Insisting on a cognitive equivalence between modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) probably means neglecting the differences between a flake and a pendrive, or between a wall scratch and the Sistine Chapel. Also, insisting on a cognitive equivalence between two species that have evolved separately for hundreds of thousands years probably means neglecting evolution itself, suggesting that no changes did occurr in that long time, or that – magically – the two lineages underwent the same cognitive modifications. Unlikely. The idea of cognitive equivalence is often emotionally defended because it is implicitly assumed that, if not equal, one should be better than the other. In this case, the problem may regard an inadequate awareness of the principles of evolution, which engenders a problematic confusion between biological diversity and moral judgement. In general, our society suffers a profound misperception of diversity in terms of ethical principles, for example confusing biological or individual differences with social egalitarianism or legal impartiality. It is assumed that diversity implies a different social consideration and, therefore, in order to eliminate social inequality, we have to neglect differences. This position is rather dangerous, because it subtly supports (instead of contrasting) the association between biological equality and social rights: if you want me to respect you, then you have to demonstrate that we are the same. The hazardous message here is: we only respect those who are like us. Besides the risks associated with this perspective, it usually never works well because differences are there, and they can’t simply disappear with the application of a dogmatic mantra. Rejecting diversity is a standard approach adopted to strengthen group affiliation (it is easier to reinforce a group because of the differences with other groups than by finding affinities within the group itself – that is, it is easier to build membership on hate, than on love!). However, this is more understandable if you are a boar or a baboon. Instead, an ape with 1350 cc of brain mass should be able – in theory – to handle diversity more fruitfully, going beyond ancestral emotional limitations. Far from the superficial equality mantras circulating nowadays, during the 70s, there was a very good feminist slogan which stated: equality as a human right, diversity as a human value. Correct.

The idea of a cognitive equivalence between modern humans and Neandertals is then probably an attempt to avoid promoting the idea that Neandertals were dumb, superficially assuming that “different” necessarily does mean “stupid” or, at least “less than”. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that while defending the pride of the Neandertal cognition, most theatrical views keep on suggesting that their extinction was due to a lost battle (ecological or even physical) with the smart Homo sapiens. Of course, despite the enduring approval of this interpretation in books and newspapers, there has never been any scientific evidence to support it. Maybe there was a competition (ecological or even physical) between the two species, or maybe Neandertals simply went extinct as usually does happen in evolution, and we modern humans have then colonized new empty spaces. Tens of hypotheses have been presented to explain the Neandertal disappearance, but most of them can’t be even tested in a proper scientific way. Therefore, they should be frankly relegated to the realm of the personal opinions.

Now, two archaeologists and one psychologist have published the results of a survey on more than 200 researchers involved in human evolution. The survey asked about the personal opinion on Neandertal extinction, adding some tests on the socio-political orientation of the participants. Results suggest that most scholars point at demographic reasons as the most probable cause of Neandertal withdrawal from the phylogenetic scene. Thus, a Neandertal personal problem. Environmental effects or the competition with other humans are reasons which, albeit deserving attention, do not receive consistent support from the scientific community. Interestingly, different positions in this debate are not associated with specific socio-political profiles, and hence they deal with a personal scientific view rather than with gross (traditionally right-left) prejudices.

This survey is undeniably useful for several reasons. First, if the sample is sufficiently representative, now we know what most researchers think about Nendertal extinction. Second, it is a nice case study to analyze whether and to what extent some kinds of behavioral preconceptions (in this case, socio-political affinity) can influence academic position on a scientific topic.

However, there is a third aspect that is pretty crucial. If most paleoanthropologists think that Neandertal extinction is probably associated with an internal (demographic) limitation of the species … why is competition with modern humans still the most cited possibility in popular science and journalism? The answer, as you can imagine, could be rather easy: because the competition issue is more attractive, because it is good for marketing, because it is more suited for an epopeic tale, and because it is more glorious for the species’ ego. All this suggests that, basically, paleoanthropology is a field still influenced by a certain necessity of storytelling, and that there is a certain separation between academy and society. The necessity aspect is generalized: the community needs stories, journalists sell stories, the academy supplies stories. All the parts agree on this reciprocal trade. The separation aspect is an evolution of the ivory tower refuge: only those scientists that accept to tell stories will be allowed to go out, the others will be locked in.

In sum, it seems that in paleoanthropology, we still have some unresolved conflicts of interest. On the one side, we have a part of society neglecting differences, and at the same time another part renting science to narrative. Probably, neither of these two strategies is of great help for science and knowledge. Nor is it useful for a healthy cultural development. There is a refrain: humans are the only animal that stumbles twice on the same stone. In the case of fossils, we can maybe add that they also seem to keep on stumbling on the same bones.

2 Responses to “Extinctions”

  1. 1 zaidenoll March 8, 2021 at 11:28

    The argument “erasing the difference is politically wrong” is my favorite to argue against the sapiens/neanderthal presumed “likeliness”. Thank you for point it out in such a clear way.

    Concerning the extinction, actually there is not a conclusive model, and the domain of “personal opinion” still has a lot of weight. However, my personal opinion is that you can relate the demography with the competition for resources, ant that should be that way.

    Finally, the study of the history of mankind is strongly political and we should never forget that.

    Enza Spinapolice

  2. 2 emilianobruner March 8, 2021 at 12:54

    Yes of course, in this case no conclusive model is possible … Or we can probably say that … all models are compatible! In the sense that the little information we have can fit with (almost) whatever explanation. Isaac Asimov said: where any answer is possible, all answers are meaningless. I agree.

    This is not to dismiss the importance of personal opinions. A personal opinion that is the result of years of work and study on a given topic is a precious gift. But it should not be called “a scientific evidence”. Here a dissemination paper on paleoanthropology and falsification:


    (for translation, I recommend DeepL … it works really fine!)

    About demography, we know that a biological system is a network in which all elements are, at the same time, causes and consequences. Demography is associated with ecology, genetics, cognition and so on. So, identifying one of these aspects means trying to localize what the biologists call “the limiting factor”, that is the one that is (probably) constraining the others. However, of course, none of those factors is isolated from the others, and there are plenty of reciprocal influences. I agree, thinking that one single factor can be responsible for an evolutionary fate is probably misleading.

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