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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 ... ).

Thinkquote of the day: : Catholic Church and evolution

Ever since 1996, when Pope John Paul II said that evolution (a term he did not define) was "more than just a hypothesis," defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma have often involed the supposed acceptance - or at least acquiescence - of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christina faith.

But this is not true. The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

- Christoph, Cardinal Schoenborn
(From " Finding Design in Nature", New York Times , July 7, 2005)

(Note: Observe the use of the term "light of reason." The Catholic Church does NOT hold that reason emerged from the primaeval slime as a survival mechanism of fit organisms (and therefore might have been different), but rather that it is analogous to the operations of the Mind behind the universe (and therefore must be what it is). In other words, the Church believes, as does George Gilder, that intelligence is top down, not bottom up.

Thus, one question, put simply, encapsulates the intelligent design controversy. Is intelligence top down or bottom up?)
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove ?

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being denied tenure at Baylor.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.

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