January 27, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

The New Phrenology Ostracizes Neanderthals

Scientists contrasted different points on Neanderthal skulls to modern human skulls, and concluded Neanderthals were a separate species.  The New York Times report by John Noble Wilford says that not all scientists are convinced, however, by the analysis published by Katerina Harvati et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1 Jan. 26 (online preprints).
    Since parrots have better vocabulary and grammar than monkeys (see Jan. 20 entry), according to the BBC News, maybe scientists should redraw the ancestral tree of humans.


1Harvati, Frost and McNulty, “Neanderthal taxonomy reconsidered: Implications of 3D primate models of intra- and interspecific differences,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0308085100, published online before print January 26, 2004.

These are such games that anthropologists play.  How much can be known from tiny differences in skull measurements?  How many differences are needed to call something a species, or a race, or a variety?  If you cannot prove they were not interfertile with humans, how can you arbitrarily define them out of the family?
   Don’t we remember the 19th century racists who used such data to outclass blacks and aborigines as separate species from the more “intellectually endowed” Europeans?  Other anthropologists looking at the same data have already concluded that Neanderthals had manual dexterity (see 03/27/2003) and compassion (see 09/11/2001).  They’re an easy target for today’s racists because they’re not here to defend themselves.  Maybe we need a Neanderthal Human Rights Society.
    Just giving bones a name and putting them in a group has propaganda value.  It creates a mental image of separateness, of “us” vs. “them.”  Would an unbiased observer, unfamiliar with the name Neanderthal, looking at a large collection representing all the diversity of human bones, from pygmy to Watusi, from Asian to European, from diseased to healthy, be so quick to create a separate species out of these individuals?  The Neanderthal controversy is an endless storytelling fest that, like a teeter totter, never comes to any firm conclusion, nor is likely to, since we cannot interview Mr. and Mrs. Neanderthal.  Without Darwinian assumptions the controversy would fizzle out.  It’s the Darwinian assumptions that give these storytellers welfare checks when they should be out making tools and hunting meat.

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