Earlier this week, I saw a friend reading this article, and considering SciAm has proven to be a bastion of intellectual stimulation and unbiased discussion, I decided to share it with you. Since the publication of the Neandertal draft genome in May, the concept of reorganizing the human family tree to include Neandertals as a subspecies is not particularly new in the world of paleoanthropology. I wonder why, though, did SciAm decide to publish this discussion now?
Anyways, if you want a synopsis of the thesis of the article, read this excerpt:
“Thus it is—revealing the identity of my example—that we must reclassify Homo neanderthalensis as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a subspecies of Homo sapiens. A comprehensive and technically sophisticated study published in the May 7 issue of Science, “A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome,” by Max Planck Institute evolutionary anthropologists Richard E. Green, Svante Pääbo and 54 of their colleagues, demonstrates that “between 1 and 4% of the ge nomes of people in Eurasia are derived from Neandertals” and that “Neandertals are on average closer to individuals in Eurasia than to individuals in Africa.” In fact, the authors note, “a striking observation is that Neandertals are as closely related to a Chinese and Papuan individual as to a French individual…. Thus, the gene flow between Neandertals and modern humans that we detect most likely occurred before the divergence of Europeans, East Asians, and Papuans.” In other words, our anatomically hirsute cousins are actually our genetic brothers.”
I did a real life facepalm when I came upon Shermer’s argument for including them as a subspecies,
“I always suspected that Neandertals and anatomically modern humans interbred, based on a simple observation: humans are the most sexual of all the primates, willing and able to do it just about anywhere, anytime, with anyone (and even with other species…).”
You have to be a paid subscriber to read the rest of article, so I can’t really know if he’s totally serious about his argument or not. Considering he goes on supporting his argument citing the book of human sexual behavior, the Kinsey Reports, I’m afraid that he actually is pretty confident his argument is legit. Sigh.
If this is true, this is a sad state of affairs for scientific publications; when reporters decide to serve up asinine explanations to scientific phenomenon. I am of the opinion that Shermer, nor any reporter, has the position to give reasons to why evolution occurred a certain way. Shermer could have spent his article discussing the differences between anatomy and material culture between the Neandertals and humans, and how the genetic lines of evidence, both mtDNA and nuclear DNA intersect and diverge from those.
He could have synthesized many different schools of thought on Neandertal ancestry and modern human evolution, but he chose to focus on something taboo. Sex certainly sells, I guess even for SciAm… But the thought that modern-ish humans reproduced with Neandertals is certainly not something unthinkable. So why focus on it?