Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Badmouthing Neanderthals is unwarranted

Neanderthals are always being unfairly maligned, according to new research:
The widely held notion that Neanderthals were dimwitted and that their inferior intelligence allowed them to be driven to extinction by the much brighter ancestors of modern humans is not supported by scientific evidence, according to researcher Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Neanderthals thrived in a large swath of Europe and Asia between about 350,000 and 40,000 years ago. They disappeared after our ancestors, a group referred to as “anatomically modern humans,” crossed into Europe from Africa.

In the past, some researchers have tried to explain the demise of the Neanderthals by suggesting that the newcomers were superior to Neanderthals in key ways, including their ability to hunt, communicate, innovate and adapt to different environments.

But in an extensive review of recent Neanderthal research, Villa and co-author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, make the case that the available evidence does not support the opinion that Neanderthals were less advanced than anatomically modern humans. Their paper was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Villa and Roebroeks scrutinized nearly a dozen common explanations for Neanderthal extinction that rely largely on the notion that the Neanderthals were inferior to anatomically modern humans. These include the hypotheses that Neanderthals did not use complex, symbolic communication; that they were less efficient hunters who had inferior weapons; and that they had a narrow diet that put them at a competitive disadvantage to anatomically modern humans, who ate a broad range of things.

The researchers found that none of the hypotheses were supported by the available research. For example, evidence from multiple archaeological sites in Europe suggests that Neanderthals hunted as a group, using the landscape to aid them.
Here is a recent NY Times book review badmouthing significance of Neanderthals:
When the Neanderthal genome is finally published, Paabo is justifiably proud. We can’t begrudge him the opportunity to regale us about the news conferences and honors. But readers may start to wonder what exactly the payoff was for those many years of struggle. Reconstructing a Neanderthal genome was a tour de force, we can all agree, but why does it matter? ...

Unfortunately, the list for now is just a catalog of names. Neither Paabo nor any other scientist can yet clearly link our mutations to our human nature.
Here is what Svante Paabo wrote in his book, Neanderthal Man:
Together with new data from the 1,000 Genomes Project, these two archaic genomes of high quality now allow us to create a near-complete catalog of sites in the genome where all people today are different from Neanderthals and Denisovans as well as from the apes. This catalog contains 31,389 single nucleotide changes and 125 insertions and deletions of a few nucleotides. Of these, 96 change amino acids in proteins, and perhaps 3,000 affect sequences that regulate how genes are turned on and off. There are surely some nucleotide differences, particularly in repetitive parts of the genome, that we have missed, but it is clear that the genetic “recipe” for making a modern human is not very long. The next big challenge is to find out what the consequences of these changes are.
Paabo wrote this NY Times reply:
The ancient genomes also revealed that Neanderthals and Denisovans mixed with the direct ancestors of present-day people after they came out of Africa. So if your roots are in Europe or Asia, between 1 and 2 percent of your DNA comes from Neanderthals, and if you are from Papua New Guinea or other parts of Oceania, an additional 4 percent of your DNA comes from Denisovans.
If Paabo's DNA analysis is correct, then Neanderthals did not just mix with the ancestors of present-day Europeans. Neanderthals are ancestors of present-day Europeans.

Yes, Europeans only got 2% of DNA from Neandethals. Paabo says that figuring out the 2% is the next big challenge. Maybe it will shed light on human nature, and maybe it won't.

Meanwhile NY Times science writer Nicholas Wade has a new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, released today. Charles Murray has an early review.
So one way or another, "A Troublesome Inheritance" will be historic. Its proper reception would mean enduring fame as the book that marked a turning point in social scientists' willingness to explore the way the world really works. But there is a depressing alternative: that social scientists will continue to predict planetary movements using Ptolemaic equations, as it were, and that their refusal to come to grips with "A Troublesome Inheritance" will be seen a century from now as proof of this era's intellectual corruption.
The analogy to Ptolemaic equations is a little misguide, and Ptolemy's method could predict those planetary movements as well as the alternatives. The intellectual corruption is in accepting ideologies that predict wrong results.

Here are more reviews.

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