I wanted to make my previous post on the news about the Neanderthal DNA discovery stand as is and be content to just read articles and discussions on the matter elsewhere, but it turns out that my casual prediction that people wouldn’t be touching it with a hundred foot pole turned out to be a moment of pure clairvoyance. Other than a tiny number of small time local news rags opining sensationalistically and humorously about it (with plenty of caveman puns for good measure), the internet is virtually silent about what is without a doubt the biggest fundamental anthropological discovery that I’ve ever seen in my adult life.
The new fact was added to the Neanderthal entry over at Wikipedia without much fanfare other than some behind the scenes rant which amounted to not much more than how to tip-toe around the word “African”, which I suppose is the culprit in all the aforementioned silence. I’m going into rare rant form for this because I have a bone to pick. Is there anything to be said about the discovery *other* than how we can rehabilitate the political terminology? Is there nothing exciting about the fact that we carry the DNA of a species otherwise known to be extinct? In other words, is there anything at all interesting about science besides how it affirms or denies our social prejudices? I rarely even get to read published research anymore that doesn’t engage in a certain amount of weasel talk if the subject is politically sensitive. That kind of concessionary disposition devalues the research (as well as the ultimate justification for research) by suggesting that researchers need to apologize for reaching necessary conclusions that defy prejudice.
So what’s the great big elephant in the room that nobody seems to want to address? People are different in ways that are more fundamental than culture, and less superficial than skin. Is it really that bad to have to say, this one little admission? Are we all just pretending to celebrate diversity, but then when we see evidence of real diversity we get offended by the suggestion? I stated in my last post that I looked forward to future research expanding on what’s already been uncovered by the Neanderthal genome map, but now I’m getting a bit of a queasy feeling, wondering whether any of that will actually happen. Maybe it’ll get stuffed in a dark vault never to be seen again. Or maybe we’ll only pose bland and uninteresting questions from the data, the results of which will pose no meaningful consequence. I hope none of that is true, but my hope is less vibrant than it was when I first read the study three days ago.
There is of course another, maybe even bigger, elephant in the room though: religion. These kinds of scientific discovery stories are just plain hard to sell to a public that’s largely unwilling to admit that evolution happened, let alone that any such Neanderthal creature ever even existed. At worst this discovery will be blatantly sold by ignorant creationists as evidence that they were really just plain old normal human beings after all. Maybe a lighthearted take on club wielding cavemen and grunting and other such nonsense is the only safe take a news organization *can* express in print.
All in all it seems like this poor beast of a study and the small nugget of truth it conveys is just a no-no among both the enlightened and the superstitious, and that’s an absolute shame on our culture.