Neanderthal and Proud

A little while ago my brother decided to get a DNA test. So far, so good and why not. He discovered, and decided to share with his siblings, without necessarily asking us if we wanted him to, that we were all descended from a mix of the usual British suspects – a bit of Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Celt – and were predisposed to standard diseases and health risks.

But he kept one surprise back to the end. We had double the normal amount of Neanderthal in our genes.

For those who haven’t been keeping up, it’s now well established that we all have a small quantity of Neanderthal genes. This is the result of contact that occurred largely in the Middle East and  Europe when homo sapiens arrived to find Neanderthals already there, sometime before 40,000 BC.  And given that’s a fair while ago, there must been a great deal of what scientists genteelly call ‘interbreeding’ for even some of that still to survive diluted today.

But the amount my siblings and I had was way, way above average. Not to put too fine a point on it, twice as much. Which was impossible to ignore.

Reactions were, to say the least, mixed. My girlfriend declared she had suspected something of the sort for some time. My mother announced immediately that it must all come from my father’s side of the family. And it took a while to digest ourselves.

But then came help.  I came across an attractive scholarly thesis which proposed that the Neanderthal element within homo sapiens was the bit that added interest – that was, so to speak, the little spike of mustard in the mix. The ‘genius gene’ that can give creative spark and has allowed us as a species sometimes to think out of the box. According to this thesis, the Neanderthal is the Mac component, with the design flair, while standard homo sapiens is boring old PC, plodding along on its mundane majority-gene tasks. Neanderthals were wilder, improvisational, free – and, the palaeontologists have shown, had bigger brains. The more you have of it within you, the more likely you are to break loose.

Most rock ‘n’ roll singers undoubtedly have a little bit of extra Neanderthal in their genome cocktail. No one can tell me that Iggy Pop is purebreed sapiens. While it goes without saying that they are likely to be better lovers (‘once you’ve had Neanderthal, there’s no going back’). The creative gene means it might not be long before the job spec for computer programmers, nuclear physicists or architects for an international commission contain the words ‘only those with high levels of Neanderthal need apply’. What’s not to like?

To say this came as a pleasurable hypothesis would be an understatement. Not only could I now frame myself as a proud Neanderthal, but as a middle-aged, middle-class white man living in the south of England, it could give me something I badly needed – some identity politics.

I realised that Neanderthals have been patronised and demonised for far too long. Some consciousness-raising is badly needed.  Even President Biden, like so many of the woke, turned out to be just as prejudiced as those they seek to condemn when he made his cruel gibe that not wearing a mask was ‘Neanderthal thinking’.

Really? I was personally offended and more than a little traumatised by his remark. Quite apart from the fact that he may have just dissed his entire political constituency (almost every American has a certain amount of Neanderthal in them – how else did Trump get elected?) Doesn’t he realise that back in the day, Neanderthals would probably have made their own masks long before homo sapiens even thought of it. Some remarkable archaeological discoveries over the last few years have shown that contrary to prejudice and expectations, Neanderthals were usually ahead of the curve: they were creating art, building boats to sail across waterways and making tools long before ‘we’ were. Sorry, ‘you’ were.

Of course some rebranding needs to be done. The word Neanderthal – from the German valley where the first remains were found – carries a pejorative overtone of some lunk-jawed caveman looking at a fire and not knowing how to light it. We need something new.

Perhaps ‘First Man’ would be good. I could imagine meeting somebody at a party and asking them politely how much ‘First Man’ they had in their makeup. Or of course ‘First Woman’ depending on how they gender-identified. Although I’ve noticed that women tend to think of being Neanderthal as purely a male preserve, even when, as with my sisters, they’ve got just as much of it in their DNA as I have.

There is also an argument that, although we may only slowly be absorbing it, the discovery we contain elements of another whole hominid species may mark a paradigm shift in our understanding of ourselves; just as when we realised that the sun did not revolve around an anthropocentric earth, or that we were as much animal as any of our Darwinian relations.

I think it’s quite a liberating thought.

In his bestselling book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari makes the counterintuitive point that the worst thing we ever did as a species was settle down and become agriculturists, with a dependence on a monotonous diet and a far more punishing work schedule than when we were hunter gatherers. The PC in us won out.

It’s about time we embraced our inner Neanderthal again and recognised that a little bit of gene diversity might be a good and creative thing. Get us out and about more. Loosen us up. Although obviously it helps if you have more of it in your genes to start with. Just saying.

A version of this article first appeared in the Spectator

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