Mailbag: Neandertal wanderlust28 Jul 2009
Dear Prof. Hawks, Thanks for your great blog, it has become the bible of anthropology addicts, Regarding all the stuff on the Neanderthals ... - is it possible that the Neanderthals, like Erectus, were not 'ambitious'/ not 'inventive'/ lacking in 'drive'/ not 'exploratory' because they did not have the right version of the DRD4 gene? As an academic I understand you don't have time to write a reply, but if this not silly, maybe you could comment in your blog,
Anything is possible. These kind of neurotransmitter receptor variants are probably the easiest way to have an evolutionary effect on behavior, and we do know that they vary in living people.
On the other hand, it’s possible that some of this variation in living people is in a selective balance because of frequency dependence. Other primates also have groups in which individuals fill different “social niches”. To oversimplify, “loners” may have advantages in some social scenarios, “followers” in others, etc. When one gets too rare, its advantages may grow. As long as these niches exist in social groups, the strategy variants may arise again even if they are lost once by chance.
So I actually think it’s likely that Neandertals (and other ancient people) overlapped largely with humans in the kind of social qualities that work in hunter-gatherer (or small primate group) contexts. It’s the growth of later sedentary populations that really would have created new social niches and the possibility of adaptation to larger, more complex social systems. But that’s just a hypothesis!