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Neanderthal Intelligence: A Reader's Response

A reader's response by Matthew Hallinan to "Neanderthals Were Not Less Intelligent Than Modern Humans, Scientists Find" read the original article at portside May 2,

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Important Neandertal sites,

Dear Portside,

Why Neanderthals went extinct, as your article suggests, is not easy to settle with a short answer. We don't know enough about Neanderthals to say with any real certainty how their cognitive capacities compared with our own - with those of `modern-type' Homo sapiens. However, the claim that "scientists' have found that they were not `less intelligent' than us is simply untrue. `Scientists' - among whom there are huge disagreements - simply haven't come to a consensus yet on this problem. Personally, I believe the preponderance of evidence suggests that there were important cognitive differences between Neanderthals and ourselves.

For progressives, there are two issues that hold particular interest in this debate. The first is the notion of how distinctive `modern-type' humans are. Beginning in the 1970's, a powerful intellectual current known as `sociobiology' came to dominate thinking about human evolution in academic circles. Their point was that there are no `fundamental' differences between human beings other animals. That proposition led to the idea that all human behavior is rooted in the genes - and that all social and intellectual processes can be reduced to biological dynamics. We can't reform or change society because it is an expression of behaviors built into our genomes. Change must await evolutionary processes.

The notion that there is nothing new and different about `modern-type' humans enters into the Neanderthal debate.  Many of the `Friends of the Neanderthals' as I like to call them, love to debunk the idea that there was something special about the humans that began to move out of Africa about 70,000 years ago. While these latter humans, who were our direct ancestors, were successfully adapting to every environment on the face of the earth, the Neanderthals were going extinct. doesn't that suggest something was importantly different between these hominids?

The second issue that is important for progressives is: what's really different about us Homo sapiens? This is the real crux of the debate. Its true that if one were to go back 120,000 years, we wouldn't find any important differences between camp sites occupied by Neanderthals and what are called `Anatomically Modern Humans' - people who look very much like us. Both of these had a pretty simple culture called `Middle Paleolithic.' However, by around 75,000 years ago, a culture developed in Southern Africa (Still Bay) that is beyond anything the Neanderthals were doing at that time. This is the culture that was taken along with the migrants that began moving out of East Africa at about that time. Within another 20,000 years, modern-type humans, both within and outside of Africa, had created a cultural platform called `Upper Paleolithic.' This included spear throwers, bow and arrows, bone, antler and horn working, sewing needles and tailored clothes, artwork, personal adornments, ritual, etc., etc.

It appears that Neanderthals and Modern-type humans came into contact in Europe about 40,000 years ago - right before Neanderthals disappeared. There is evidence that Neanderthals were able to assimilate a number of the cultural practices used by the Upper Paleolithic modern-types. That suggests that Neanderthals were quite intelligent - that they could grasp the principles behind some of the new technologies. However, over the previous 150,000 years, Neanderthal technology had shown almost no development. During this same period, the culture of modern-type humans and been revolutionized. Neanderthals were clearly very smart. But there was something they were lacking. Language

The most likely answer to what distinguished us from Neanderthals is that our ancestors had evolved a fully developed, symbolic language system. Neanderthals were as `smart' as us in some ways - but had not evolved our full language capacity. When we look at the history of these two different hominids, what stands out is that culture accumulates with us - and not with them. A symbolic language makes possible a more efficient accumulation of knowledge and know-how. It enables the construction of higher abstractions. Without symbols - `words' - a being's thought processes are restricted to imagery - to individual, concrete instances.  Language enables a being to create terms to represent experiences that cannot be represented by an image. The term `carnivore,' for instance, represents an abstraction drawn from lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, etc. No one has ever seen a `carnivore' - it doesn't exist as a concrete species. It is an abstraction - a model the mind constructs from the properties that are common to those different animals. There is no image that can represent `carnivore.' Without symbols, the word, the mind has no way to construct and represent a category at this level of abstraction.

The presence of a symbolic language system would explain how Neanderthals and modern-type humans could have started at more or less the same cultural level, but that our ancestors just kept developing while Neanderthals fell further and further behind. The defining characteristic of modern humans is not that we are born so much smarter than every other creature. It's that language organizes our thought processes - and language enables us to construct ever more accurate models of ourselves and the world we live in.

Biological Evidence

One last word. The fossil evidence supports the idea that Neanderthals and us were quite different and that the difference had to do with language. Neanderthal brains are shaped differently than ours. They have much larger occipital lobes - the visual area in the rear of the skull - and smaller frontal and temporal areas. The frontal and pre-frontal lobes are associated with abstract thinking, language and social restraint: the temporal areas are critical for language.

Lastly, Neanderthals matured at a different rate than us. Their young were fully developed by 15 years of age. In modern-type humans, the final fusion of the skull bones doesn't happen until around 21 years of age. The long adolescence, which is unique in modern-type humans, is believed to be related to the need for a being whose consciousness is organized linguistically, that is, at a higher level of abstraction, to be able to develop a concrete life strategy. We are a being that forms itself within the context of a social community it has itself constructed.

We are very different from every other life form. We need to understand that. If we don't, we won't be able to figure out how to rein in our out of control, unsustainable accumulation of ever greater powers.

Matthew Hallinan - 5/3/2014

Berkeley, California