Thursday, September 29, 2011

Neanderthals are Soxier than ever

With the mounting evidence that Neanderthals are just humans, it's easier than ever to compare them to the Red Sox.

With their large brows and their super-jock bods, we have generally held Neanderthals apart as a separate, brutish species. And under the immortal wicked assumption that brawn cannot also have brain, there is practically an industry built on lampooning some members of our own species in comparison.

Exhibit A. (So meta, really.)

Back in Damon's Sox days, the Red Sox even called themselves a "bunch of idiots." (Causing cavemen, who were not idiotic at all, to roll over in their museum drawers.)

But the more that Neanderthal genes are studied (and cross-your- fingers that these results really are based on ancient caveman DNA and not modern lab-rat dandruff),  the harder it is to separate them into a separate species.

That is, the more we know about their DNA, the more fossils that are found to bridge the gaps, and the more artifacts that are found to blur cultural differences, well the less sense it makes to consider Neanderthals as being any different from other Paleolithic humans as the Red Sox are from the rest of us.

And so this begs the question, if Neanderthals are just humans is it appropriate anymore to refer to Neanderthal-human sex as "interbreeding"?

If "the Neanderthals" were just like" the French" or "the Inuit" then describing their extra-population mating behavior as interbreeding would be something you'd probably only do while wearing a white pointy hat or holding your right arm out in front of you like a hemiplegic Frankenstein.

So we could keep calling Neanderthals Neanderthals...okay sure. But instead of thinking of them as a separate animal from neighboring humans, we could just think of them as a separate baseball team.

Neanderthals had their own look, their own strategies, their own traditions, but when they got together with other humans they understood them well enough to play the same games. They could hit a homer just fine, in both senses of the phrase.

This year's Red Sox couldn't have made a link to Neanderthals more complete. They just collapsed--shrouded in mystery with hardly anyone able to really explain why--while others with less muscle managed to go on.

Neanderthals are Soxier than ever. But even though the derogatory stereotype no longer holds, fans would probably flip that thought the other way around.

Further reading:


James Goetz said...

Great piece. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Red Sox briefly reached out to the Yankees for salvation.

More seriously, Do you lean toward rejecting the classification Homo neanderthalensis? In the case that Neanderthals are classified H. sapiens neanderthalensis, then the term interbreeding would still apply to breeding between subspecies. Or do you also consider rejecting a subspecies distinction for Neanderthals? In any case, various literature says that there were major limits to the interbreeding of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, which indicates criteria for subspecies distinction or species distinction.

Also, what is the status of the debate about Neanderthals supposed inability to throw projectiles? Perhaps Neanderthals would make horrible baseball players. Perhaps they could have barely hit a baseball with a bat to get to first base, let alone a home run. Furthermore, how different are the fossils of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans compared to the differences in various australopithecine species?

Holly Dunsworth said...



Subspecies are populations. I don't use the term subspecies and even if I did, with subspecies of living humans (i.e. populations however defined) you'd still think twice about referring to their gene flow as "interbreeding" without first checking to see who was listening. That's my opinion, at least.

I'll address the rest of your questions with a bunch of links:

(see the last bit of this)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Last question is a good question but the fossil record's not quite large enough to go for that one.

James Goetz said...

Holly said: I don't use the term subspecies and even if I did, with subspecies of living humans (i.e. populations however defined) you'd still think twice about referring to their gene flow as "interbreeding" without first checking to see who was listening.

I never see biological or anthropological literature refer to modern human populations as subspecies of Homo sapiens. Subspecies of any given species is not mere populations within a species. For example, scientific and philosophical discussions of Neanderthals classified as their own species or subspecies has nothing to do with discussions of modern human racism.

Here is a possible scenario:
1. Some anatomically modern humans had gene flow with Neanderthals.
2. Earlier, some Neanderthals had gene flow with H. erectus.
3. Earlier, some H. erectus had gene flow with H. habilis.
4. Earlier, some H. habilis had gene flow with gracile australopithecines.

I do not go as far as saying that this scenario supports Sagan's model of biological taxonomy, but it indicates that taxonomy has arbitrary boundaries and that minor gene flow between primate populations does not in itself define the boundaries of a species.

Concerning the classification of Neanderthals, I strongly lean toward classifying them as H. neanderthalensis while I am open to classifying them as H. sapiens neanderthalensis if their is compelling evidence that they possessed inventive capability near par with modern humans. I strongly doubt that such evidence will appear because I strongly doubt that level of inventive capability ever existed in Neanderthals apart from perhaps some cases of hybrids. I also suppose that such difference in inventive capability resulted in limited cohabitation. For example, perhaps there was more interbreeding than living together on a day-to-day basis.

Per the last question, which fossil record is not quite large enough to determine osteological metrics for taxonomy?: Australopithecine fossils or Neanderthal fossils?

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'd suggest that you read some more Neanderthal research (including papers where archaeologists wrestle with reconstructing cognition in the Paleolithic)...and not exclusively in the books written for popular audiences, to find evidence for your ideas and questions, but you already have such strong opinions I'm not entirely sure it would be useful. You could also read more history of physical anthropology so you could better understand the Neanderthal and racism connection.

Also, I don't share many fans of paleoanthropology's desire to take sides on big debates, exactly like how I'm urged to take sides at a baseball game. It's true that the stakes are low in paleoanthropology and it's very much like a game that way, but being fanatical about one side over another is unscientific. And I also don't think that neat and tidy taxonomic boxes are as significant (let alone real) as so many others. Those names are evolutionary hypotheses and they're so useful but I'm not concerned so much about the arbitrary rules that are enforced on people making those hypotheses.

Holly Dunsworth said...

That last bit was also (and probably more) directed to the thread with James on the "Parallel pillars" post.

Ken Weiss said...

I've just returned from overseas and was not monitoring all of these exchanges with Holly. But there are no really objective criteria for 'species' definition. The usual definition is 'can't mate successfully', but some use other criteria, such as 'don't naturally mate'.

Morphology doesn't do the job nor do genes. Small sequence differences can lead to mating sterility (or hybrid sterility), and major morphological differences ('major' is in the eye of the beholder, of course) are not reliable. Polyphenism and other major trait differences are manifest by the same genotypes in different environments, and human variation globally is not associated with any form of 'speciation'

So I agree with you, Holly, if I understand you correctly, that 'subspecies' is even more vague.

If Neandertal individuals show evidence of mixed ancestry in the sense debated these days (some sequence elements that appear to be in the modern human lineage, with others more ancestral), then the whole issue is almost reduced to media circus. Anthropologists have not learned, even after a century, to stop playing these kinds of taxonomy games.

Or have we? They are good for business, even if much of the time they are non-science.