A Neanderthal memoir

2 minute read

Carl Zimmer reviews Svante Paabo’s new book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, in the New York Times: “Missing Links”. Zimmer gives a balanced review; in his account the book fails as a memoir but succeeds in describing the background of a significant new area of science:

When the Neanderthal genome is finally published, Paabo is justifiably proud. We can’t begrudge him the opportunity to regale us about the news conferences and honors. But readers may start to wonder what exactly the payoff was for those many years of struggle. Reconstructing a Neanderthal genome was a tour de force, we can all agree, but why does it matter?

My perception: Many of the skilled geneticists who have made breakthroughs in ancient DNA see the Neandertals as objects, not subjects.

I score a mention late in the book, synched to the 2010 unveiling of the draft Neandertal genome. “Somebody get John Hawks some oxygen!” was the reaction to my 2010 post, “NEANDERTALS LIVE!”.

I’m tremendously excited by this work. The mere fact that we now have Neandertal ancestors is transformative, extending our very concept of humanity. By doing so, ancient DNA has given us new tools to understand our own nature as cultural beings. At the same time, ancient genomics has illuminated the dynamism of ancient populations. We now know of ancient populations that archaeologists had never previously suspected, and has shown the large-scale movements and mixtures among them.

So why hasn’t the premier scientist in this field done better conveying the real excitement ahead of us?

Weirdly, the most provocative implications of Neandertal genomes are precisely those that many geneticists have fiercely resisted. The field is slow to release its strange fascination with the simplistic idea that modern humans arose in a singular – and simple – event. No matter how much genetics shows that the process was complex, many still search for silver bullet explanations: megadroughts, volcanic winters, projectile weapons, “fixed” modern human genes carrying the essence of humanity.

The Neandertal Genome Project was begun with the ostensible goal of discovering what makes us human, by contrast with the Neandertal genome. Despite the extensive sharing of DNA uncovered by the project, many scientists are still consumed with understanding the small fraction of human genomes that are not shared with the Neandertals or Denisovans. Even now, the highest intensity of investigation into Neandertal and Denisovan genetics remains devoted to finding the function of those rare human alleles that these ancient humans lack. The course of research on Neandertal genetics seems hardly to have changed after the discovery that Neandertal genes lie within us.

As an anthropologist, I see the Neandertals as subjects. Geneticists seem to regard them as objects. From a storytelling point of view, that difference makes all the difference.