The science of free diving

This video is the sort of thing that makes proponents of the (most likely incorrect) aquatic ape theory giddy. But what you see when you watch a man dive for more than two minutes on a single breath isn't so much a sign of previous primate life in the water, but rather an example of a far better evolutionary skill—a human being's ability to self-adapt.

In a long, thorough, and fascinating post at the Neuroanthropology blog, Greg Downey explains how innate biology, specific cultural behaviors, and lifelong training combine to make a feat like prolonged free diving possible—and what negative trade-offs the free divers accept in return for their adaptive skill.

Sulbin's ability is remarkable, but like so many exceptional human skills, it relies not on innate difference from other individuals, but on the steady cultivation of peculiar changes in the body and in how it is experienced. What I hope to suggest is that amphibious humans point to the most basic fact of human nature: that we seem particularly adept at finding ways to adapt ourselves - biologically, psychologically, behaviourally, technologically - to a host of niches that then rebound back upon us and shape how we develop. We are a peculiar self-made species.

This piece is probably best seen as one in a series I've been crafting on how human adaptation to situations that we place ourselves in map out the envelope of our bodies' malleability. Human skills and adaptation show us how our brains and nervous systems can be trained to do amazing things. Frequent readers will know that I think much of the discussion of 'human nature,' carried out by -- to put it nicely -- exceptionally sedentary theorists, severely underestimates what our bodies are capable of doing.

Neuroanthropology: Human (amphibious model): living in and on the water


  1. This is why Walter’s Murch’s theory 3-D theory (that humans are evolutionarily incapable of watching it) is complete bullshit.

  2. I love free diving, especially functional free diving instead of just going for time/depth records.

    The amazing part is his negative buoyancy and how he walks rather than swims.

  3. Yes! the human ability to adapt is simple wonderful and I think the focus on innate biology sometimes glosses over the fact.

  4. just a technicality, but this is an example of ‘acclimation’ not ‘adaptation’. The latter is a genetic change.

    1. Of course it’s adaptation. Or can you not say “my son has adapted to the wrok schedule at his new school?”

      You’re referring to “evolutionary adaptation,” but that doesn’t mean that all adaptation is evolutionary. MW defines adaptation as “the act or process of adapting : the state of being adapted : adjustment to environmental conditions.”

  5. For a moment there I thought this was another post in BoingBoing’s naturalist series. You know, along with the soap-free and spatula-free lifestyle posts.

    “Gear-free diving! Learn what Big SCUBA doesn’t want you to know!”

    1. > “Gear-free diving! Learn what Big SCUBA doesn’t want you to know!”

      That, I can believe. :-) A former SCUBA enthusiast, I’ve since grown fond of the sense of freedom, physical, mental and psychological/emotional challenge of free-diving. At fifty years old, I am now inches leaner and pounds lighter than my SCUBA diving buddies, and I’m approaching the level of physical conditioning, courage and stamina I once had when I was in my twenties. ^..^~

  6. love this stuff, got the bug in sardinia where i went snorkeling with some guys who could go down 20m plus and be down for over 2 mins. i was coming up and going back down 3 or 4 times at a third of the depth watching them fish. awesome.

    @lesinge: not bad for 5 mins work really, the guys i went with would sell what they got in 2 hours (getting into the water at 5am) for about €150-€200 (split 4 ways) then go to work…

  7. @Jimbo: note that he hasn’t got a suit, so he has no extra buoyancy beyond his lungs, and that decreases as he goes deeper as the pressure compresses the air his lungs. Also, while I have only done it in the pool with half-filled lungs, it isn’t that difficult to walk in the bottom when you know how to move, and actually it might even be more efficient than trying to swim when you don’t have fins but have lots of rocks etc. you can use for leverage. This especially if you don’t inhale too deeply before diving, because then you’d be spending extra energy to avoid rising to the surface.

  8. Another great example of our species’ adaptability is the Russian baby-yoga story everyone was getting so upset about, instead of realizing that this was a long-standing practice that came out of a specific culture’s mindset, one with clear benefits which may or may not outweigh the potential negatives, depending on your point of view.

    Apparently most people’s point of view is that it’s a barbaric act with grave consequences and they should all be arrested right now.

    Anyway, I love the point of view Greg is presenting. I think anyone who has never traveled around the world does themselves a huge disservice of not seeing firsthand how different “normal” life can be for other people. Getting all of your world exposure via the internet, as more of us are wont to do, is, in the long run, a very bad idea.

  9. I love the aquatic ape hypothesis. Wrong? Probably. A great theory? Hell yeah!

    I need to get my copy of that book back.

  10. Alan Alda’s Scientific American on PBS did an ep on human ability and feature a segment on the (I think) French fellow that was the world champion of freediving at that time. In one lesson he got Alan to double his breath holding ability.

    However, they were very serious about how dangerous it is and always did their work in tandem. Seems you can train yourself to disregard breath signals to such a degree that you can drown yourself.

    In any case, this feat was amazing. I can’t imagine going so deep and remaining calm enough to make it back to the surface. Guess it’s a bit of claustrophobia perhaps.

  11. I remember seeing several TV shows on how people can adapt. Australian aborigines were able, over the course of a lifetime, to adapt to blistering heat during the day and literally freezing cold at night, all while wearing just gym shorts. I also saw a beautiful young woman who could free dive for over 7 minutes and a guy who ran a half-marathon in the snow, barefoot and wearing only cycling shorts.

  12. For a dramatization of the psychological depths of free diving there is a swell film by Luc Besson from 1988, The Big Blue.

    I cannot confirm the scientific accuracy, but it is a fascinating story.

  13. While I love the idea of this, I lost a good friend to free diving. He was a very accomplished diver. One day he went down, and never came up again. His friends found his body.

Comments are closed.