50 million Neandertals (genetically)

By Razib Khan | May 6, 2010 12:50 pm

John Hawks has a very long post up. This part caught my attention:

We don’t really know the answers, but now we have a chance to test hypotheses about ancient population size and expansion in Neandertals. My point at the moment is only this: If today Neandertal genes make up only one percent of the gene pool of the 5 billion people outside Africa, that’s the genetic equivalent of 50 million Neandertals.

As Hawks notes later, this paper comes pretty close to resolving whether Neandertals were of the same species as we moderns, at least using the biological species concept. There were fertile hybrids. That should not be too surprising, a few years ago when the Neandertal introgression story was big I looked into mammalian embryology, and our lineage had to be very special as mammals went for their to be inter-population sterility.

This is not just a science story. Dave Chamberlain observes:

Anyone else notice that the artists depictions of neanderthals have slowly changed from stupid brute monkey men to ruggedly handsome moderns with a protruding brow? Hmmm, I bet they get even more good looking now. Hawks promises all neanderthals all the time, I for one can’t get enough of it.

I think that this will change our perceptions, and “artists’ renderings” quite a bit. A few years ago when it seemed that Neandertals may have been highly depigmented I observed that it was a bit strange that in most depictions they tended to be rather dark and swarthy as Europeans go (most famously in Jean Auel’s work the H. sapiens sapiens were Aryan Übermensch while the Neandertals were small and dark). I think some of the same subconscious dynamic was at play as when Tom Coburn was outraged at the TV nudity of Schindler’s List. Coloured people naked on a National Geographic special is one thing, but white people should be decent! (and please, don’t accuse me of seeing racism where it isn’t. If you know me you know that I’m not super-obsessed with that sort of thing, but I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of implicit assumptions which go into being a white European, and how one views someone and how they should behave)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Genomes, Neandertals

Comments (19)

  1. On that last topic, I saw “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” on TV once, and they had edited out some Daryl Hannah nudity while leaving plenty of topless South American natives in.

  2. I saw “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” on TV once, and they had edited out some Daryl Hannah nudity while leaving plenty of topless South American natives in.

    naked animals aren’t sexual (i think that’s the implicit model being exposed here, and it doesn’t have a left-right difference).

  3. LongMa

    Why do they have to be the same species if they have viable offspring? There are many species that can produce inter-species viable offspring. Look at Canid mixes that are possible and viable:

    We don’t consider Wolves and Dogs the same species as Coyote. Dogs and Wolves are generally considered subspecies, similar to Human and Neanderthals. There are other examples as well.

  4. longman, it depends on which species concept you adhere to i’d guess. also, re: dogs and wolves, these two lineages separated far more recently in time than sapiens sapiens and sapiens neandertalis did.

    personally, i don’t think it is important whether x and y belong to different species because i don’t think of species as metaphysical entities, like creationists believe with “kinds.” it’s just shorthand to describe other things, like genetic distance or occupation of different niches in the same ecology, etc.

  5. Eric Johnson

    I adhere to the concept where taxa are good species if they are fated not to merge. If they have fertile hybrids, but the hybrids and even the backcrosses have sufficiently depressed fitness, then they ain’t gonna merge; instead, a preference fro own-taxon mating will evolve expeditiously.

    In reality, they are never quite 100% fated to stay apart – it’s always probabilistic. It’s somewhat contingent upon ecological conditions, which could change arbitrarily at any moment. But if they’re highly likely to never fully merge, I’d call them good species. If wolves and coyotes are amalgamating in a way that looks like it will probably go all the way, I call them one species.

    Of course, using my species concept, there can be a gray area where the probability of mergation/non-mergation is not 5/95, nor 95/5, but something closer to 50/50. This gray area is ugly, and the classical biological species concept doesn’t have a gray area. But ‘my’ concept (which I’d guess has been discussed a lot since before I was born) makes more sense on a large-scale diachronic view.

    Heck, humans and chimps may even be interfertile, it has been speculated:

  6. FINALLY! Something that can explain the birth of Keith Olbermann

  7. Ray

    It seems like in the past few years, most documentaries have properly depicted the neanderthals as white. What I’m more curious about is the pigmentation of the contemporaneous Cro Magnons. I recall reading somewhere that the East Asian and European genes for pale skin are different, which would seem to imply that their common ancestral population had dark skin. Since the hypothesis is now that it was the common ancestor who interbred with Neanderthals, shouldn’t the Cro Magnon’s in these documentaries be black? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a depiction of Cro Magnon/ Neanderthal contact featuring dark skinned Cro Magnons. Is there a good reason for this?

  8. in bjorn kurten’s dance of the tiger the neandertals are white and the cro-magnons are black (more specifically, kurten describes them in the in the afterward as looking like south asians, very dark skinned, but not necessarily african features).

  9. So Africans are pure Homo sapiens, a little bit more than all other humans? That makes ‘white power’ look even more ridiculous, evidential. Or is crossbreeding all at once going to be a desirable trait for all the racists out there?

  10. Jason Malloy

    Hawks sez: “Does this mean that Neandertals belong in our species, Homo sapiens? Yes. Interbreeding with fertile offspring in nature. That’s the biological species concept.

    Actually, the fact that Europeans and Neanderthals co-existed for 1000s of years in Europe, and yet Europeans show no more admixture than Asians (even despite the fact that they could’ve used far more alleles than the Asians) would seem to indicate that humans and Neanderthals did behave like separate species. No natural hybridization in overlapping range? Not same species. (That’s the biological species concept.) This is unsurprising given our deep phylogenic divergence, and the persistent, complex behavioral differences between Sapiens and Neanderthalensis.

    Introgression doesn’t demand a reliable behavior pattern, only a handful of one-off encounters. So introgression can’t be used to argue for unity of species.

  11. Sandgroper

    Jason, John Hawks is a self-acknowledged lumper, not a splitter, so he likely would say that. Well, he did, but maybe that’s why.

  12. Sandgroper

    In the 1981 movie Quest for Fire, the Neandertals were white and the Cro Magnons were black, or at least dark. It was simultaneously ridiculous and quite good, for its time.

  13. Alice

    Turns Hitler’s notion of racial purity on its head, doesn’t it?

  14. Eric Johnson

    Jason, the thing is, it’s apparently not mere introgression, at least not according to Hawks. Hawks’ impression (found on his blog) is that there is a bunch of neutral stuff in there, rather than just some positively-selected loci toting their linkage-disequilibrium blocs/haplotypes along with them. How he can discern this, I’m not sure.

  15. eric, the admixture is distributed all across the genome, and lots of them are low frequency variants. less than 100 are fixed SNPs which introgressed or went up via drift or selection.

  16. Eric Johnson

    Razib, thanks for that info.

    Just to let people know, Hawks has had a second post up, addressing (and arguing against) “alternate interpretations” such as were described here, at Dienekes’, and in Carl Zimmer’s post. If I feel competent to say anything after reading Hawks, I will.

  17. Afterthought

    No, the problem is that even though, as a scientific hypothesis, differences between races is quite valid, it is taboo politically.

    Not talking about something that is true doesn’t make it untrue. The differences exist in the real world.

    I’m not going to debate the political implications; I just want the record to be set straight whatever it may be.

    Jason Malloy nails it when he says that Hawk himself is seeing the world through PC glasses: we also don’t know just how many genes were transferred and then subsequently lost for lack of fitness advantage. We should all want to know what the function of the genes are that were preserved.

  18. Jason Malloy

    “Jason Malloy nails it when he says that Hawk himself is seeing the world through PC glasses”


    I didn’t say this at all.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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