Science & Technology

Rethinking Neanderthals

Clayton Carlson

No one likes to admit that a long-held idea is wrong. The more invested we are in an idea and the more it aligns with our overall worldview, the more likely we are to cling to it. It was interesting, then, to read a New York Times Magazine article by Jon Mooallem explaining how multiple scientists have been compelled to admit that long-held views about Neanderthals were incorrect. 

Neanderthals have been explored in scientific literature since the 1800s. One influential paper, referenced by Mooallem, was written by William King in 1864. That article ends with a line that shows King’s worldview much more than it tells us anything about the Neanderthal skull he aimed to describe. “It more closely conforms to the brain-case of a chimpanzee,” King wrote, “incapable of moral and theositic conceptions—there seems no reason to believe otherwise than that similar darkness characterized the being to which the skull belonged.”

Looking at little more than a skull, King made harsh judgements about the moral character of the individual (even the species) he was studying. King’s assessment, and those of his contemporaries, had lasting consequences for how Neanderthals have been seen for the last 150 years. For decades, every discovery was presented against a backdrop that assumed Neanderthals were thoughtless brutes, incapable of culture. They were animals. Mooallem quotes a history of Neanderthals in his article, writing, “Neanderthals became ‘mirrors that reflected, in all their awfulness and awesomeness, the nature and humanity of those who touched them.’”

The evidence that Neanderthals are more than brutes became clearer when geneticists joined the discussion. Mooallem’s article discusses the geneticist who has played the largest role in changing our understanding of Neanderthals: Svante Pääbo. A researcher who successfully sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome at high resolution, Pääbo recognizes that pushing a field to change its mind is difficult. “Science is far from the objective and impartial search for incontrovertible truths that nonscientists might imagine,” he writes in Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes.

This new work has revealed that Neanderthals used tools, had culture, and buried their dead.

With the field reset by genetics, those studying Neanderthals have been able to think more broadly about their subjects. Mooallem writes, “A lot of the new thinking about Neanderthals comes from revisiting material in museum collections, excavated decades ago, and re-examining it with new technology or simply with open minds.” This new work has revealed that Neanderthals used tools, had culture, and buried their dead. The geneticists have taught us that Neanderthals are not simply human beings from long ago, nor are they just another ape. Neanderthals are certainly human, though demonstrably not the same kind of human as we are.

So how does our Christian worldview—that this is God’s good created world, twisted by sin, redeemed by Christ, and heading toward complete restoration—affect how we see Neanderthals?

We can choose to meet them with hostility. We can squirm at how they do not seem to fit into the early chapters of Genesis and, driven by that fear, declare that all of the genetics and paleontology must be wrong. We can stumble over them and decide that Scripture has lost its veracity. Those of us who try to teach or speak about science and faith have certainly seen the strain science can place on faith. Books like Adam and the Genome, by theologian Scott McKnight, are written in part out of a pastoral concern for students of science.

But Neanderthals do not have to be seen as threatening any more than previous scientists viewed them as animals. Since this is God’s good world, made and sustained by our loving creator, we can greet Neanderthals with an open mind—with wonder. We can acknowledge them as another type of human that once walked this planet full of hopes, dreams, and fears. We can consider where they all went and how they might still be affecting us, even in their absence. After all, most human beings carry Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

So let the exploration and reconsideration continue. When viewed through a worldview that confidently trusts in God as the creator of all, we can let Neanderthals remind us that God’s revelation in creation is more wonderful and mysterious than we can ever imagine.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science