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Did large eyes make the Neanderthals weird loners?


From the BBC:

In many ways they were a lot like us. In fact they were so similar, our species actually interbred with theirs.

Nevertheless there were some differences. One stands out: they had weirdly large eyes.

On the face of it, big eyes sound like a good thing. Presumably, having bigger eyes meant the Neanderthals could see better than us.

But according to one controversial theory, Neanderthals’ big eyes played a key role in their demise.

The theory goes that, unlike us, they could not devote large parts of their brain to developing complex social networks. So when they were faced with major threats, such as a changing climate or competition from modern humans, they were at a disadvantage.

Teamwork would have been vital in these situations, so if they lacked the ability to form large groups, they would not have had the support they needed. We all get by with help from our friends, but Neanderthals did not have enough friends to help out. More.

Hint: Pop science at its best. Generally, we should dismiss theories that use the grammatical construction “would have been.” It’s pop science-ese for “We are just making this up.”

Anyway, a serious theorist, John Hawks, at U Madison, Wisconsin,

looked at 18 living primate species, to find out whether the size of their eye sockets was linked to the size of their social groups.

Rather than bigger eyes resulting in smaller social groups, they found that the opposite was true. “Big eyes actually indicate bigger social groups in other primates,” says Hawks. More.

He suggests looking at the archaeological record, which does not show that Neanderthals lacked social networks.

Pop science doesn’t depend on lowly facts. It depends on conveying as science the worldview of its audience.

See also: Neanderthal Man: The long-lost relative turns up again, this time with documents


A deep and abiding need for Neanderthals to be stupid. Why?

While we are here, Hawk often makes more sense than most:

Jerry Coyne as a “tailless catarrhine primate” (self-description); John Hawks as the adult

John Hawks on human evolution: Free chapter from book on evolution from Princeton U

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