A short fiction about Neandertal introgression

1 minute read

If you have a subscription to Nature, you can get a short story from last week’s issue, which explores the reaction of a couple of genetics-types to finding Neandertal genes responsible for human mental abilities:

That has to be interbreeding. The earlier studies had missed it because they hadn't considered the changing impact of natural selection over time."
"You can back that up?"
"Absolutely." Beth was always meticulous about her data.
I didn't have to force a smile. "That's fascinating," I said. "It will make Nature for sure." It would get a lot of people hot under their collective collars, but that was fine. Evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals would create a new paradigm for hybridization being behind the rapid advance of modern humans and make me famous. "What genes are involved?"

Notice: you can tell this is fiction because the result “will make Nature for sure”!

On the other hand, some parts are uncomfortably true-to-life:

"I'm a scientist. I want to know the truth!" More importantly, I wanted to finish the contract; that was my job as principal investigator. I'd always succeeded before; that was why after two decades at the university I was department chair and Beth was still a research assistant.

Yes, the plucky female scientist who believes in the Neandertals is passed over for advancement, while the overbearing man who cares only about grant applications runs the whole department. Well, try to tell me that part is fictional!

It’s not that great a story, but the surprise conclusion is exactly what we’ve been writing – some aspects of today’s human brain biology probably reflect the genetic interactions between Pleistocene human populations. It’s neither shocking nor surprising. It’s simply evolution!


Hecht J. 2008. The Neanderthal correlation. Nature 453:562. doi:10.1038/453562a