The line between comedy and philosophy is thin, and Jerry Seinfeld understands human nature in a deep way. One of his insights has to do with “the human fascination with water.”
“We’re constantly going to beaches, pools, lakes, rivers,” he says. “We can’t get enough water unless it rains. And then we’re, ‘Oh, look, I’m soaked.'” For some reason we have a “huge problem with small flying water… I felt a drop. We’re going to get caught in it! Everybody cover your water bottles, run!”
He’s right. We’re strange about water. From Barcelona to Beirut, Sydney to Coney Island, people will drag towels and lunches to sit by an ocean. But many of us are still afraid of getting in past our shins.
While we dislike being involuntarily in water, though, we adore choosing to put ourselves in it or near it. Case in point: Fears of climate-change-fueled flooding could have dampened coastal real estate values by 2017, but according to sales research covering 23 states, it hadn’t (“dampening,” you’ll recall, is bad).
To quote coauthor Matthew Spiegel from the Yale School of Management, “Waterfront property is phenomenally expensive.” Yes, you knew that!
So why do we have such strong feelings about water? Anthropologists and historians, starting at different points of time, have different explanations.
Seashore Food Saved Us
Stephen Cunnane, a metabolic physiologist at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, is one of many researchers who believe humans developed big brains when they began to eat clams, frogs, bird eggs, and fish when foraging along shorelines. Those foods, the argument goes, contain nutrients still important for brain development and health.
The experts say that at some point between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago, much of Africa became uninhabitable for Homo sapiens because its deserts expanded dramatically. Only a few hundred people survived by tracking the shore of the Indian Ocean in what is now South Africa, feasting on shellfish and shrubs. As Curtis Marean, associate director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, puts it in Scientific American, the “sea saved humanity.”
Other scholars of early human history say descendants of that small African band traveled across the planet, arriving in Australia, Melanesia, Japan, Russia, Alaska, and the Americas by following a “kelp highway.” Vast swaths of kelp forest along shorelines tamed waves and offered a nutrient-dense vegetable and much consumable seafood.
Could these origins, encoded in genes, inspire us to drive up the price of ocean-front real estate? That may sound like a stretch. But of course much of what we do is driven by emotions, which are driven by biochemistry, which is driven by evolutionary pressures we don’t consciously understand.
So, gazing at the sea may tell us, on a deep level, that there is plenty of food about, so it’s okay to relax.
Beach Resorts Became Grand
Even so, we didn’t always flock to visit oceans. Until sometime in the early 1700s, people in Europe considered the sea a place of tempests and shipwrecks, the wilderness untamed. The longing for water as escape developed gradually as life became more prosperous and our homes more comfortable and sturdy.
French poetry began to speak of the sea more kindly, and Dutch seascape paintings made it beautiful.
But the big change arose from medical theory. In the late 1700s, British doctors began to prescribe cold sea baths as a remedy for “melancholy,” what we would now call depression. They also prescribed them for rickets, leprosy, gout, impotence, tuberculosis, and “hysteria.”
In 1783, the Prince of Wales went to the coastal town of Brighton in England to soothe his gout. Other “fragile” aristocrats soon followed suit, believing a theory that sea air contained more oxygen. Wealthy women had attendants who knew the correct timing and methods for immersing the body in the cold, turbulent sea. They were taking a risk, enduring discomfort, for their health.
As the water and air in industrializing Britain grew ever fouler, the working class also began to flee with health in mind—now to Blackpool, the first seaside resort for ordinary folk.
Art played a role, too. The Romantic writers and artists reimagined the seaside as a place of wonder. You can see the old fear of ocean turbulence in the seascapes of J.M.W. Turner, but also the new misty allure.
Small towns near the sea in France, northern Germany, and Scandinavia emerged as tourist attractions as well. Early growth in commerce along the French and Italian Riviera, inspired by a move toward health, provided a contrast to British restraint. Life on the Riviera was luxurious and decadent!
Wealthy Europeans traveled far and wide to find the quiet “unspoiled” shores of their empires. In short, a British medical theory gave birth to global tourism.
In the United States from roughly 1850 onward, it became fashionable for people in New York to travel north to New England. Midwesterners headed for Eastern shores and then to their own oceanlike lakes. When airplane packages arrived in the 1960s, working people could even escape to a Caribbean island in their precious time off.
Enjoying Seafood Beachside
When you go to the shore, you’ll see more seafood on menus and wonder whether it’s local and fresh. Vital Choice aficionados know that frozen seafood is actually the ideal, but when you’re looking at the sea and notice fishing boats at work, it’s natural to want to share the bounty.
Coastal restaurants do offer some of the finest seafood meals you can experience—but many do use frozen fish.
As you enjoy your delicious fish lunch in a picture-perfect beach town, keep in mind that the sea and seafood may have created and saved our species.
That vast watery expanse is a bit scary, but we need it—and deep down, we know it.