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
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.