Last week’s announcement by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology that many of us may have a little bit of Neanderthal in us has sparked all sorts of interesting discussions. My husband, who is of European descent and therefore likely to possess a small amount of our ancient brethren’s genetic material, has taken to calling himself a Neanderthal-American. Granted, the Neanderthal genetic material present in Europeans and Asians is only believed to make up about 1 to 4 percent of the human genome. Still, the revelation forces us to reexamine in all sorts of ways, both delightful (Neanderthals didn’t really go extinct since they’re part of us!), thought provoking (how does this affect social constructs of race?) and disturbing (my ancient grandmothers had sex with cavemen?) about who we are and what it means to be human.
Well, it does for everyone but the creationists, of course. True to form, they met the news with an exaggerated yawn and the bored response, “Tell us something we didn’t know.” Answers in Genesis glanced at the evidence and said:
The news doesn’t surprise young-earth creationists, who predicted overlap between modern human and Neanderthal genomes. Based on Scripture, creationists consider Neanderthals to have been fully human, descendants of Adam and Eve (through Noah), and therefore they would have lived in the same time and place as other humans. But factors related to both the dispersion at Babel and environmental pressures afterward resulted in people groups with different physical characteristics, including humans with “Neanderthal” characteristics.
Liberty University’s cell biologist (and creationist) David DeWitt called the research an “amazing feat” of science that supports creationist expectations. “Finding Neanderthal DNA in humans was not expected by evolutionists, but it was predicted from a creation standpoint because we have said all along that Neanderthals were fully human: descendants of Adam and Eve, just like us,” he told News to Note.
But that’s the price of adhering to a dogmatic worldview. Nothing forces you to reexamine anything. You either say that new evidence confirms what you already accepted… or you deny the evidence exists. (Scientists often joke that for creationists the discovery of any intermediate fossil bridging the gap between an earlier and later life form only reveals two more gaps in the fossil record, one on each side of the intermediate discovery.)
The ever-wonderful Carl Zimmer has a great examination of the announcement on his blog The Loom. The detailed piece, “Skull Caps and Genomes,” explains the mind-boggling amount of work and struggle and back-and-forth debate between myriad disciplines that went into the scientific research. Unlike the folks at Answers in Genesis whose research is limited to “the Bible tells me so.”
Zimmer also raises some fascinating questions about our ancestry that are well worth pondering:
Reconstructing this history is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that scientists can use it to plot out the rise of the human mind. If Neanderthals could make their own jewelry 50,000 years ago, for example, they might well have had brains capable of recognizing themselves as both individuals and as members of a group. Humans are the only living animals with that package of cognitive skills. Perhaps that package had already evolved in the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals. Or perhaps it evolved independently in both lineages.