I'm Part Neanderthal and Proud of it!
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Posted by David Chan on 2008-Dec-01 14:53
A recent extraction of Neanderthal DNA suggests that they possessed the same version of the FOXP2 gene as modern humans (see article. This gene is believed to be fundamental to our linguistic abilities. This raises the intriguing possibility that the Neanderthals did not die out but was absorbed into the main human population. It is possible that we Modern Humans owe our linguistic abilities to Neanderthal ancestors.
Now this is not an article about the evolution of modern humans. This is an article about what credence we give to scientific opinion and what we mean by scientific truth. Many people take pronouncements from scientists as if it was TRUTH cast in stone. Politicians and journalists (I am thinking particularly of Simon Singh here) believe that, just because scientists believe a certain theory, that it is absolute and certain. Furthermore, policy advocates will take a particular scientific theory as a basis for making policy decisions that have significant impact on all our lives.
Not that I am against making rational policy decisions based on science, but I believe one must look at the science behind the policy much more critically. We must also look at the interest groups that advocate a certain supposedly scientifically based policy decision before making up our own minds about the policy.
In the case of Sir Cyril Burt , his work on heritability of intelligence was used as an argument to segregate secondary education between Grammar Schools and Secondary Schools in the UK public sector. In the 1970s, educationalists and psychologists questioned the validity of his research and it became accepted that Burt falsified his experimental results.
In the 1970s, there was a movement towards comprehensive education. Many of the advocates of this became influential in Education departments in Universities and in other policy areas. They took this scientific opinion and used it as one of the arguments to do away with the Grammar Schools. Thus, we have predominantly Comprehensive secondary schools in the UK toady.
In 1995, Cambridge University Professor of Psychology Nicholas Mackintosh edited the book Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? (Oxford University Press), in which the contributors argued that "his defenders have sometimes, but by no means always, been correct, and that his critics have often jumped to hasty conclusions. Perhaps, we are seeing a re-evaluation of Burt's work.
Getting back to the Neanderthals, even ten years back the majority of scientists believed Neanderthals had been out-competed by Modern Humans. They died out because they were not as good as us. The term neanderthal is used as an insult because the popular opinion was that they were Ape-men with limited intelligence and sophistication. Discoveries in the last two decades would indicate that we should revise our views of the Neanderthals. They buried their dead and laid flowers in the grave. They have the FOXP2 gene and were probably as sophisticated as Modern humans in their language abilities. They even had the same gene that gives modern humans ginger hair.
The picture that is emerging as a possibility is that Neanderthals, far from being the shambling brutes portrayed in popular culture, were sophisticated social beings who successfully survived several ice-ages. It is also possible that they interbred with Cro-Magnons and contributed to our rich and diverse human gene-pool. It is this new picture that I find exciting and that is why I am proud to be part Neanderthal!
The history of science tells us that TRUTHS are never absolutes. Science advances through testing theories and rigorously debating evidence relating to the theories. New theories emerge that may absorb previous theories, or, may displace old theories.
So when journalists or policy makers say the position they advocate is based on Science, you need to be aware what this really means!