Overweening Generalist

Monday, October 3, 2011

Embracing My Inner Neanderthal

In the apparently atavistic need to have a bad time when there's a bad time to be had, I read Craig's List "Rants and Raves," San Francisco edition, every now and again. This seems to me one of the more vile corners of the "Intrawebs," as Stephen Colbert calls it. (Aside from dedicated hate group sites, flunky neo-Nazis, various terrorist groups, child porn, Fox News, and a few other putridicities [I may have just minted a word and if so call "trademark!"] we needn't get into here.) Anyway...

...I was reading Rants and Raves last July or so (did I mention these are some of the dumbest, most racist and most mean-spirited people you're ever going to find on a well-known worldwide website?), and a person that I assumed was African-American (I used inductive logic) wrote a post citing recent DNA findings (probably heard about on teevee?) that any non-African people alive have up to 4% of their DNA from Neanderthal Man...or Neanderthal People...because apparently some homo sapiens fucked Neanderthals. Or vice-versa. (To paraphrase the rock group Queen, they "Got down/made love.") I tend to think the Cro-Magnons (the monicker we went by Back Then) were the initiators, the Neanderthal the sweet, shy, sensitive creatures. But then I have an inordinately overactive imagino in certain spells. Anyhoo, the thrust of the person's argument was these new facts somehow proved non-Africans were inferior. We are tainted by Neanderthal blood. And that's a bad thing?

Oh sure, the olde lines like "My boss is a total Neanderthal: he watches the NASCAR," or "What kind of Neanderthal leaves the toilet seat up when women are in the house?"- we've all heard variations of that. We may have uttered versions ourselves. The assumption being, I take it: they're dead and we're alive, so they were stupid. It's at this point that I picture Robert DeNiro, in his best mafia-gansta-punk (or just check out Mean Streets), saying, "Hey! Don't bust my balls over here! The bitch had it comin' to her." (I strongly dislike the idea that the not-yet-extinct are essentially winners. Got hubris? Do you know how much longer the dinosaurs' run on this spinning mudball was compared to ours? But that's for some other blogspew.)

But are they - those, dear, sweet Neanderthal - really extinct? I'll get to that later.

And not so fast on the inferior Neanderthals. I've been looking into them. And I find them quite lovely people. And if you do art (they did) and have a balanced diet you're good people, in my book at least, unless proven otherwise. They made some fairly advanced tools for that age, so that right there gets us homo faber to sit up and take notice. We've recently sequenced the hell out of some Neanderthal bones and in their DNA it looks like they had the FOXP2 gene, which is required for language! They took care of their sick, buried their dead...they feel like family to me. I like the Neanderthals! I find the more I learn about them, the more kinship I feel. They're the kind of people you'd want as neighbors. And anyone who tries to "neener! neener! you're part Neanderthal haha!" and think they're hurting my feelings? Lame! Next! Try again, sonny-boy. I have fully, proudly embraced my Neanderthalishness. Go Bing yourself.

And you probably ought to, too. (Embrace your Neanderthal, not the part about Binging yourself. Or is it "Go Bang yourself"?) Here's one reason why, and just stick with me; this is brilliant:

Okay, our very close cousins the Neanderthals probably walked out of Africa somewhere between 800,000 to 550,000 years ago. They found the climate of present-day Spain, France, Germany, and Russia quite lovely, the real estate was suitable enough, and they adapted to the cooler environment. They were shorter than us, and barrel-chested. Sorta like Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra. (One anthropologist said that, were we to get one to time-travel to us, all he'd need is a trip to the barber and Wal-Mart and he'd be able to walk down the street inconspicuously. The anthropologist didn't mention he'd probably be more attractive than 80% of the people at Wal-Mart, but I'll say it for him.)

                 Artists and scientists reconstructed this image of Neanderthal woman, from DNA from 43,000
                      year-old bones. Her name: Wilma, after another artistic creation of alleged prehistory, who also 
                      had red hair. IF this particular blogpost goes viral, you will find groups of young men in their
                      twenties in pubs worldwide, asking each other, "Would you do Wilma?"

Under environmental pressures and other evolutionary factors, by 80,000 years ago or so they looked like they did, a lot of them with red hair and freckles. And they had larger brains than we do, by the way. But here's the interesting part: in some recent studies of comparative genomes between our pals the Neanderthals and people living in Unistat, Europe, Melanesia, and the Far East, we've found that interbreeding with the Neanderthals quite probably gave us a gene that codes for certain of the human leucocyte antigens. In other words, we got a huge boost in our immune system that enabled us to keep up with viruses, which mutate very quickly.

Man oh man: I wish there was some way to thank them!

But the story gets kinda dicey from here. The humans probably co-existed in the geographical areas with the Neanderthals (who had about 99.7% the same DNA as us) for about 50,000 years.

And then the Neanderthals disappeared.

Now, it could've been wildly fluctuating climactic change in Europe and the near-Middle East. And the terrain changed too much and they couldn't adapt. There are some highly qualified anthropologists who have offered this lugubrious theory. I'm not sure if I buy it, but I'll keep studying.

Another idea: volcanic eruptions did them in. See HERE for this idea.

Another idea I first happened upon when I read Jared Diamond's staggeringly erudite and engagingly-written multi-interdisciplinary book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies:

"Some 40,000 years ago, into Europe came the Cro-Magnons, with their modern skeletons, superior weapons, and other advanced cultural traits. Within a few thousand years there were no more Neanderthals, who had been evolving as the sole occupants of Europe for hundreds of thousands of years. That sequence strongly suggests that the modern Cro-Magnons somehow used their far superior technology, and their language skills or brains, to infect, kill, or displace the Neanderthals, leaving behind little or no evidence of hybridization between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons." - pp.40-41

Diamond's book arrived in 1997. Even up to 2007 DNA sequencing had most scientists doubting we interbred with the Neanderthals. (Now it looks like at least 90% for sure some of our ancestors hooked up with Neanderthals. And we should be glad they did.) Another eminent anthropologist and public intellectual, Ian Tattersal, has also suggested the "we" wiped them out violently. Other eloquent PhDs disagree. See this video, for example.

So, yea. Sobering stuff. And not without all-too-numerous examples subsequent in the short time period of writing. Think of Cortez and Montezuma. The First Nations on North America. Jeez, you don't even have to seem like another species: just the wrong idea about some seemingly minor detail about some religious idea. Or you were too swarthy and you dressed weird. The Reader can furnish far, far too many examples of her own...

But I like the theory that I call the We Fucked And Merged. The Neanderthal didn't go extinct in the way we usually think about the idea. They were subsumed by the modern Cro-Magnons.

Through love, baby! Oh yea. And it was good.

I said I liked that theory - which is supported fairly well by some - I didn't say I "believed" it. I'm not sure. My intuition tells me, as of the date above, that some Cro-Magnons outperformed Neanderthals in competition for precious resources, driving them out, marginalizing them, killing them. I also think some of the more open-minded and liberal Cro-Magnons sought detente with those Odd Ones Over There. And they had sex, and it was not only good, but recent studies of immune system genes say: good for us.
Getting back to the Craig's List idiot and my reaction and subsequent looking into the Neanderthals and liking what I saw in them, which is in me: how about we're all in this together, man? And how about celebrating the common ancestor to ALL of us: a black mother called Mitochondrial Eve? Our black father - all of ours, the latest science says - is named Y Chromosomal Adam.

Hell, why not go back to one of the first, if not THE first "true" mammal, Hadrocodium? Or do we have trouble summoning affection for some reason? Anyhow: Neanderthal we hardly knew ye. Hat's off to you!

Here's viddy as icing:

1 comment:

ARW23 said...