My Big Fat Neanderthal Family Wedding

Was there a population that never experienced discrimination?  Prejudice has an ancient pedigree, perhaps wired into the human psyche. I was musing whether Neanderthal people bore it first and endured the stigma longest.  Thirty thousand years after they mysteriously disappeared, they are still regarded as oafish cavemen.

But at least we regard them as human, while ridiculing their long noses, brow-ridges, and prow-mouths. Besides the evidence of fossilized skeletons and DNA, I wonder if their humanity is also defined by our prejudicial attitudes, because we only look down on our own kind. We never hold animals in the same contempt as people, because even the great apes are subordinate beasts! It is not because other people are so different that we discriminate, but because they are too similar. When we look down our noses at other races, both archaic and modern, we reveal our deeper insecurities, and perhaps anxieties about losing superiority and being swamped.

Social scientists and anthropologists have not always been totally objective in their estimation of other tribes and races. I doubt there was ever a researcher who found his own race was inferior in character or intelligence to another, or if he did he never published it!

Sometimes people who know better don’t admit the facts. Over twenty years ago, my department hosted a distinguished British anatomist, who shall be nameless. He denied that Neanderthals had a slightly larger cranial volume (hence, brain size) than ourselves. It was useless arguing with him because he was a ‘Sir’ and a Fellow of the Royal Society. If he had admitted that their larger brain was merely in proportion to a larger body, we might have drawn a truce rather than ending the exchange in sulky silence. But he refused to discuss the hypothesis that they might have been our equals.

Neanderthal skull versus modern human skull
How much does size matter?

Poor Neanderthals need publicity agents to throw back slurs based on ignorance. There is so much we don’t know, and may never know. Did our first great encounter with these people begin with the exchange of gifts or at the point of a spear? According to a common fairy story, the dim Neanderthals were doomed when our brilliant ancestors arrived on the scene. We flatter ourselves with triumphal tales, even though this one is grotesquely reminiscent of the way we treated people when colonizing their lands, subjugating them in the name of civilizing inferior natives.

On the first world voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1826-1830), FitzRoy captured three natives in Tierra del Fuego and took them home to England. The Fuegians were dressed up as English folk, taught the language, instructed in the Christian faith, and even presented to the Royal Family. On the second voyage, with Charles Darwin as ship’s naturalist, the three were returned to their homeland where they quickly reverted to custom by throwing away their clothes and painting their skin with pigments. FitzRoy thought this behavior vindicated his theory that the gulf with civilized nations is too deep to cross.  Savages will always be savages, and always inferior.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin’s cranium – Neo-anderthal?

On the other hand, Darwin, an old-fashioned Whig or liberal, was awed by the mystery, “Whence have they come?” He accepted a hierarchy of human races, but believed it was moveable. He disagreed with Captain Fitzroy about most things, including slavery, which must have been awkward on a long voyage in a shared cabin. After they sailed home, immigrants started colonizing the southern tip of the continent. They treated the natives as feral humans, and those that survived epidemic diseases were otherwise exterminated.

Years later, Darwin was shown a skull excavated from a cave in Gibraltar (and is now at the Natural History Museum in London). This was the first fossil of an adult Neanderthal, and it predates by eight years another find in the Neander Valley which gave the people their name. Instead of sharing the general opinion that it represented a primitive brute, he cautioned, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”  Human genealogy has rolled out slowly since his day because our fossils are rare, but molecular genetics reveals branches on our family tree that challenge the stories we were told.

Recently, pure DNA was extracted from fossil bones to obtain a nearly complete sequence of the Neanderthal genome. I doubt if many people expected that between one and four per cent overlaps the genomes of modern Europeans and Asians. Today’s Africans have none of it though, which implies that the fraction possessed by the rest of humanity is not a residue from a common ancestor hundreds of thousands of years earlier. That Neanderthal DNA exists in us today is because our ancestors coming out of Africa about 50,000 years ago met Neanderthals living in the Middle East, with whom they intermarried (call the coupling what you will). Fossil evidence confirms that we did co-exist with them for 5,000 years, so there was plenty of time for integration, and our Neanderthal heritage is not the result of sporadic mating. I guess it was mostly consensual because I find it hard to imagine a Neanderthal woman being carted away unwillingly from her menfolk, who were like the beefiest NFL players you could imagine! But I digress.

Analysis of my own DNA reveals that I inherited 2.7% from Neanderthals. That is close to average for my ethnicity, and more than I share with my third cousins. The news amused me until I mused that it was ‘good DNA,’ for otherwise it would never have lasted so long after the weddings. Some bits of the genome have persisted more than others. We have acquired many genes associated with skin and hair, which implies that Neanderthal adaptations to cold were advantageous for our ancestors too when the next Ice Age arrived. However, we also hung on to genes linked with modern diseases, which seems perverse. Perhaps they were not so bad in the past before we adopted our current lifestyle and diet. Genes encouraging fat storage, but predisposing us to adult-type diabetes and obesity, might have helped us to survive cycles of feast and famine, perhaps thanks to ‘thrifty DNA’ from Neanderthals.

The number of generations separating races of modern people from our common African ancestors is like a twig on the evolutionary tree compared with the much older branches shared with Neanderthals from whom we separated over half a million years earlier. Neanderthals are our cousins, but mutations and natural selection caused genomes to drift so far apart that geneticists suspect that hybridization was barely viable. When crosses are made between closely-related species like horses and donkeys, the products are usually sterile if any offspring can be produced at all. That hybrid humans may have had fertility problems is suggested by the absence of Neanderthal DNA in our genes that control the manufacture of sperm in testes. Perhaps it didn’t ‘fit’ there, and maybe absorption of Neanderthals into the new society contributed to their disappearance.

If the image of a Neanderthal man courting your beautiful greatetc-grandmother is repulsive, look at sculptures by the American paleo-artist, John Gurche. His art is based on careful studies of the physiognomy of archaic humans. He created a Neanderthal profile which is imposing, almost handsome, even noble.

The Phrenological magazine

Appearance matters, but intelligence often carries greater weight in our estimation of others. In the Victorian Age, phrenology was in vogue and its adherents trotted around the globe measuring the size and shape of skulls of rich and poor, saints and sinners, civilized nations and primitive tribes. They expected these measurements would predict people who were inferior in character and intellect, who always turned out to be the most disadvantaged in their studies. The discovery of Neanderthal bones gave them a new opportunity for skullduggery. In 1880, The Phrenological magazine declared, “The Cro-Magnon skull is superior to the Neanderthal skull in regard to intellectual and moral development … he was indeed a savage.” We may never know for sure, but I doubt that Neanderthals were dim people, or less bright than ourselves. That may seem contrary to signs that their tools and culture hardly evolved over eons, but neither did those of our ancestors advance much until the recent Agricultural Revolution. Could Neanderthals have struck a smarter deal, opting for a more stable relationship with nature than we have?

The German lion of Darwinism, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), would be flustered by modern research and scholarship because he suggested that Neanderthals should be called Homo stupidus to distinguish them from our brilliant selves, Homo sapiens (literally, ‘wise man’). It was a proposal that revealed prejudice, but our cousins had fortunately been named already, and precedent counts in taxonomy. They were designated a new species, Homo neanderthalensis, although taxonomists continue to argue whether they were a distinct species or the subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. I don’t understand the debate. To be a separate species, two populations must be reproductively isolated, either genetically (they can’t mate with each other) or geographically (they can’t hang out with each other). Since Neanderthal DNA exists in our genome, they ought to be regarded as a sub-species: more different than modern races are from each other, but inside the species fence.

The popular image of Neanderthals is gradually being turned upside down by advances in traditional and molecular paleontology. Contrary to the stereotypes, we now know they were fair-skinned with reddish hair, not strict carnivores but ate a mixed diet with cooked vegetables, probably had a language, and evidently created symbolic art on stone walls and decorated their bodies. Most touching of all is the suggestion of a tender humanity, and that they were not emotional icebergs. Since some of their skeletons have badly worn joints and are almost toothless, these people probably needed carers to help them to survive with disabilities. After death, their bodies were not discarded like carcasses of game animals, but given a respectful burial. Can you imagine last rites performed by a Neanderthal shaman?

This revisionary anthropology throws refreshing light on a maligned people, although over a century ago a Danish anthropologist, Hans Peter Steensby, rejected the impression of Neanderthals as ape-like, inferior beings. But prejudice is deeply imbedded, and despite efforts to exorcize the demon we easily express it unconsciously. The other day, I caught myself joking that I have less Neanderthal DNA than the rest of my family!

Next Post: Thanks given for Wild Turkeys

The Genius of Charles Darwin

The gleam of a great idea often glows first and fiercest in an unknown eye and out of a dark corner. How many college dropouts and loners tinkering in their garages have become celebrated silicon entrepreneurs? How many great writers, poets, painters, and composers created their finest works in obscurity?  Even in the sciences the most elemental factor for a breakthrough is a roving and penetrating mind rather than a large, well-funded research lab. Prestigious schools and universities are not nurseries of genius: academies value absorption, conservation, and transmission of knowledge and may even discourage radical thinking. Perhaps it is so difficult to predict scientific revolutions because they start with individuals and outsiders. I was taught neat explanations of how science advances, but Paul Feyerabend offered a seductive alternative: the Berkeley philosopher caused a furor by arguing the narrative is often “anarchistic.”

While visiting Charles Darwin’s home last month I was of course musing about his theory of evolution. That’s why people go there! Down House is a quaint Georgian property outside a village near London. It was walking distance from my childhood home, and on my last visit I was a teenager pondering a career in biology and arguing with a school buddy about biodiversity from natural selection. I thought it was incontestable, but he snapped with the certainty that only a sixteen-year-old can have, “the Bible and The Origin of Species can’t both be right: you have to choose one or the other!” It is still argued over in America, but I think a false choice.

That summer I flipped through The Origin to be sure of my answers for our next spat. But how could I summarize the ocean of data that Darwin had meticulously marshalled for his heavy tome? Had I known at the time I would have simply quoted to my friend from Theodosius Dobzhansky: Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I might have cheekily added that he wasn’t only a great biologist but a lifelong member of the Orthodox Church too.  Maybe I was close to Feyerabend when he wrote, Human life is guided by many ideas. Truth is one of them.

Stepping across the threshold at Down House I wondered how much had changed in fifty years. When I was last there, Charles Darwin had already been dead for the better part of a century, and recall when standing in his home I imagined the owner had just stepped outside for an hour, perhaps to check experiments in his garden or stroll down his “thinking path,” the Sandwalk. But since my childhood, Down House and its acres have evolved from a hallowed place on a shoestring budget for a few scientific pilgrims to something of a tourist destination since it was adopted by English Heritage and nominated as a World Heritage site.

Instead of ringing the doorbell for the custodian to appear like a Victorian butler, the visitor is now received with a cheerful welcome from the ticket desk and invited to peruse glossy Darwiniana on sale. Down House still looks like a large family home, but most of its rooms are loaded (I won’t say ‘graced’) with information boards and even dioramas. I prefer the more authentic if dowdy interior from my memory. But I wasn’t disappointed with the Old Study, the room that always mattered most and has hardly changed.

The Study feels heavy with dark mahogany and dreary wallpaper. It could make an atmospheric setting for a Charles Dickens story. Daylight struggles to penetrate the windows and the air has the musty odor of an old stone church. At center-stage a table is strewn with old books, stamped envelopes, and yellowed papers; a feather quill stands in a dry inkwell; a glass goblet is inverted out of service; and books are crammed in a locked cabinet. It may look like a reconstruction in a museum, but is in fact fairly authentic.

Down House
The black chair in Darwin’s Old Study

A black leather chair with horsehair poking through its arms rests on castors askew to the table as if waiting for a sitter to return. I imagine a Victorian parson might have taken a break from preparing his homily there or a writer who put down his pen to walk outside and smoke for inspiration. Only the magnifying lens, a few dissecting instruments, and portraits hanging over the marble fireplace hint that a man of science once lived there. The piles of pillboxes point to an apothecary or a hypochondriac (as Darwin was), but you would only find dried beetles and butterflies if you took the lids off. Naturalists have little need of equipment to pursue their passion en plein air where they depend on sharp eyes and a curiosity that fermented when heads rest in comfy chairs. And what a head Charles Darwin had!

He had none of the obvious qualifications for scientific greatness. He never displayed intellectual fireworks as a young man, and his father, Dr. Robert Darwin, thought his lackadaisical attitude to studies and a love of hunting, dogs, and horse-riding would make his son a worthless loafer. Charles was prodded towards the family profession until he dropped out of the Edinburgh Medical School, and no one expected much after enrolling at Cambridge University with the vague intent of training as a Church of England parson. Joining the Beagle expedition changed all that, and arguably launched the greatest modern revolution in the way we understand the world.

Darwin had a different kind of genius to Newton, Pascal or Einstein, and we struggle to find its origins.

First, he came from a radical intellectual tradition through his grandfather Erasmus and by marrying into the Wedgwood family. They were influential figures of the Enlightenment who embraced scientific progress, opposed slavery, and backed grumbling American colonies before the Revolution. When Charles returned from his voyage in 1836 he settled down to family life in London and as a country gentleman for the next forty years at Down House. But even during the distracted years of his youth he was never idle, and a Whiggish background fortified awkward thoughts that later offended staid Victorian society. Unlike Grandpa Erasmus he never sought the limelight and said that expressing doubts about species being immutable was like “confessing a murder.” It helped that he had chronic ill health as an excuse for keeping his head below the parapet when the storm over Darwinism broke.

The Sandwalk at Down House
The Sandwalk

Second, he was painstaking and cautious at work and never felt the pressures that contemporary scientists endure who must focus on minutiae and hurry to be first into print with their discoveries and join ferocious competition for research grants. He had time to exhaustively validate data and ideas. From an early interest in beetles his curiosity expanded to the whole of nature, both living and extinct. He spent years studying barnacles, converted his lawn to experimental beds for studying earthworms and weeds, inquired about artificial selection of domestic animal breeds, and maintained a vast correspondence with other naturalists. All this knowledge built on his seminal observations from the Beagle was distilled for the theory of natural selection. It took time and a lot of shoe leather on the Sandwalk. He depicted his hunch that all living things are related in a sketch of tree-like branches linking species together. That was twenty years before the Origin, and on the same page he scrawled a note, “I think.” It took an abrupt convergence of ideas with Alfred Russel Wallace to force his hand into publishing. But his glacial pace of progress had prepared him for the resistance to come from the establishment. He had left no stone unturned and no detail was too small or arcane to be cast aside. Even barnacles helped to rock the world. In the end there was no risk of being forced into a disgraceful retreat, like some recent “discoveries” in stem cell science.

Third, Darwin was able to tinker at his fireside, though more in head than hands as inventors do in lonely garages. Unencumbered by employment and with servants to help care for his beloved family he withdrew from society for long periods, like St. Jerome in his cave. It was quality time to ponder and speculate. Charles would never have the same peace today with electronic gadgets constantly beeping for attention. Thinking is such a natural process that we hardly give it much thought or any training, and and if our attention spans are shortening we are feebler thinkers in consequence.

Darwin’s chair is still a source of wonder for me. As an ordinary object you would ignore it in the window of a cheap antique store—as you would driving past some unprepossessing garage in Silicon Valley—but it became the seat of something extraordinary. The revolution that began in the sitter’s mind long ago continues to roll forward and explain what had been inexplicable—fossils embedded in mountain tops, elaborate plumage of male birds, vestiges like the appendix, why many genes are similar from flies and worms to humans, and much, much more.

Once upon a time a gauche student was tempted to leap over the security cord at Down House to sit in Darwin’s chair. Others have dreamt of plonking themselves in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey to feel a royal moment before a cop hauled them away. But the student realized the famous chair would never inspire great thoughts again because revolutionary ideas emerge from obscurity.

Next Post: Badger bother