Waterboarding, Self-Experimentation, and Human Evolution

Someone named Scylla waterboarded himself and provided a detailed account of what happened. “Old” self-experimentation, you could say, was doctors doing dangerous things to themselves for a short time to prove some idea that they already believed (e.g., a dentist using laughing gas as an anesthetic); “new” self-experimentation is me doing something perfectly safe for a long time to solve a problem that I have no clue how to solve. What Scylla did is between the two. Short duration, not completely safe, done to find out if waterboarding is torture or not. Scylla had no strong opinion about this when he started.

Before he got to using saran wrap it wasn’t particularly bad. Here’s what happened with saran wrap:

The idea is that you wrap saran wrap around the mouth in several layers, and poke a hole in the mouth area, and then waterboard away. . . . So far I would categorize waterboarding as simply unpleasant rather than torture, but I’ve come this far so I might as well go on. . . It took me ten minutes to recover my senses once I tried this. I was shuddering in a corner, convinced I narrowly escaped killing myself.

Here’s what happened:

The water fills the hole in the saran wrap so that there is either water or vacuum in your mouth. The water pours into your sinuses and throat. You struggle to expel water periodically by building enough pressure in your lungs. With the saran wrap though each time I expelled water, I was able to draw in less air. Finally the lungs can no longer expel water and you begin to draw it up into your respiratory tract.

It seems that there is a point that is hardwired in us. When we draw water into our respiratory tract to this point we are no longer in control. All hell breaks loose. Instinct tells us we are dying.

I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You [b]know[/b] you are dead and it’s too late. Involuntary and total panic.

There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It would be like telling you not to blink while I stuck a hot needle in your eye. . .
I never felt anything like it, and this was self-inflicted with a watering can, where I was in total control and never in any danger. And I understood.

Waterboarding gets you to the point where you draw water up your respiratory tract triggering the drowning reflex.

This shows something non-obvious: We are hard-wired to avoid drowning and like all good safety systems, the system kicks in well before damage occurs.

For such a system to evolve, humans must have spent a lot of time in water deep enough to drown in. We don’t now, of course. The sheer fact of Scylla’s post — the fact that waterboarding is torture isn’t obvious — shows this.

All this — Scylla’s initial ignorance, what he experienced and concluded — is consistent with the aquatic ape theory of human evolution and inconsistent with alternatives to that theory (e.g., the savannah theory), which assume no long aquatic phase. Belief that the aquatic ape theory was probably true was one reason I started omega-3 self-experimentation, which led to the discovery of very clear experimental effects.

This interests me not only because of what it says about human evolution — to me, it’s substantial new evidence for the aquatic ape theory — but also for what it says about science. Scylla has no scientific credentials (I assume). His report wasn’t peer-reviewed. It wasn’t quantitative. It wasn’t long. It was closer to an anecdote than a conventional experiment (where you compare two conditions). He wasn’t trying to test any theory. Yet it provided helpful new info on a major scientific question (human evolution), which is very hard to do.

22 Replies to “Waterboarding, Self-Experimentation, and Human Evolution”

  1. hi seth, been lurking on your site for a while. just wanted to chip in and say that it truly puzzles me why there’s such a severe reaction against the aquatic ape theory in mainstream biology. i’m a professional computational biologist so i feel like i have some qualifications in judging a theory. while not completely fool-proof, aquatic ape theory seems to be, at least, the equal of any other theory of human speciation from apes. yet otherwise even-handed writers like phyrngalia and others scienceblog dismiss it out of hand, without pointing out how ridiculous the other theories are. just saying.

  2. That’s a very good question. My guess is that the aquatic ape theory is dismissed out of hand because it came from outside anthropology (from a marine biologist) and is so different from what anthropologists have proposed.

  3. reading this made me think waterboarding with saran wrap is a bit like holding an unloaded gun in someone’s mouth, telling them there’s one bullet in it (a lie) and then pulling the trigger, and then demanding answers.

    if you told me we did this, i would have a greater sense of what is going on than with waterboarding, which even when i’ve seen explanations, is hard to grasp. sylla gets me a more concrete sense of what is going, assuming his take is true (more people expressing similar experiences would be helpful!)

    the concreteness i think is most important in explaining the experience, in keeping with the ‘made to stick’ idea of getting ideas across. perhaps concreteness of experiences also helps us think about things in a useful way, and self-experimentation helps us along these lines.

  4. Good point. I think one appealing feature of waterboarding — appealing to the people who use it — is just what you say: It is hard to understand. Because of this, it seems more innocuous, i.e., more humane, than it is.

  5. “For such a system to evolve, humans must have spent a lot of time in water deep enough to drown in”

    And with that, I kindly suggest you take that referene to the scientific method off of your masthead.

    Shall we begin with the form of the argument? That any piece of evidence can ever necessitate one and only one explanation? If the life of the rational mind tells us anything, it is that any number of explanatory hypotheses can be generated to explain any observed phenomenon.

    And of course, coming up with a hypothesis does absolutely nothing to give reason for accepting it as valid. What about the idea of testing?

    Then we get to the substance of your contention. That an aversion to drowning means we must have spent time during our evolution in or about water deep enough to drown in.

    Why is that?
    Lets say, for arguments sake, that some species never encounterd water at any greater depth than a puddle. For that species too, taking water into the lungs would lead to death. Why do you think that the species would not have an aversion response to that?

    Start thinking about that, and maybe you will find yourself on the right path. Here is a hint how to proceed (its a nice general first-step whenever you think about evolutionary adaptations). First, what is the generality, phylogenetically speaking, of the phenomenon? Are humans the only primates, the only mammals, the only terretrial vertebrates with an aversion to drowning? Go stick your dogs head in the bathtub and see what happens (no DONT DO THAT – just a rhetorical point).

    If you discover that an aversion to drowning just might have a greater generality than only amongst humans, then you cant support an argument that it is a human adaptation. Now, I will admit, I have not done these experiments. But my suspicion would be that an aversion to taking water into the lungs, and an escape reaction to such a sitution, is probably found in ALL air-breathing vertebrates. And so the evolutionary novelty is best explained as arising at that level. Given that the first air-breathing terrestrial vertebrates had a close proximity to deep water in their recent evolutionary past, maybe your logic can work, at least at that level, rather than at the ape level.

    The aquatic ape theory is seen as nutty because it consists essentially, of a set of speculations of just this kind. No evidence, just speculative hypotheses about cherry-picked phenomena that seem, on the surface, to be consistent with the theory. One could almost say its a Republican theory.

  6. Isn’t this just a “just so” story?

    “All this…is consistent with the aquatic ape theory of human evolution and inconsistent with alternatives to that theory (e.g., the savannah theory), which assume no long aquatic phase.”

    There are much better arguments for (and against) the aquatic ape hypothesis listed at Wikipedia.

    I can see why this theory would be discounted: the divergence time from chimpanzees is only ~5 MYA, and the AAH would require a long period of time near water, separated from simian ancestors, a claim that is not supported by any fossil evidence.


    I think the criticisms at Wikipedia are much stronger than the theory, which seems to lack any evidence and consists mostly of wandering hypotheses.

  7. JoeCitizen, sure, if you found such a reflex in other primates, it would no longer support the aquatic ape theory. I fail to see the force of this point; I don’t know of any evidence for anything whose interpretation couldn’t be changed by new data. I said this observation favored one hypothesis over another because one hypothesis explains it much more easily than the other. I fail to see how that’s a mistake.

    Whispers, for a comment on “just-so stories” see


    You say the theory “lacks any evidence.” The theory was suggested by subcutaneous fat in humans. Not found in other primates, but found in marine mammals. That was the first piece of evidence. Much more has come along since then.

    I think there is fossil evidence — evidence of pre-human habitation along the African coast. It was discovered within the last year.

  8. That’s a very good question. My guess is that the aquatic ape theory is dismissed out of hand because it came from outside anthropology (from a marine biologist) and is so different from what anthropologists have proposed.

    The claim that it was dismissed out of hand is one that has been carefully cultivated by the idea’s chief proponent for over 3 decades. It’s untrue, but becomes part of her heroic outsider against the closed-minded establishment stance (which you may notice is a mainstay of fringe and pseudoscience ideas).

    There are excellent reasons that the idea was dismissed: start with claims that are counter to long known evidence, claims that researchers sadi the opposite of what they actually said, altered quotes, and extreme misunderstanding of basic concepts of evolutionary theory. I’ve documented a lot of this at my site on the theory, which is the primary source for critical, accurate info on the idea. It has been used as a source for The Straight Dope, the Fortean Times (which did what was for me a surprisingly good writeup on the idea), and lately a fair number of college courses; I’ve also written the entry on the AAT for the Sage Encyclopedia of Anthropology. If you have any questions, my site is Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim? and there’s a feedback mailto link at the bottom of each page. Feel free to ask me anything I haven’t made clear.

  9. BTW, I should have mentioned a couple of specifics. One is that the omega-3 info does not support the AAT; check my page specifically on “the Omega-3 gang” for that, as well as a short bit on my “objections” page. Omega-3 fatty acids are good to get, and I support the excellent work the of the folks I refer to as the “Omega-3 gang” when it comes to nutrition and getting awareness of those fatty acids out to the public, but they do themselves no favors by tying the accurate info to a leaky theory like the AAT.

    The other is that one problem with drowning is powerful evidence against the AAT. When animals which are adapted to diving run out of oxygen, they have internal mechanisms which keep them from gasping for air, which would obviously be a bad thing to do underwater. We, like other terrestrially-evolved animals, do not, to disasterous effect. If we had evolved as we have due a swimming and diving lifestyle, as the AAT insists, one woders why we drown so easily. Gasping for a breath when you’re underwater is one major reason we drown, and evidence against a semi-aquatic past for our species.

  10. Hi Seth,

    It’s true that the anthropological community at large is outrightly dismissive of the aquatic-ape hypothesis, but at least one critique of the idea has been published in a peer-reviewed journal within the last 10 years. Here’s a quote:

    “Humans have an unusual amount of subcutaneous fat that functions for bouyancy and to a lesser degree for insulation in place of fur. This is a parallel adaptation with many aquatic mammals. However, the fat-and-sweat strategy of thermoregulation may be adaptive for a species that is more concerned about shedding internally generated heat. Insulative fat, rather than hair, permits the bloodstream to bypass it as needed, taking hot blood from the core of the body to the surface to be radiated or lost through evaporation.” (Langdon, 1997, p. 483-484, Journal of Human Evolution).

    Nearly all of the features invoked in support of the AAH can be explained in another context, and most damningly, the fossil record is not on the side of the hypothesis. I can send you a copy of the article if you want to read it. I looked for an email contact on your site but couldn’t find one.

    (BTW — the savanna theory is no longer an accepted explanation for the origin of the human lineage. Recent fossil evidence indicates that the first human ancestors probably evolved in a forested setting. So the savanna theory is really a straw man.)

  11. Skeptic, yes, I would like a copy of the article. my email address is twoutopias (at) gmail.com.

    “Most damningly the fossil record is no on the side of the hypothesis.” If I remember correctly the fossil record was in the beginning not on the side of conclusions drawn from mitochondrial DNA analysis about when humans diverged from other primates. But eventually it was conceded that the DNA was right and the fossils wrong.

  12. Seth,

    “I said this observation favored one hypothesis over another because one hypothesis explains it much more easily than the other. ”

    Gee, I must of missed that. I see an assertion on your part, but thats all.
    WHY do you think the AA hypothesis better explains the drowning response?

    You offer no reason for your assertion. Why would a close proximity to water make an air-breathing vertebrate more averse to drowning than an arid-habitat-living species? Both of them share the same physiological fact – taking water into the lungs will kill them.

    And as to the phyogenetic argument. Do you think that all air-breathing vertebrates that havent had a semi-aquatic phase in the history of their individual species would simply drown peacefully if you put water into their lungs?

    I don’t think the AA hypothesis offers any insight whatsoever into the drowning response.

    If you catch a fish and toss it into your boat, it will have a similar response to someone who is being waterboarded – does this support the terrestrial fish evolutionary hypothesis?

    I checked out your link in your response to Whispers. Wow. A defense of just-so stories! Have you just given up on doing the hard work of science – i.e. actually committing to testing hypotheses before you grant them credibility?
    Coming up with hypotheses is fun, and easy. Sure its better than doing nothing, but once you do it, all you have is an unsupported hypothesis. Its only value is that it lays out for you the next phase, the hard work – i.e. it gives you something to test. It deserves no credibility whatsoever until that is done. Thats why they are mocked and deried when they show up in scientific literature – its not that they shouldn’t exist on the face of the earth, its just that no rational person should grant them credibility until they are tested.

  13. SETH SAID: “If I remember correctly the fossil record was in the beginning not on the side of conclusions drawn from mitochondrial DNA analysis about when humans diverged from other primates. But eventually it was conceded that the DNA was right and the fossils wrong.”

    Actually, the argument you are referring to was not about mtDNA. Check out this link for a quick summary of Sarich and Wilson’s classic study:


    In any event, the reluctance of paleoanthropologists to accept the molecular evidence was due in part to the fact that many assumed a priori that the divergence between humans and apes must have been very, very deep, given the marked differences between these two groups. It wasn’t based on any fossil evidence in particular. The assumption of a deep split led paleoanthropologists to “search” for human ancestors in the earliest fossil record of apes (e.g., Proconsul, Kenyapithecus), way back in the early and middle Miocene. The molecular evidence was only accepted after paleoanthropologists demonstrated that fossil species believed to be human ancestors were in fact fossil apes (google “Ramapithecus”), and that the human lineage could not be traced back into the middle and early Miocene.

    Long story short — your comparison between this issue and the aquatic-ape hypothesis is a non sequitur; as soon as paleoanthropologists realized that the fossil evidence could not sustain the deep-split hypothesis, it was abandoned. If there was an aquatic phase in human evolution, there is absolutely zero evidence for it in the current fossil record, which is of course incomplete, but it is also the most studied fossil record of any organism that ever walked, crawled, swam, flew, floated, or just sat on earth. If someone could point to a single disputable piece of fossil evidence that supports the AAH, then they would have by now.

    The article is in the email. Please let me know if you don’t receive it.

  14. Why do I think the AA hypothesis better explains an anti-drowning response than other hypotheses? Because it implies there was more danger of drowning — thus more selection pressure for an anti-drowning response — than other hypotheses.

  15. As I mentioned already, what you see (and expect to see due to evolution) in an aquatic or semi-aquatic animal (or one with such a past) is a response that helps keep one from drowning. We have the opposite, just like other terrestrially-evolved animals and unlike semi-aquatic-evolved animals; especially because we have an automatic urge to inhale when we run out of oxygen even if we’re underwater.

  16. I wouldn’t say the description of waterboarding given above implies a response that is “the opposite” of an anti-drowning response. At the risk of stating the obvious, it shows that we get terrified when we get anywhere close to drowning. Perhaps it is this response — which kicks in long before there is any possibility of drowning — that lets us have a different response when we run out of air. The terror response has replaced the response you refer to.

  17. JoeCitizen already mentioned this, but the fear brought on by waterboarding can simply be explained as a reaction to not being able to breathe. The fear can’t be specifically connected to drowning because drowning falls under the umbrella of “things that inhibit proper respiration.” Given that respiration is essential to all terrestrial vertebrates (to mention only one group), it should come as no surprise that natural selection has produced mechanisms that ensure its proper function. Plug your nose and put duct tape over your mouth and a similar reaction will most likely ensue. Supporters of the AAH must demonstrate that ONLY drowning prompts the response in question. Otherwise, the explanation is ad hoc. Ad hoc explanations make for poor science. Only those who already believe will be convinced.

  18. “The fear brought on by waterboarding can be simply explained as a reaction to not being able to breathe.” No it can’t. Waterboarding is considerably more complicated than preventing breathing. As Scylla demonstrates, the details are necessary to produce the effect.

  19. I have read Scylla’s description, and there is nothing in it that convinces me that the effect of waterboarding is not simply a general reaction to the impairment of proper respiratory function. In a system as essential to life as breathing, natural selection will “build” powerful fail-safe mechanisms. No paleoanthropologist would argue that early human ancestors were not exposed to water — they probably had to make the same dangerous trip to the water hole that many African mammals do today. But the reaction Scylla describes is probably even more ancient — likely dating to the first terrestrial vertebrates, as implied in JoeCitizen’s post.

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