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I have great respect for Svante Pääbo for all the brilliant work he’s done on ancient DNA, even ranking him as the 47th most influential living human of all time. By sequencing the DNA of Neanderthals and comparing it with our own, Pääbo hopes to discover whatever small genetic changes occurred in the final stages of evolution that allowed modern humans to dominate the globe in ways Neanderthals never did.  Studying the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans is especially focused because we separated from them only several hundred thousand years ago, unlike chimps who we separated from several million years ago.

The differences between Neanderthals and modern humans could seem huge to most people.  When you look historically at how sub-Saharan Africans were considered subhuman, and they separated from non-Africans merely tens of thousands of years ago, imagine how stigmatized Neanderthals would have been.

Genetically the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans is about ten times greater than the difference between blacks and whites, but about ten times smaller than the difference between modern humans and chimps.  I wonder what a racist white slave master would have thought if a Neanderthal had walked on to his plantation.  Would he instantly recognize from appearance that his black slave was far more related to him than the Neanderthal since the former two both share similar height, build, cranium shape and faces, or would he have felt a greater kinship with Neanderthals because they both have white skin?

Pääbo argues that the genetic differences between modern humans and Neanderthals may explain why modern humans went to the moon while Neanderthals were confined to the cave.

However a woman in the audience at his talk makes the exact same point I would make if I’m ever lucky enough to attend one of Pääbo’s talks:  Almost all the truly revolutionary achievements of modern humans were made after Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago.  Before 40,0000 years ago, our species wasn’t even making representational art, let alone computers and rockets. 

So why does  Pääbo (like Steve Hsu) assume we’re much smarter (or at least better at sharing knowledge), when Neanderthals (almost) kept up with us when they were alive?  The woman states that if Neanderthals had been the surviving species, maybe they’d be building satellites today.

Pääbo replied by saying that Neanderthals had three or four hundred thousand years to do it but didn’t, while modern humans had a hundred thousand years or even less yet actually did it.

See the 1:03:09 mark of the below video:

What are you talking about Pääbo?????!!!!!

According to Wikipedia (as of March 21, 2018), Neanderthals existed from 250 kya to 40 kya, while Homo sapiens existed from 300 kya to today.  By my math, that means Neanderthals had only 210,000 years to create advanced culture while we’ve had 300,000 years.

Maybe Wikipedia is wildly wrong, as these numbers can vary a lot based on how you classify and date fossils, but why does Pääbo think our species (or whatever term he prefers) is only 100,000 years old?  Perhaps like Richard Klein and Noam Chomsky, he thinks there’s a big genetic difference between behaviorally modern humans and the merely anatomically modern ones who preceded them?

But if you define the start of our species (a term Pääbo strongly avoids) as the moment our culture accelerated, then by definition we’re going to look like fast learners.  It would be like me staring confused at an exam for 3 hours, and in the last 4 minutes, I suddenly understand and answer all 10 questions at once.  Did I suddenly get smart in the last 4 minutes, or did the hours of thought preceding it just make my last 4 minutes seem especially smart?  The Neanderthals never got their last 4 minutes because they went extinct, so we don’t know if they would have been late bloomers just like we were.

 

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