Thursday, May 13, 2010

Primate Relations

The prevailing scientific consensus about the relationship between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals has been reversed, as reported in this article:

Humans Did Indeed Mate with Neanderthals

I've always been disappointed by articles and TV programs in which evolutionary anthropologists expressed near-certainty that no Neanderthal DNA had crept into the human genome. Of course, that didn't necessarily mean occasional matings that left no permanent trace never occurred, but the hypothesis seemed to disprove major plot elements in one of my favorite novels, CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. Now I can rejoice that Ayla's half-Cro-Magnon, half-Neanderthal baby could have existed.

Recent developments indicate that the human family tree is much more tangled than the diagrams in older books suggested. Several kinds of early hominids coexisted, rather than one species or subspecies following the last in orderly progression. I always found the idea of crossbreeding between "modern humans" and their close kin an intriguing possibility—if not that, at least close interaction between our kind and the "missing links." In the 1939 story "The Gnarly Man," by L. Sprague de Camp, a man in a sideshow claims to be the last of the Neanderthals. Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy" portrays a Neanderthal child kidnapped by near-future scientists with a time machine. I don't remember reading any stories about surviving colonies of Neanderthals among us, but surely some author must have written one. I'd like to believe a Bigfoot population exists in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, and if so, I imagine them as a species of hominid displaced by our conquest of the Earth but not driven to extinction. And now we know about the "hobbits," an extinct, diminutive not-quite-human island-dwelling people.

One thing I don't like about that article on Neanderthal-human interbreeding—the writer's contrast between "Neanderthals" and "people." It has long been established that they were no less intelligent than the "modern humans" (Cro-Magnons) living alongside them in Ice Age Europe, even if their minds worked a bit differently, so they were "people" too. It's exciting to imagine the plot possibilities of sharing the planet with a different humanoid species. Civil rights for Neanderthals? Would racism and speciesism slip into society's treatment of them under the guise of "protecting" creatures who don't look quite like us and therefore are clearly a "lower" species of primate? I've just finished Charlaine Harris's latest novel, DEAD IN THE FAMILY; in her alternate universe, the legal rights of vampires are limited, and there's a push for legislation to force all were-creatures to register with a government agency. Our society's past track record with interracial relations, not to mention the current plight of gorillas and chimpanzees, hints that "cave men" among us wouldn't fare much better. By the way, did anybody watch the short-lived TV series by that title? From the reviews, it sounded so dumb I didn't bother. What a cool premise that could have been if treated seriously!

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Margaret:

    This tidbit also captured my attention. I posted the BBC item to my facebook page on this subject.

    Remember the Sime~Gen premise that the human genome continues to mutate producing sub-mutations on both Sime and Gen sides? This creates a medical profile mosaic that defies solution until computers.

    Well, it's turning out to be pretty much true that no two of us are alike. So we better be willing to breed with "aliens" because each one of us is an alien to all others. Unique.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  2. Here's an editorial about the Neanderthal research from today's Baltimore SUN:

    Baltimore Sun

    Notice the speculation about bringing back the Neanderthals by creating them from retrieved DNA. That strikes me as more problematic than recreating extinct "lower" animals. The editorial asks whether, if this project were ever carried out, we should display such beings in a zoo or send them to Stanford for an education. It's possible that the public as well as the scientific establishment might look differently upon extinct hominids recreated by DNA splicing than upon a colony of existing Neanderthals discovered living in secret. "Constructed" hominids might be looked upon as property -- or as a new kind of domestic animal.

    I'm reminded of the title character in Heinlein's FRIDAY, who wasn't regarded as human (and accepted the nonhuman classification for herself) because she was artificially created in a lab instead of conceived naturally. But she still had fully human genes!

  3. Great post, thanks for the info!

  4. Quite a concept. We all ponder many things, but I wonder how many have contemplated this, or what it might mean. I think I'll have to go and consider it some more. Thanks. It might make a very good journaling prompt. Peace and all good things for you in your work and in life.