Sunday, 11 September 2011

Finding Our Inner Neanderthal

I was reading this fascinating article about Neanderthals in The New Yorker (here's a small excerpt), and I was again reminded of an apparently inherant human trait.

We can expound all we want on the things that set us apart from other animals in the animal kingdom. The abstract thinking, our ability to create art, our technological advance. I wish I could look at these things as though they were good things, positive things. It would seem though, that they are good for Western Society, and bad for everyone else, including the planet. Life in earlier times may certainly have been uncomfortable, violent, dangerous, and harder in any number of ways, but given the overall rise in population on the planet, the fact that the West seems to have it good does not exactly make up for the dire poverty in other parts of the world that appears to be a direct effect of Western lifestyles, not to mention the havoc we have wrecked on our ecosystem. And will possibly cost us everything.

Back to the article. Through genetic research, it's apparent now that humans and Neanderthals, while having evolved separately, interbred. And genetically, all humans, save Africans, are anywhere from 1%-4% Neanderthal. Good thing to know next time someone calls you a Neanderthal - it's true! It is also apparent that Neanderthals no longer exist, except as genetic remnants. So where did they go? We did them off of course. Pushed them back, mated with some, but probably killed some and starved the rest by hogging their resources. Some habits just never die I suppose. For the 10,000 years that Neanderthals existed, they didn't evolve much. They used the same tools without variation. One thing they apparently did differently over the years was burial, something they only did toward their latter years on Earth. Perhaps it was a ritual they got from us. At any rate, humans took over.

This leaves me naturally pondering - are humans inherantly self-effacing, in the most dramatic use of the word? Are we somehow destined to technologicize ourselves to death? To progress ourselves to the end? Is that the true definition of progress seen in an anthropogenic light? Hardly a destiny I'd like to embrace, but progressing right now seems to be the only way out. But should we leave our Neanderthal heritage behind, or should we make room for it? You know, sticking to the tools we have that haven't evolved much for millenia, but luckily also meaning that they're pretty sustainable, and non-destructive on a large scale like the stuff homo sapiens invents.

I really don't want to be a reactionary ass-hole, all "things were better in the old days", because dammit - despite everything, I'm having a lot of fun in my little corner of time and space. And there's no way I'd want to go back to family life with a higher infant mortality rate or lower average life span. And knowing that you can't have it all, can I at least appeal to a middle road, where people lead good, healthy lives without living beyond the means of the ground they walk on? Can we just put the worst of our own humanity behind us once and for all? That would be really swell.


  1. Hmmm. It's not like we say that homo erectus (for example) died out, we say they are our ancestors. If loads of humankind have at least one Neanderthal great-great-great (etc) grandparent then they never died out, right?

  2. They state that in the article too, but I suppose Neanderthals are technically considered extinct since there are none as a group left. They evolved separately from homo sapiens, but close enough that interbreeding was possible. Well, I think that on'es still up in the air, since there's no real conclusion on if they're homo neanderthalensis or homo sapiens neanderthalensis. But I love it, since not two years ago, the theory was that there couldn't have been interbreeding. Paleogenetics is so much fun!