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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Neanderthals are people too, it turns out

At least, that's the growing consensus, with the rough draft of the Neanderthal genome. David Tyler notes:
It is impossible to know the mental life of a Neanderthal, but there is reason to think that it was not so different from our own. The Neanderthal genome differed little from ours, encoding fewer than 100 changes that would affect the shape of proteins. True, some of these differences occur in genes linked to brain function, but similar variation is found among humans today. Moreover, Neanderthals share with us a version of a gene linked to the evolution of speech, and recent archaeological evidence suggests that their minds were capable of the symbolic representations that underlie language and art. If that's not human, then what is?"

This brings us to why Neandertals have been so misinterpreted over the years. Why has it taken us so long to reject the picture of a brutish, grunting caveman devoid of aesthetics and reason? The Editorial starts with these words: "WE HUMANS like to see ourselves as special, at the very pinnacle of all life. That makes us keen to keep a safe distance between ourselves and related species that threaten our sense of uniqueness. Unfortunately, the evidence can sometimes make that difficult." Is this interpretation valid? Do we like to keep a safe distance between ourselves and anything that threatens our uniqueness? Perhaps we should reflect on on the history of scientific racialism, that portrayed races as occupying different rungs of the evolutionary ladder - was this also to keep a safe distance from races that threatened our uniqueness? Furthermore, is it true that we, the population at large, like to keep this safe distance? Why is it that any reports of animals showing apparent cognitive and creative skills are deemed newsworthy, whereas other studies showing a big divide between humans and animals languish in obscurity? I leave these questions for further thought and reflection.
As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite, as Tyler notes. Evolutionary biologists prized the Neanderthal as "different" and "inferior" in order to bolster the "goo to zoo to you, and there is no plan, man" theory of human evolution. At least none of them were alive when that trip was put on them.

For more, go here.

Note: Above are two different visions of Neanderthals.

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