Reviews — From the September 2014 issue

The Replacements

New evidence on the old mystery of the Neanderthals

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Discussed in this essay:

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, by Svante Pääbo. Basic Books. 275 pages. $27.99.

The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story, by Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse. Thames & Hudson. 208 pages. $29.95.

Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, by Chris Stringer. Times Books. 320 pages. $28.00.

Human identity turns out to be more complicated than you think, though no doubt you think it’s pretty damn complicated. We carry our evolutionary history in our genomes, and our history is a very mixed record. In recent years, a cluster of scientific studies of ancient DNA — specifically, DNA retrieved from Neanderthal bones — has cast some startling new light on several old questions, such as: What happened to the Neanderthals, who seem to have disappeared from their last European enclaves around 30,000 years ago? What happened to us, about the same time, such that we began painting wonderful art on the walls of caves, developed new methods of tool-making and means of communication, and emerged as the last, most successful form of hominin on Earth? Did we kill the Neanderthals off, did we drive them extinct by inexorable competition, or did we merely arrive by coincidence as they failed? Or, still another possibility, did we subsume them (despite the species “barrier”) by interbreeding?

Photograph of a man carving a Neanderthal replica © ullstein bild/The Granger Collection, New York City

Photograph of a man carving a Neanderthal replica © ullstein bild/The Granger Collection, New York City

Three recent books help to place these questions within a broader context of paleoanthropology as practiced over the past forty years. The Neanderthals Rediscovered, by Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse, is focused squarely on the Neanderthals in their own right — how they lived, how they evolved, how they inhabited Europe for at least two hundred millennia. “We wanted to write a book on the Neanderthals that does not dwell too much on the false turns in the long history of research and does not get easily distracted by the entry of Homo sapiens on to the scene.” It’s an admirable resolve. Papagianni, an archaeologist who specializes in stone tools, and Morse, a science historian, consider the evidence of obsidian blades, flint scrapers, hand axes, hammerstones, spear points, and expertly knapped flakes — artifacts that reflect who was living where, and when, and practicing hunter-gatherer skills with what levels of sophistication and forethought. Much can be read from a fist-size hunk of chipped rock.

Chris Stringer’s Lone Survivors, on the other hand, takes the emergence and triumph of modern humans as its central topic. Stringer, a paleoanthropologist based at the Natural History Museum in London, is an authority on human evolution in general, Neanderthals more particularly, and a forceful proponent of what’s called the Out of Africa model of human prehistory. According to that model, one group of humans emerged as modern Homo sapiens about 50,000 years ago, in Africa, following revolutionary changes in tool-making and other complex behaviors. From Africa, Stringer tells us, these new people dispersed to Europe, where “they quickly took on and replaced the Neanderthals through their superior technology and adaptations.” Hence the alternative label for that scenario: the Replacement model.

In his scientific memoir, Neanderthal Man, Svante Pääbo, a Swedish-born evolutionary geneticist, describes his early dreams of being an Egyptologist, inspired by a trip to Egpyt with his mother when he was thirteen. He became fascinated with mummies, memorized hieroglyphs, and worked summers at a museum cataloging pottery shards. But he soon realized that the discipline “was moving too slowly for my tastes.” Instead he studied medicine, then shifted to a research career in molecular biology, “with its apparently boundless promise of advances in the welfare of humankind.” Notwithstanding the exigencies of human welfare in the present, he found himself still intrigued by the shape of the human past. “Could it be possible to study ancient DNA sequences and thereby clarify how ancient Egyptians were related to one another and to people today?” Pääbo is now director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. His curiosity about pharaonic Egypt led him to the still-deeper past, of 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, when Neanderthal history came to its sudden halt.

These three works are especially interesting in combination because, besides giving us a trio of perspectives on the Neanderthals’ rise and fall, they exemplify a bigger theme in modern science: the decades-long schism between organismic and molecular biology. Organismic biology, the more traditional of the two, looks at whole organisms (such as animals and plants) and populations, to consider their ecology and evolution. Molecular biology looks at the molecules of life, in particular DNA, to consider the minute mechanics of biochemistry and heredity.

Organismic biology is holistic — so its partisans would argue — whereas molecular is reductionist; or, as viewed from the other side, molecular is mechanistic and precise whereas organismic is descriptive and woolly. You may have missed this argument, unless you work in the field or are somehow involved with the allocation of university budgets and buildings. It has been quiet and internecine but bitter, and traceable back to the late 1950s and early ’60s, when Edward O. Wilson (organismic) and James D. Watson (molecular) were young scientists competing for tenure at Harvard — an archetypal contest, as described in Wilson’s memoir Naturalist — and when elders such as George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky (all organismic) published grumpy essays under such titles as “The Crisis in Biology.”

The schism persisted for decades but has narrowed and healed somewhat in recent years, with molecular biologists rediscovering the fascination of evolutionary questions and organismic biologists becoming more appreciative of molecular methods. The two camps still compete for esteem and resources, though not as snarkily as in the past.

The mystery of the Neanderthals represents a good test case because scientists converge on it from both sides (Stringer and Papagianni and Morse from the organismic, Pääbo and his team from the molecular) and because the available evidence is so severely limited: stone tools, bones, precious traces of ancient DNA. It’s impressive to see science, of any sort, making so much of so little.

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’s most recent book, Spillover, was published in 2012 by W. W. Norton. His article “Contagious Cancer” appeared in the April 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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