CRF Blog

Most of Us Are Part Neanderthal

by Bill Hayes

In Most of Us Are Part Neanderthal for the New York Review of Books, Steven Mithen reviews two books: Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo and The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf.

Archaeologists and physical anthropologists have long debated the evolutionary relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals, relying on the similarities and differences between their designs of stone artifacts and the shapes of their bones, with little real understanding of how these might have arisen. Interminable academic arguments have been swept away by the revolution in studies of ancient DNA, led by Pääbo (now at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig) and brilliantly recounted in his new book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes.

Pääbo has provided us with a fabulous account of three decades of research into ancient DNA, culminating in 2010 with the publication of the Neanderthal genome. It’s a story seen through his eyes. He describes how he began with secretive attempts to explore whether DNA would survive in an artificially mummified calf’s liver, and how he led a multimillion-dollar global research project to ascertain the genomes of ancient organisms.

Pääbo’s book has to be compared to The Double Helix (1968), James Watson’s brilliant but controversial account of how the structure of DNA was discovered. When taken together they provide an insight into how biomolecular science has both changed and remained much the same during the last half-century. Both are strong personal accounts of scientific discovery, exposing how science is driven as much by passion, ambition, and competition as by rational thought and the sharing of knowledge. In both books the reader is gripped by life stories of far greater interest than those in many novels before being plunged into passages of near-unintelligible science (despite much simplification) that are nevertheless strangely enthralling.

Pääbo comes across as a generous scientist compared to the distinctly unlikable Watson of The Double Helix. [more]