I have long been an observer of the ongoing battle between those who insist that our remote ancestors never interbred with Neanderthals, and a minority that insists that of course there was some hanky panky somewhere back along the line, and at least some of us are to some extent descendants of those hairy, beetle-browed cousins. Mainstream scientific opinion decisively rejects the intermixture theory, on the basis of evidence from the Y chromosome that traces common human ancestry back to a single human female in Africa, dubbed “Eve”. I’ve never quite understood why that theory precludes later dalliance by some of Eve’s descendants with beetle-browed types farther north, but then, I am not a molecular biologist.
Now, at last, the latest round in the fight goes to the Neanderthals. The press has reported (eg the May 7 Washington Post) that a group of scientists have produced DNA evidence, based of new studies of the Neanderthal genome, that conclusively demonstrates that there was some intermixture between our two species, perhaps when we were living in adjacent caves in what is now Israel back around forty or fifty thousand years ago. I predict a lusty fight between the scientists over whether to believe the Y chromosome or the DNA evidence.
Perhaps the passion is due to the fact that we are talking about our own ancestors, not the phylogeny of some beetle or bird. Even so, the family tree gets a little attenuated when you reach back 40,000 years or so. I see the controversy as grounded mainly in differing views about race, which of course has some pretty purple political implications. Mainstream opinion for about the last half century has stoutly maintained that race is a human construct without any scientific basis. This attitude grew out of historical experience with misuse of the race concept climaxing in the Holocaust. It is more political than scientific, and evidences of racial differences keep surfacing, to the intense annoyance of the politically correct.
I am on the side of the modern racists, the ones who are open-minded on the subject and interested in the evidence, not with politically correct positions. (The old school of racists, who preached racial superiority without knowing what they were talking about, were just plain wrong. Their doctrine was an aberration that led to odious results). As a modern racist, I confess the hope that future investigations will reveal something like the following: Some of Eve’s descendants trundle out of Africa, establish themselves in the land bridge between Africa and Eurasia, crossbreed with a few resident Neanderthals, and produce a somewhat new breed of hybridized humans whose descendants wander all over the place, adapting to different environments and perhaps messing around to some extent with other human cousins. Hybrid vigor and all that. In the end, or rather at this point, we see a marvelous tapestry of human beings populating various corners of the globe, rivaling in their colorful diversity the most fascinating other creatures that the evolutionary process has produced on our hospitable planet earth.
Why not? This scenario is surely something everyone can be proud of. Among other things it lends a new significance to the Holy Land. Now we can all claim a piece of it.