Friday, September 18, 2015

Neanderthals, Genetics, and Intelligence: Were our Ancestors Smarter than Us?

You know the stereotype:  the Neanderthals were primitive knuckle draggers -- they might have been stronger than us, but we used our superior intellect to outcompete them and drive them to extinction. Ted Kosmatka, in his short story, "N-words," neatly turns this picture on its head.

In "N-words," humans succeed in cloning Neanderthals, only to discover that they are both stronger and more intelligent than us -- we drove them to extinction only because we were better adapted to the scarcity of the ice age.  In our current time of plenty, they will drive us to extinction!

Is there any scientific basis for this?  I should first point out that I am not an expert in either genetics or anthropology, but as I noted in my first blog post, I see no reason to avoid commenting on issues that I know nothing about. We didn't have standardized testing back in the Stone Age, so there's not much direct evidence to judge the intelligence of the Neanderthals. The main argument for their inferior intellect seems to be that we won, and they lost, and I guess that's a pretty strong argument. But here's a more interesting question: were our own ancestors smarter than we are today?

Of course, people in every generation have bemoaned the downward slide of civilization as evidenced by the shortcomings of their own children. But my colleague, Steve Hsu, raises an interesting point in his blog and in this scientific paper. Of course, there is no single "gene" for intelligence -- it appears to be driven by a large number of genes as well as various environmental influences. But Hsu's main point is that the genetic basis of intelligence seems to derive from a number of "negative" mutations. In other words, there are no genes for intelligence -- there are genes for stupidity! In that case, it's easy to imagine that our distant ancestors, before they picked up these negative mutations, could have been much more intelligent than we are today. After all, they tamed fire, invented the wheel, produced the alphabet, and developed agriculture,  and all with Stone Age technology and a much smaller population base. How impressive is the iPad, compared to the alphabet?

1 comment:

Priya Palande said...

Loved the post! As yo said, there may not be any way to check validity of the claim (I, also neither don't know anything about genetics or anthropology - I suspect much less than you) but what they achieved with what they have at their disposal is much bigger than what we try to achieve today. In fact, I feel today we don't try to achieve what is necessary for survival - because that isn't considered an issue any more - but rather frivolous or dangerous conquests. We as people are more concerned on who are the greatest people or which religion is mightiest or which nation has economic supremacy, none of which, IMHO, matter when it comes to progressing at the core of being human...