Neanderthal Rising

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by Erin Brown, Science Correspondent

A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology recently announced at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that 63% of the Neanderthal genome has been successfully sequenced.

Neanderthals, humans’ closest relative in the evolutionary tree of life, lived until around 30,000 years ago but disappeared abruptly from the fossil record.  It is believed the evolutionary lines of humans and Neanderthals split approximately 800,000 years ago.

This advancement in genetics can potentially inform the study of human origins as well as the processes of evolution itself, as Svante Pääbo, head researcher for the team, explained at the conference.  By comparing Neanderthal DNA to that of modern humans, unique portions of the human genome that appear to have undergone positive selection can be identified, which could help us to understand what genetic factors have contributed to the remarkable success of our species.

[caption id=”attachment_1987” align=”alignleft” width=”150” caption=”Humans and Neanderthal’s split 800,000 years ago”][/caption]

Thankfully, in their presentation the authors were careful to delimit precisely the range of appropriate inferences to draw from these findings and, for the most part, withheld from unwarranted speculation.  However, their measured comments did not lead the popular press coverage to exercise such restraint.

Most media outlets have focused on two topics: (1) the possibility of cloning a Neanderthal and (2) the fact that Neanderthals and humans share the same version of a particular gene, FOXP2.

Although only given a cursory and dismissive acknowledgement by Pääbo and colleagues, a number of articles featured comments made by a Harvard scientist not involved the research claiming that a Neanderthal could be cloned for $30 million.  Putting aside obvious ethical and technological concerns, the notion that resurrecting a Neanderthal in present times could allow us to discover what they were like in their own time suffers from erroneous assumptions and a gross misunderstanding of biology and culture.  The hallmark of human – and other higher primate – intelligence is the profound influence that experience and culture have on our potential capabilities.  One can look to enculturated apes to see how radically enhanced cognitive abilities become simply from interacting with humans.  A Neanderthal’s behaviour would presumably be far more affected by the powerful social, cognitive and physical resources made available from modern human culture.  Thus, we could draw few useful conclusions as to the capacities and behaviours of the species as it existed in its own time and place.  It would be like observing people in 21st century industrialized nations and assuming ancient humans used iPods and microwaves.

FOXP2 is about as sexy as a gene gets, so it is no surprise the media chose to cover this darling of pop linguistics and psychology.  Often inaccurately termed the ‘language gene’, FOXP2 is also linked to a suite of other cognitive and physiological traits.  Nevertheless, because Neanderthals possess the human variant, it has been widely reported that this allows speculation as to whether or not Neanderthals could speak.  Inherent theoretical problems abound in this line of reasoning, but more important than its questionable validity is its sheer irrelevance.  The critical issue is whether or not Neanderthals could communicate as humans do.  Neanderthals might well have had a sophisticated communication system with little resemblance to much of human language, and this is a far more interesting possibility.

The widespread coverage of these topics is symptomatic of a tendency to distort scientific research for public consumption.  More specifically, it is also a reflection of the dominant genocentric view, which holds that genes have a special causal role in development and can be directly linked to complex behaviours, including language, mate choice, attitude, sexual preference and many others.  This position is being challenged by multiples lines of evidence from many and varied disciplines.  An interpretation from a non-genocentric perspective would be much more informative than fantastical stories on cloning.  Despite this fact, I was unable to find a single article providing alternative implications of constructing the Neanderthal genome.

The public needs and deserves to be accurately informed on scientific research – not merely entertained – because it can ultimately affect their everyday lives.  To be sure, the task of translating dense and specialized academic work into an accessible format is a difficult one.  However, that process should not compromise the original meaning or result in an implicit endorsement of specific ideologies.

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