Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Neanderthals in the news

Yesterday, a study was announced that showed that although our ancestors made different stone tools than did Neanderthals living at the same time, our designs weren't in fact better. Among the news stories picking up on the study was this.

Because of my Hugo-Award winning novel Hominids and its sequels ("The Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy), I was asked for a comment by a journalist. Here's what I had to say:
What's particularly interesting is how long the prejudice against Neanderthals has endured -- of course, there are none of them left around to form their own lobby group. But they were physically more robust than we are, and they had brains as big as or bigger than our own. And yet we persist in portraying them as lesser beings.

I rather suspect an argument could be made that they were more intelligent than we are. For instance, we started showing evidence of a belief in an afterlife some 40,000 years ago: we began burying our dead with grave goods -- tools, haunches of meat, and so on, things that were too valuable to throw into a hole in the ground unless we were convinced that the dead person was going to need them in some other realm.

Well, Neanderthals were our neighbors in many places: they saw us doing that, and didn't emulate that behavior; one might argue that they never fell into the trap of superstition.

They also seemed much less interested in make-up and jewelry than we were; we were covering ourselves with red ocher and making necklaces and so on when they were not. Now, we tend to take those things -- superstition, vanity -- as signs of our intelligence being greater than theirs, but they could just as easily be signs of us having less rational, more superficial minds than the Neanderthals did.

Remember, Neanderthals were obviously bright: they made tools, they had complex social arrangements. But it's us, not them, who were exhibiting what today many of us consider to be the most fatuous of human behaviors.

As Metin Eren, the lead author of the study, says of the new but not better tools we used, "A new shared and flashy-looking technology might [have served] as one form of social glue" for us. In other words, we have always been riding waves of fashion and looking to identify in-groups and out-groups.

And the Neanderthals were the ultimate out-group. Our track record of getting along well with people who look only slightly different from us is abysmal; imagine how shabbily we'd have treated beings with bigger noses, sloping brows, no chins, and so on. I suspect the demise of the Neanderthals may have been the first of the many genocides we've been responsible for.

Consider: a standard hunting technique used by our ancestors was to drive a whole herd of animals off a cliff, even if only a fraction of the corpses could be eaten before the meat went bad; there's no evidence of Neanderthals over-hunting, but we've always done that. Again, who was the brighter?

Sadly, Darwin's "survival of the fittest" really often means "survival of the nastiest" -- we cheat and we kill indiscriminately, and we like to claim that it's okay because a god or gods is on our side. Yes, we won in the end, but that doesn't make us better.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


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