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Darwinian evolution and underestimating the Neanderthals

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Neanderthal/Photaro

A zoologist asks why we need to see Neanderthal man as dumb: Talking about a recent paper discussing differences in skull shape, he notes,

In the Pleistocene world of rapidly changing ecological scenarios luck had everything to do with success or failure. It was all about being in the right place at the right time, something that natural selection – with its restriction of acting in the present on templates from the past – could not respond to fast enough. And so we have consistently mistaken survival and extinction with biological superiority or inferiority. That is why we have incessantly sought differences to explain our observations. We are here and they are not and so we must seek differences to explain the data. Of course, part of the problem is that we are participants trying to explain a story in which we are actors and that will inevitably lead to bias in our favour. Having given the Neanderthals a name, we immediately conditioned ourselves to seeing them as something else… Denigrating the Neanderthals has been part of that process of exalting our own. In a recent BBC television documentary I was asked if I would like to meet a Neanderthal today. Clive Finlayson, “Viewpoint: Why we still underestimate the Neanderthals” at BBC News

He decided he wouldn’t like to on the grounds that it might not be good for the Neanderthal.

Oddly, it’s not strictly true that we exalt our species, as he claims. We are constantly hearing that humans are not special. The belief that Neanderthals were somehow inferior and we killed them off is meant to exalt not us but Darwinian evolution. And it’s all the more curious that Dr. Finlayson omits to sing its praises.

See also: Was Neanderthal man fully human? The role racism played in assessing the evidence

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

and

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

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9 Replies to “Darwinian evolution and underestimating the Neanderthals

  1. 1
    Ed George says:

    Of course, part of the problem is that we are participants trying to explain a story in which we are actors and that will inevitably lead to bias in our favour.

    This is the crux of the issue. But it isn’t restricted to evolution. It is human nature to feel that we are superior to others. Especially to those that are different. This attitude long predates Darwin. Darwin just gave us a way to justify it in what we think are scientific terms.

  2. 2
    ET says:

    Ed George:

    It is human nature to feel that we are superior to others.

    Evidence, please.

    Darwin just gave us a way to justify it in what we think are scientific terms.

    And yet what Darwin said isn’t scientific.

  3. 3
    vmahuna says:

    Come on. ALL modern humans who have hair color others than black and eye colors other than brown have Neanderthal ancestors. I have brown eyes, but BROWN hair. So I’m part Neanderthal. But my great-great-great…..grandparents buried their dead in graves and covered the bodies with flowers before they shoveled on the dirt. Where does the “not human” stuff come from?

    Modern humans appeared POOF! without any ancestors. How the original Central African upright bipeds spun off European cousins with red hair is anybody’s guess. But that don’t matter. Them is us. Perhaps it was a slow day at the lab, and one of the techs said, “Hey, I just ginned up this like TOTALLY AWESOME dude with a left hook like the kick of a mule.” “Cool! But like the girls in the Valley of the Neander River still need to be awesome in a girl kinda way…” “Well, YEAH!”

    These were Design projects. Don’t let the FAILURE of Descent with Modification get in the way.

  4. 4
    Brother Brian says:

    EG

    It is human nature to feel that we are superior to others.

    ET in response.

    Evidence, please.

    Just read any of the comment threads here. Or on any other blog for that matter.

  5. 5
    Ed George says:

    BB

    Just read any of the comment threads here. Or on any other blog for that matter.

    Haha. Beat me to it by seconds. 🙂

  6. 6
    ET says:

    Brother Brian:

    Just read any of the comment threads here

    I read them. Make your case.

  7. 7
    ET says:

    Ed George:

    Beat me to it by seconds

    Beat you to what, a non-answer?

  8. 8
    ET says:

    If it was human nature to feel superior to others then everyone would be so inclined. Yet they are not.

    Go figure…

  9. 9
    tjguy says:

    This very candid article by Finlayson gives a modern day example of the dangers and influence of our biases even in science when doing historical science – when trying to interpret the past correctly. It shows us why historical science is no where near as accurate as experimental science that we can test and either verify or falsify fairly easily and accurately. Our superior attitude towards the Neanderthals is nothing but historical and scientific racism and should be roundly condemned by all.

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