Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The inheritors

Tomorrow, Darwin's birthday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science will begin their annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois. One eagerly awaited report will be the entire genome of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal, sequenced by a team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The genome will certainly confirm the common ancestery of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Our genomes overlap by more than 99 percent.

Our common ancestor lived about 660,000 years ago. Home sapiens emerged as a separate species about 400,000 years ago. For hundreds of thousands of years, Neanderthals had Europe and Western Asia to themselves. Then, about 35,000 years ago, Homo sapiens came sweeping out of Africa and fanned out across the northern continents. For thousands of years Neanderthals and modern humans lived side by side. Did they interbreed? Perhaps the genomes will tell us. What we do know is that Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years ago, having been pushed by Homo sapiens into a final refuge on the Iberian Peninsula, perhaps a dripping cave on the Rock of Gibraltar, their backs to a sea they had no way to cross.

When I was a kid, we read the story of Neanderthal extinction as a triumph of modern humans over a grisly, sub-human race, of reason, imagination, and lofty moral vision over ugliness, stupidity, and amorality. Then, in his 1955 novel The Inheritors, William Golding turned the story on its head. Golding's Neanderthals live in a state of childlike innocence, possessed of wonder and imagination. They do not willfully kill other animals. They are sexually restrained, and charmingly uninhibited about their nakedness. Into this Edenlike existence come the violent and cannibalistic Cro-Magnons. The new folk revere a witchdoctor with an antlered mask. They are adulterous and engage in orgies. The gentle Neanderthals are no match against the craftiness and cunning of the new arrivals. Except for a single child, Golding's happy band of Neanderthals are eliminated. The tougher, more adventuresome Cro-Magnons inherit the earth.

Golding's version of the story is as much an invention as the one I heard as a child. Scientifically, it remains to be seen why modern humans prevailed over our close relations. Was speech the advantageous factor? Superior intelligence? More sophisticated weapons? Some sort of religious conviction of divinely-conferred superiority? About all of this the genomes will be mostly silent. But more of the story remains to be told. Darwin would have loved to be in on the telling.