issue of the need in iodine. Most human beings cannot consume a sufficient amount of iodine. Most human beings. For those who have no access to the seafood chain, there is not enough. And in particular, when a mother is pregnant or breast feeding, the need in iodine is multiplied by 1.5. And it's such, we might say that it is the most common nutrient deficiency in humans, except those who can consume on a regular basis seafood at such a point. But in many governments have established rules obliging to introduce iodine in the table salt. It is obligatory in many countries, because it's the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. ...

We know why it's serious. But, as everybody knows, that we are characterized by a huge brain and the development and function of the brain depends to a great extent on thyroid hormones. And it is well known that there is a need in iodine to produce thyroid hormones. Particularly serious in the case of pregnant women. This is well known. For example the American Association of Thyroid ATA says that all pregnant women will have on a regular basis, 150 μg of iodine as a supplement. There was a British study demonstrating that when pregnant women have absorbed this supplement of iodine, the average IQ of the children are multiplied by 1.22. So when we consider that the most common nutritional deficiency in modern humans is lack, for many people, lack of iodine, [...] it is serious. Once more we are obliged to prefer the term 'marine' to the term 'aquatic' when we consider human beings.

So we may [...] a long time contrasting reasons to prefer 'marine' to 'aquatic'. It seems interesting when we try to learn more of the particularities of a species, species of mammals, and naturally species of apes, and human beings. It is a thing to study in depth the enzymatic system. The enzymatic system is to analyze [...] Is a good way to know the particularities of a species. And an argument is, an enzymatic system is special, and offers reasons to raise questions. Everybody knows, even though sometimes we forget it, everybody knows that we are characterized by an enormous brain. We are encephalized. The quotient of encephalization is 1.5. The other apes, it's something [...] three times lower. So everybody knows we are special among all mammals, including primates, because we have enormous brains. But why we have such an enormous brain? 

Well, we know, that the brain-specific nutrients, we know that the brain is mostly a fatty organ. We know that the brain has a specific need in particular fatty acids. In particular, 40% needs in DHA (To be simple. DocosaHexaenoic Acid if you want to be, to have time to listen to what I am saying.) Which is a long-chain omega 3 fatty acid, as long as possible: 22 carbons, six double bonds. So that is an essential nutrient for the brain. And it means that for human beings it is important to provide for the developing brain in particular a sufficient amount of DHA. So that's what went on.

But what is not always considered as serious, is that our enzymatic system is not very effective at making the synthesis of DHA. Of long-chain omega 3, 22 carbons in six double bond. The enzymatic system is not very effective to synthesize DHA, if you don't consume seafood. Your DHA is preformed and abundant in the seafood chain only. That's the point. It's abundant and preformed in the seafood chain only. If human beings don't have access to seafood, they must transform the parent molecule of the omega 3 alpha linolenic acid that molecule has only 18 carbons and three double bonds. That is to say, that there is something mysterious that human beings, that we have a special need in the long-chain omega 3 fatty acids with 22 carbons in six double bonds but our enzymatic system is not so effective. There is, there are a need for enzymes with desaturase in our case. We had desaturase in our case, but perhaps [...], that which is mysterious. 

So it's so that we have [...] some of this [...] enzyme, but in fact it is [...] down effective. They need a catalyst, mostly minerals. Minerals that are catalyst are found in the land food chain naturally in [...] and so on, but not a huge amount. And this synthesis which need a catalyst is easily, the metabolic pathway is easily disturbed. It's fragile. It's disturbed by emotional state. Prime example, cortisol, what happens if a pregnant woman is not happy. Depressed, it's minimizing the effect of enzymes. There are other blocking agents, like too much sugar, alcohol, man-made food. So this is a mysterious aspect of human beings. That we have a huge brain, that main characteristic of human beings, always start from that. Huge brain, huge need for long-chain omega 3 fatty acid, but an enzyme system that is not very effective. That means probably, ideally, we need to consume the kind of fatty acid that are found in the seafood chain only.

It's another way to say that the good reason to develop the concept of 'marine.' Because these are much more common points with sea mammals than with aquatic mammals. There are aquatic mammals that are not living in marine environments at all: rhinoceros, elephant, otter, sea voles and such. But we don't have many common points with them. When we say we are special when compared with the other mammals, the common points are much more with sea mammals. Now this is a fast way to suggest that we have reasons to replace to an extra level and we should do it. To replace the term 'aquatic' by the term 'marine' mammals. I don't want to say more on this issue. But this is the first complement on the concept of the term 'the aquatic ape hypothesis'. We have reason to replace 'aquatic' by 'marine'.

So the second term is the term 'ape'. Do we have reasons to replace the term 'ape' by the term 'chimpanzee'? Once more, I ask the point of view of my friend Lughan, age 12. I tell you, I said: "Are we, do you prefer to say that we are apes or that we are chimpanzees?" "Oh, chimpanzees, that's right, chimpanzees. We look like chimpanzees, we are friends of chimpanzees. And apes, I don't know exactly what it means." There are lots of reasons to prefer the term 'chimpanzee'. It is difficult to translate 'ape' in other languages. We have to consider that at the present time, the age of globalization, going from one language to another one, we have to realize that 'ape' is a term well known in the English language, [...] compared with francais. When I speak French, my mother tongue, I cannot translate 'ape'. I have a word for primate, and a word for monkeys. There is a word for chimpanzee. There is no word for ape. This is the first reason to prefer, perhaps, chimpanzees.

Other reasons, [...] less used by experts [...] There are reasons to think the archean split, chimpanzee-homo split, a certain time. We are cousins, but we separated from our cousin at a certain time, our split. This is accepted by many people today. I don't want to discuss this and that. I explained that to my friend Lughan is probably at a certain time we separated from the other members of the chimpanzee family.

So I started to explain that according to some experts it was 4 million years ago, or 5 or 6. He was not interested in that at all. For him, 4 million, 6 million [...] what he wanted to know: "Where did this happen? Where was it, where was this split, where? Where the split?" Homo, separated from the other members of the chimpanzees. That's what he wanted to know.

So I had to explain, what I could say. I couldn't say a lot. I said probably it happened in places where there are huge populations of chimpanzees, of course. Its [...] I said that. So where are they living, the chimpanzees? I said, well, they are living mostly in west Africa, around the Equator. Places like Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and so on. That's the place where chimpanzees were living. I explained that.

I said so. Perhaps, we have fossils of chimpanzees in places where there are also fossils of human beings? That's a very important question. I had to say: "No, there is no fossil of chimpanzee. And no fossils of human beings [...] no. Because you cannot make, find fossils unless the climatic and geological conditions are perfect. And in the place where probably the split happened [...] there were huge rains, heavy rains, geological conditions, climatic conditions, so that it is impossible to find fossils." So that's a challenge. So we don't know what happened. We can say probably it was the place where they were living, of course, of course, but we cannot find fossils. And I [...] a lot of time Homo survived other members of the family. They had acquired a capacity to develop a huge brain. Probably, it's possible, that they started to live in coastal areas along the sea, if possible. "Ah, yes, interesting. So perhaps we can find fossils of human beings along the coast, coastal areas?" I said, "No, we cannot. Because there have been ancient [...] terrible fluctuation of sea levels." Sea levels today are different from where they were thousands of years ago, millions of years ago. Many places where perhaps our ancestors were living, probably developing their huge brain, they needed food from the sea, but now [...] by the sea we cannot find fossils. So everywhere we have to confess that we have many things to learn, many things we don't know.

My conversation with this boy, who is 12, was we have to focus on what we don't know. And apparently focus on how can we know more. And that is the question. How do we know more? Mysterious origin [...

I said, you know there are emerging disciplines that can help us in the future. We cannot say more. But meanwhile, let's think, let's dream of what we can learn in the future. For example, of a discipline like virology. When we know virus research. There are many mysterious questions. But how our genes have been colonized by viruses. This question, for example, we wonder why a virus called MERZ2 [CERV2 ?] have colonized the genes of chimpanzees but not the genes of human beings. That perhaps, brings some ways to know a little more the differences in how our genes have been colonized by viruses. If the genes of chimpanzees are colonized by these viruses, but not the genes of human beings, it means that the coloni... contamination took place after the split. That is something we can conclude. And what after that, human beings, Homo, evolved more or less in marginal places, and never been colonized or never contaminated by this virus. So just to say, I cannot say more. I don't know, we don't know, nobody knows. It's possible that in the future we can understand in a new way the common points between human beings and similarly, the differences between human beings and other chimpanzees. We still have, we still have a lot to learn.

There is still one term we have to consider. We started with 'aquatic ape theory'. I ask my friend: "What do you think of 'theory'?" He was not that interested in the topic, but he said "Theory is about ideas. Theories they come and go, you know, they disappear." For him, what is theoretical is not really serious. You know it's not very serious.

So apparently, he would prefer, finally, the phrase 'marine chimpanzee concept'. One of the reasons why we prefer 'concept' is we know exactly what it means. That's curious. But from his point of view, 'concept' is much more to well thinking, well thinking, rather than ideas and imagination. So finally, after considering what I have learned [...] I have learned from conversation with a 12-year-old boy. I can say that finally we might have reasons to test, to contrast, to compare these two phrases. Should we, do we have reasons? (I don't know that we should do it.) Do we have reasons to replace the phrase 'aquatic ape theory' by the phrase 'marine chimpanzee concept'?

So I'll finish with a question: "Today, what was the topic?" We are always in an unprecedented situation, whatever the topic. What can we do in an unprecedented situation? What is urgent is to phrase appropriate questions. Thus, we must not rush, to forget theories, [...] ideas. We have to be careful. What we have to learn to do at the time for any topic in the present situation: we have to learn to phrase questions. That is an important part of the game.

To finish, to show you the cover of a book I published not for a long time ago. You don't need to read this book. Just look at the cover. What is this? A question mark. With it, we are at the question mark. What have we done today? Now? We have been phrasing questions. Thank you.

Transcript by Allan Krill. If you understand words on the video that I have difficulty with 
[...] please help me to improve this transcript.