Kissing cousins

So we have a new set of cousins: the Neanderthals. We were already aware of a distant relationship – although they were never our direct forebears – because we shared a common ancestor some half a million years ago. But what we have discovered is a much closer similarity in our genetic codes, and strong evidence that interbreeding with humans took place. So once again we must look at what constitutes a being with an immortal soul, and whether Neanderthals qualify.

The first archaeological discovery was made in 1829, although it was then assumed to be from a primitive human ancestor. Fossils found in the German Neander valley some years later were eventually identified as a distinct species, homo neandertalensis. First signs of the species seem to have appeared over 400,000 years ago, complete characteristics were present 130,000 years ago and it survived until about 30,000 years ago. Its last community is thought to have been at Gibraltar – a fine place to see out such a history. We have only been around for less than 200,000 years – mere babes by comparison.

The signs of interbreeding (1 per cent to 4 per cent of the human genome) may not be of functional significance, but it demonstrates that we were so closely linked that we could breed fertile children together. This is a rule of thumb indication of a shared species. The interbreeding dates from about 60,000 years ago — around the time that we migrated from Africa into the Neanderthal heartland, which ranged from Europe to southern Siberia. Humans with pure African ancestry do not have Neanderthal genes.

But in general there seems to have been little mixing between Neanderthals and modern humans, and there are plenty of competing ideas about why they died out. These suggest the possibility that they were much weakened by frequent glacial climate change, that they had larger energy needs, they were ill-suited to forming diverse societies, that they simply weren’t so sophisticated and ingenious. But since there were different Neanderthal populations, spread wide geographically, there may well have been more than one cause.

In fact the stocky Neanderthal body was well set up for cold weather, and the wide spread of territory they covered suggest that they were good at adapting to different environments. Nor do we have to assume a slow, lumbering gait, although I would imagine that ballroom dancing would not have been a forté.

It is difficult to grade intelligence – if only because evolution would favour its development. And, should we use brain size as a measure, the Neanderthals, with slightly larger brains, would score more highly than modern humans. But in assessing true human characteristics it is the kind rather than the level of intelligence which counts. The ability to work with abstract concepts, or the existence of a mind which can introspect, reason and make free judgments are all signs of the immaterial qualities we would associate with the spiritual soul – even if they operated at a lower level.

Certainly they manufactured tools and weapons which were quite sophisticated for the time. We know that some of the lower animals, and some birds, are skilful toolmakers, but these are of a different order of inventiveness. So much so that it has been suggested that the Neanderthal techniques were copied from their modern human neighbours. However, their capacity to hunt large herd animals, requiring substantial courage and co-ordination, seems to have been very high. They could control fire and build complex shelters.

Some claim that objects buried with bodies were grave goods – witnessing to a belief in immortality; other have claimed that these were just incidental trash, and that burial was simply a way of disposing of a rotting corpse. There is always room for another explanation. But perhaps the recent discovery, in territory only used by Neanderthals, of perforated and painted sea shells, personal jewellery and containers for pigment used for skin painting is more difficult to explain away. As Professor Zilhao (Bristol University) put it: “This discovery, along with research on the rock strata at other cave sites, has huge implications for how we view the European Neanderthals… The differences between Neanderthals and modern humans may be much less than had been previously thought…”

In fact the use of symbolic communication suggests, some would say – implies – speech. And the substantial cooperation required for large-scale hunting or the communication of tool making skills would seem to require at least a simple language. Interestingly, very recent work has discovered that the mutations on the “language gene” FOXP2 which are not present in the chimpanzee and were thought to be unique to humans, are now known to be present in the Neanderthal. They appear, at least, to have the genes to speak.

The work on the Neanderthal genome, published in May, shows that the variations in proteins compared with ours are remarkably few – in fact 160 times fewer than the differences between man and chimpanzee. I know that the significance of this is hard to grasp for us who are not experts in this field so I use the summary given by Professor Hannon (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory), who did this part of the work: “The news, so far, is not about how we differ from Neanderthals, but how we are so nearly identical, in terms of proteins.”

Everything which I have described is well backed by plausible evidence, but there is plenty of detail disagreement and speculation. If I speculate that we know of a sub-species of homo sapiens, who was intelligent, capable of abstract thought, revered its dead, and could communicate through language, then I speculate that we have someone with an immortal soul. What do you think?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Kissing cousins

  1. Fariam says:

    A fascinating and illuminating article, Quentin. Thank you! I had no idea of all these findings and appreciate the clear and simple way you have made the information available.

    Regarding your last question, I – for one – would not be too phased by the possibility. I am of the opininon that if a lot of Christians had a far more positive view of the sacredness of God´s creation, the animal kingdom, etc. these questions would not pose the threat which they seem to do at times. I think there is an urgent need for the Church to articulate a clearer theology in these areas. A good way forward would be to look more closely at the spirit, lives and writings of great and orthodox saints such as Francis of Assisi and Basil the Great. I also think we should be humble enough to learn from people of other faiths with regard to same.

  2. Vincent says:

    I am intrigued by the thought that, if Quentin’s speculation about immortal souls for Neanderthals is true, they could not have inherited Original Sin.The first pair may have been subjected to, and failed, an unreported test but otherwise the race never lost its primeval innocence. Thus not only will they be superior to us in Heaven but they would not have been redeemed since there was nothing redeem them from.

    What would St Augustine, with his definition of Original Sin, have made of it all had he known about them?

  3. st.joseph says:

    We may be kissing more than cousins in the future. Do we know how details of sperm banks are recorded or eggs for that matter.I am only summising this as I dont know a lot about that,but have thought of the consequences in the future-or maybe the present!

    If we were to travel deep into the Jungle we will find tribes who are ‘maybe’ not up the understanding as we are of living in civilization There are cannibles- they make spears- they worship I think totem poles-they paint their faces make tools -and body jewellery etc.When it comes to crows they
    have a certain amount of intelligence when they place nuts under cars to break them and then go back and eat it. If we watch squirrels and how they can work things out in the garden is also amazing,. Dogs can be trained to do tricks and animals in a Circus can also be trained to perform.

    We are made in the image and likeness of God in our soul.
    I dont know when God decided to reveal Himself to mankind. We have the Book of Genesis and it must have been before that as the writer had it revealed to him or her- although it was presumabley Moses.

    I often think about the Scripture reading whereby Jesus was speaking about the Bread of Life comes down from heaven,and He said ‘It is not the bread that our ancestors ate, that was manna in the desert-and they died’ Did He mean that there was no everlasting Life for them until He came to Redeem us and to show us the Way to Eternal Life.I think people who kept the natural Law would have been waiting for the birth of Jesus.
    There are still ‘people’ maybe just like the Neanderthals today who do not believe- but do have the opportunity to know the Truth. this is why we are so blessed to know God through His Son ,who came to show us the Way so we do have a duty to be missionary’s

    I know the subject is our ancestors if we evolved from them, but there are people living today who maybe just as much in the dark as them.
    I maybe be speaking on a subject I know nothing about, but just some ‘thoughts’.

  4. tim says:

    “What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture.” More important (as Quentin has pointed out) is: who counts as human today? We see and condemn the mistakes of our predecessors (are women and slaves human? Hitler denied the humanity of Jews and Gypsies: the Japanese, of surrendering prisoners of war; early European settlers in Australia hunted Aborigines for sport). But much liberal opinion denies humanity to the unborn (‘foetuses’). And it needn’t stop there: as a modern ‘ethicist’ has pointed out: “No miracle occurs during the passage down the birth canal”.

  5. Quodvultdeus says:

    We have learned that we ” are so nearly identical, in terms of proteins” to whom scholars previously thought to be rather monkey, though an intelligent and man-like looking one. In 2007 the findings in Ileret, Kenya, showed “that Homo erectus was not as human-like as once thought” (see http://www.unews.utah.edu/p/?r=080607-1 ).

    How did human kind come to being is now even more obscure from the point of view of science than ever. We cannot draw any ancestry line.

    But we can trust in what the Divine Revelation tells us about our beginning as persons – as well as Magisterium, e.g. Humani Generis of Pius XII.

  6. Horace says:

    I have been thinking about this post along the lines suggested by Vincent.
    “if Quentin’s speculation about immortal souls for Neanderthals is true, they could not have inherited Original Sin”
    I note from the Catechism (404) “original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense” and surely “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” is similarly a descriptive analogy rather than an actual perennial woody plant.
    Perhaps when the brain of a species is sufficiently developed to grasp the concept of “good and evil” then, and only then, will the descendant members of the species inherit original sin.
    Original sin is a defect (“a state and not an act” as the Catechism puts it) but it is only possible freely to choose good if it is equally possible to choose evil, so perhaps it is not simply a defect but a necessary precondition for attainment beyond that of ‘natural innocence’.
    (btw: I do not think that this speculation contravenes Humanae Vitae :37 – any more than the evidence of interbreeding that Quentin mentions)

  7. Horace says:

    Sorry – typo
    Humanae Vitae :37 above should read Humani Generis :37

  8. Fariam says:

    Vincent, st. joseph and Horace bring up an interesting point with regard to innocence and Original Sinwith regard to the redemption of our kissing cousins… It is precisely with regard to this issue that I have often wondered why so many people believe there is no place for animals in heaven. It is also the reason why I find it difficult to believe that there is no justice for the suffering of animals? Why would God create other living beings, innocent of sin, valued by him and with their own inate purpose and nature, only to exclude them from redemption? What kind of God is that? Where is the vision of creation being brought to completion? These are questions which need to be thoroughly, honestly and urgently addressed today.

  9. Quodvultdeus says:

    Horace states: “Perhaps when the brain of a species is sufficiently developed to grasp the concept of “good and evil” then, and only then, will the descendant members of the species inherit original sin”.

    Your suggestion that the “knowledge of good and evil” is a result of development of the brain implies that there is no such element in us like spiritual, rational soul. That is monism and in fact materialism, which was typical for 19th c. ideologies, e.g. Marxism.

    To say that there is no spiritual, rational element in us contradicts not only HG 36, which states that a rational soul in each individual person is “immediately created by God”. Such opinion revolutionises also the whole of Christian view of the created world. E.g. it erases such creatures as angels and fallen angels – including the one who seduced Adam and Eve. Accepting materialistic view of the created world brings disastrous consequences also to the whole concept of salvation in Christ.

    To speak about inheriting consequences of original sin after reaching certain level of the development of brain lacks logic. We inherited not guilt alone but nature. Inheriting implies that there was someone who was our ancestor, whose spoilt human nature we inherit. If we inherit sin, so we obviously do inherit also rational nature – with its damaged capacity to “know good and evil”. The original sin did reduce our moral capacity instead of enhancing it – as gnostics and manicheans think.

    But of course the notion of inheriting the spoilt nature will make no sense if we reduce metaphysical concept of “nature” – which is something “secundum quod ens agit” (the principle of developing /growing/ and acting) – to mere individual features of this or that particular being – like nominalists do.

    There are two points that come out: 1. Recent scientific discoveries tend to suggest that Neanderthal Man was part of human family and not an earlier stage of evolution.
    2. Materialistically minded scholars were too quick in jumping to conclusions in their desperate desire to explain the origins of man in monistic, materialistic way.

    The gap in the human ancestry tree, i.e. huge difference between hominids (h. ercectus and h. habilis) and humans (Neanderthal and other sapiens) leaves vast, covered with mystery space for research, which is enlightened up to now exclusively by the Divine revelation and metaphysical anthropology. Both, by definition, not contradicting real, scientifically proved, facts about the history of the human kind.

  10. Horace says:

    I did NOT say
    “that the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ is a result of development of the brain”
    I DID say
    “Perhaps when the brain of a species is sufficiently developed to grasp the concept of ‘good and evil’ ……”

    Surely it is obvious that a species (or rather individuals of a species) unable to grasp the concept of ‘good and evil’ cannot sin – any more that a cat or a dog or a dolphin – and that herein may lie the difference between a Neanderthal brain and a Human brain.

    This does NOT say “that there is no spiritual, rational element in us”.

    The very contentious statement in my comment is the next paragraph:-
    Original sin is a defect (”a state and not an act” as the Catechism puts it) but it is only possible freely to choose good if it is equally possible to choose evil, so perhaps it is not simply a defect but a necessary precondition for attainment beyond that of ‘natural innocence’.

    I would welcome being corrected on this point.

  11. Quodvultdeus says:

    If I get it properly you think that in order to grasp the concept of ‘good and evil’ a certain degree (what degree?) of brain development is required. When I observe gulls cracking shells by dropping them several times I think they are quite inventive. Is a person’s ethical knowledge and self-consciousness of the same nature – the only difference being more developed brain? No. It has nothing to do with the development of brain, though brain is used to express the ethical knowledge externally, bodily. The element that makes possible for a person to recognise moral good and evil is not situated in the human brain. That’s what I want to make clear.

    ‘so perhaps it (Original sin) is not simply a defect but a necessary precondition for attainment beyond that of ‘natural innocence’.

    This opinion was very common among the Gnostics in the early Church period. The Fathers, e.g. Augustine of Hippo, defended against Manicheans the truth that evil is not a being itself but a defect of being, its bad quality. Our innocence was not divine, from the very beginning we were created capable of falling into moral imperfection, i.e. defect. So the Original sin added nothing to our moral capacity, on the contrary, confused clarity of our thoughts and feelings, of our conscience, and destroyed harmony in us. We no longer see clearly what is true moral good – that is why there are nowadays so many people doing their sentence in prisons, and so few doing their penance in churches.

  12. Horace says:

    Quodvultdeus says “The element that makes possible for a person to recognise moral good and evil is not situated in the human brain. ”
    I am not quite clear what is meant by this word ‘element’. Are we perhaps talking about Natural Law? Or Conscience?

    I once spent a fascinating afternoon talking to a barrister in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (he reminded me of Rumpole of the Bailey!). The case concerned a coloured man, employed in an upholstery firm, who had been subjected to some bullying and harassment by his workmates and had used a knife, with which he was stripping upholstery, to attack one of them. He claimed that this was done during and as a result of an epileptic attack.

    There was good evidence that he had, in fact, had an epileptic attack and therefore the question was:- Was he responsible for his actions? – or in other words:- Was he able (because of his mental state) to know what he was doing and wether it was morally good or evil?

    I suggested that this was a case of “Epileptic automatism”.
    The barrister quoted as an example of ‘automatism’; the well known case of a man driving a car who lost control of the vehicle when a swarm of bees flew in through the window and as a result mounted the pavement and killed a pedestrian. The man’s automatic reaction was to try to beat off the swarm of bees.
    I pointed out that ‘Epileptic automatism’ is different because during such an attack the functioning of the brain is disturbed in such a way that although behaviour is apparently rational and directed (not just instinctive and panic driven) nevertheless it is not governed by higher faculties (such as the recognition of good and evil) and there is no memory of what has happened.

    If the statement above made by Quodvultdeus is true then perhaps we might (for example) invoke the schema suggested by Eccles and Popper of the ‘liaison brain’ and argue that the effect of the epileptic attack was to break the connection between brain and soul, but even so it is still necessary for the properly functioning brain to be sufficiently developed to provide the ‘liaison brain’.
    I am hypothesizing that the Neanderthal brain had not developed to a sufficient extent.

    To go on to my second paragraph; I knew that I would be in trouble here but I did not expect to be classed as a Manichean!
    As I understand it, the Manichean position is that there are two substances (‘beings’, perhaps ‘things’ in modern parlance) ‘good’ and ‘evil’. St Augustine’s position is that “evil is not a being [ i.e. substance] itself but a defect of being”.
    My error was perhaps to use the word ‘defect’.

    I simply wanted to point out the paradox that it is only possible freely to choose good if it is equally possible to choose evil.

  13. Quodvultdeus says:

    Horace: “Are we perhaps talking about Natural Law? Or Conscience? … it is still necessary for the properly functioning brain to be sufficiently developed to provide the ‘liaison brain’”

    If I understand correctly the concept of ‘liason brain’, the problem raised is what is the way the soul animates and, in deed, manages the body? Or a more naive question, which part of the body the soul is situated in?

    In fact, soul animates the whole body and our brain as well. Rational part of the soul uses brain to express itself. As Augustine says: “For so long as the soul is in the body, especially if consciousness remain, the man certainly lives; for body and soul constitute the man. And thus, before death, he cannot be said to be in death, but when, on the other hand, the soul has departed, and all bodily sensation is extinct etc.” (Quamdiu quippe est anima in corpore, maxime si etiam sensus adsit, procul dubio vivit homo, qui constat ex anima et corpore, ac per hoc adhuc ante mortem, non in morte esse dicendus est; cum vero anima abscesserit omnemque abstulerit corporis sensum…), De Civitate Dei XIII,11.1 (Corpus Christianorum 48, 393 [18-20]).

  14. Horace says:

    The concept of the “liaison brain” is a dualist explanation developed by the physiologist Sir John Carew Eccles and the Philosopher Karl Popper.
    To quote Eccles “mind achieves liaison with the brain by exerting spatio-temporal ?elds of in?uence that become effective through this unique…function of the active cerebral cortex.”
    I have attended lectures by Eccles but I still prefer the simple position that subjective awareness is an aspect of brain function and I do not believe (as some people do) that this concept excludes the presence of the soul.
    In any case either way we need a properly developed and functioning brain.
    As Augustine says “cum vero anima abscesserit omnemque abstulerit corporis sensum . . .” however because I have no way of knowing directly when the soul has departed I prefer to think of it the other way round – “when the brain is dead the person is dead” or if you prefer it “when the brain is dead the soul has departed” (although I feel that this latter formulation implies an unwarranted temporal aspect to the soul).

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