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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Neanderthal Genome Project: Key to human brain?

A two-year project by a group of German and American scientists hopes to sequence the genes from 40 000-year-old Neanderthal DNA samples, in an effort to learn more about how the human brain evolved.
There are no firm answers yet about how humans picked up key traits such as walking upright and developing complex language. Neanderthals are believed to have been relatively sophisticated, but lacking in humans' higher reasoning functions.

But how do we know that?

With Neanderthals, we are looking at possible ancient history. Unless we are materialists who believe that consciousness and free will are always illusions arising from random operations of the brain, we cannot assume that Neanderthals lacked higher reasoning functions, and there is evidence to the contrary. Thus, it becomes much more difficult to say what one of them might or might not have thought, said, or done.

The article goes on to say that the Max Planck Institute "backed the theory" that the Neanderthals were an "evolutionary dead end." That's an interesting expression.

It's generally accepted that Neanderthals died out without leaving descendant species. Indeed, some claim that modern humans drove them to extinction, though no one really knows.

Now, either the expression "evolutionary dead end" is just a way of saying that Neanderthal man is extinct, in which case there is no need for the Institute to back a theory about it. Or they trying to disassociate themselves from the Clan of the Cave Bear hypothesis, which sees Neanderthals as part of our modern human ancestry. Well, no matter. This should be fun.

They seem to hope that the sequences of DNA that differentiate modern humans from Neanderthals are the ones that hold the secrets of the human brain. I suspect it will turn out to be much more complex than that, but they do no harm by researching the question.

Now here's an interesting admission:

The chimp genome "led to literally too many questions, there were 35 million differences between us and chimpanzees _ that's too much to figure out," Jonathan Rothberg, 454's chairman, said in a telephone interview.
"By having Neanderthal, we'll really be able to home in on the small percentage of differences that gave us higher cognitive abilities," he said. "Neanderthal is going to open the box. It's not going to answer the question, but it's going to tell where to look to understand all of those higher cognitive functions."

The gen we've been hearing is that there are few differences between humans and chimps - not that any reasonable person would have been fooled, of course (but if you are, then I have a prospective roommate for you ... ).

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