Pizza Toppings, Neanderthals, And The Ability To Chill

Gravity is the root of lightness; stillness, the ruler of movement.
Tao te Ching, 26

Neanderthals would probably have not liked pineapple on their pizza and that’s why they’re extinct. Sort of. Not exactly, mind you. Although Neanderthals did presumptively occupy parts of what is now Italy so I guess it’s always possible they had something that was remotely like pizza, it wouldn’t have had a crust and they certainly didn’t have access to pineapples.  This is where middle-of-the-night extrapolation takes us. There’s no way to actually prove whether Neanderthals would have enjoyed pineapple even if someone had dumped a load of them in the middle of the colony. Brain exercises are fun to a point, but beyond that point, they just hurt.

I cannot speak with complete accuracy on anything that occurred outside my lifetime. I can presume, assume, and extrapolate based on scientific evidence, but to some degree the more full we try to make our minds the emptier they become. At least, we are more aware of the expanse of that emptiness. We might start the day not knowing what we don’t know, but the more enlightened we become the more we realize the vastness of our ignorance. Realizing how much we don’t know is frightening for some, but as we grow we also begin to discern what matters and what doesn’t. To not know the things that are fundamental is truly disturbing. To not know matters of trivia merely makes one a bad partner for game night at the pub.

Where we run into problems is when what appears to be important is actually trivia and what we consider trivia becomes important. I might have had one of those moments this week, one that had me double-checking my medication to see if someone had slipped some acid into one of the bottles. I’ve always considered that, within the realm of paleontology and other studies of ancient things and beings, studies of Neanderthals was relatively trivial. Sure, it’s kind of fun to know about this long-extinct species, and maybe there are some lessons to be learned from understanding why they become extinct, but Neanderthals became extinct some 40,000 years ago. About the only thing that hasn’t changed over that expanse of time are cockroaches. They’ll still find a way into even the most well-built structure. I have always considered Neanderthal studies something of use only on extreme nerd trivia night.

I should have known I was wrong, of course. There wouldn’t be millions of dollars spent on paleontological studies if it were nothing more than nerd trivia, would there? Well, maybe, but as it turns out all those scientists are increasingly finding more relevance between Neanderthals and modern life. Evolution and the law of natural selection cause things to change and adapt, but for all that change there are still pieces of that ancient history that still exist and are still a part of who we are today.  That little bit of knowledge once again reveals just how much we do not know about ourselves and how the habits of our ancestors continue to affect us.

Of course, there are wise words from the Tao te Ching that we might apply here. Part 27 says:

In the same way the sage is always skilful at saving men, and so he does not cast away any
man; he is always skilful at saving things, and so he does not cast away anything. This is called ‘Hiding the light of his procedure.’

Be careful, dear dudes, the Tao is not suggesting that we all become hoarders.  Garbage is still garbage and it has its place but that place is not in your home. Please.

What comes to bear from those wise words, though, is the admonition that there is no knowledge to be thrown away. What information might seem trivial to us at first later becomes the invaluable missing piece to a puzzle we’ve been trying to complete. So, we don’t throw away research on Neanderthals because, as it turns out, not only does that research explain why some like pineapple on their pizza and others don’t, it also helps explain why some have more difficulty being chill and abiding than others.

The sciencey stuff is about to get deep in here, dudes, so try to hang with me as best you can. Before the new stuff can make any sense, we have to understand what was already known. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this part as short as possible. Follow the links if you feel like chasing the rabbits.

First, understand that humans (homo sapiens) and Neanderthals are two very different species but they do share a common ancestor. For reasons we’ve yet to understand, Neanderthals ventured off from Africa and roamed across most of Eurasia. They evolved differently from humans, with differences in everything from what they ate to the color and amount of hair covering their bodies. Previous studies show that the presence of Neanderthal DNA accounts for things like one’s ability to clot blood more easily, immunity from certain diseases, and also some addictive qualities and susceptibility to depression. We also already know that unless one’s ancestry is 100% African, you’re not a “pure” human. For non-African people, roughly 2-4 % of your DNA is from Neanderthals. If you’re really worried as to whether you have Neanderthal DNA, now might be a good time to indulge in some genetic testing. The more non-African your history, the more likely some remnants of Neanderthal DNA exists. Interesting, isn’t it?

With that information already in our back pocket, along come a couple of new studies that I had the joy of exploring this week. I have to admit, the academic language of these things makes my head hurt after a couple of hours. What they ultimately say, though, is worth the mental endurance course to get to the conclusions. As more genomes are thoroughly mapped, the information we are discovering about why we are the way we are is invigorating to the point it almost has me squirming in my chair. Or maybe that’s the coffee. I’m never quite sure.

Pizza Toppings, Neanderthals, And The Ability To Chill
photo credit: charles i. letbetter
The First Study

First up comes the study of a bone fragment labeled Vindija 19, 23.  The bone fragment was found in a cave in Croatia and dates to a female Neanderthal who lived 52,000 years ago. This is important because the best previous Neanderthal DNA mapped was from one who died about 122,000 years ago in the Altai mountains of Siberia. The similarities between the two are striking. Consider that the fragments are separated by nearly 4,000 miles and some 70,000 years. Under normal evolutionary expectations, there should have been a shit ton of differences between the two. Nope. Barely any difference at all.

What does that tell us? For starters, that Neanderthals lived in very small communities or tribes with almost zero genetic diversity. Without that diversity, one bad flu season wipes out the entire tribe. While the Vindija woman’s parents were not as directly related as the Altai’s parents, they were still very, very close. These were communities that did not venture far so long as there was sufficient food to be found. They would have been extremely conservative, relied heavily on tradition, and had a culture based largely on fear of the unknown, and almost everything in their world represented an unknown. That exclusivity and fear of trusting anything, or anyone, from outside their community was likely a significant contributor to the extinction of the species.

The Vindija fragment also opens some doors to our understanding of how that remaining Neanderthal DNA might still influence modern humans. The research shows that Neanderthal DNA makes us more susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia, and eating disorders, as well as influencing things like how we respond to psychotropic drugs (whether or not you can handle the shrooms, man), our retention of “bad” cholesterol, and even that beer gut that never seems to go away despite the fact we don’t really drink that much beer anymore. Mind you, that doesn’t mean you can blame any of those issues on your Neanderthal DNA. The DNA is merely an influencer, not a cause. You are still responsible for your own problems, dude.

At this point, I look at myself and think I’ve got to be pegging the high end of that four percent Neandertha DNA. That would make an easy explanation for so many of my problems, even though, again, that DNA cannot be blamed for anything more than merely contributing to one’s natural susceptibility to certain issues. Still, dude, there’s no way I’m all human.

What I find interesting in this study is that those traits still exist despite the fact that Neanderthals have been extinct longer than we’ve been able to record our own history. That their DNA would still have any influence at all shows both resilience as well as longevity. If the DNA of a species that has been non-existent for 40 millennia still influences a completely different and extremely evolved species, what influences might we pass on to whatever species follows us in several thousand years? Not that the question is necessarily one to cause worry, mind you, but it is something to ponder.

Then Came Study #2

Next up comes a study that compares the DNA of the Altai Neanderthal (the 122,000-year-old sample) to 100,000 living people whose DNA is part of the UK BioBank. The results of this study were similar to that of the Vindija study in that it shows a correlation, not causation, between Neanderthals and any number of psychological and neurological issues, especially an inclination toward depression. That makes sense if we stop and think about it. If Neanderthals lived in small, isolated communities that were largely inbred and not very adventurous, they didn’t have a great deal going to make them happy. I’m not even sure that shagging, which they seemed to do in abundance, made them happy. Rather, it was more of fulfilling a primal need. As that trait continued for thousands of millennia it became a part of their core identity that continues to be handed down long after they shagged a bunch of humans that happened to be wandering through.

Oh, and I found this interesting: Neanderthal DNA influences whether one is more likely to be a night owl. We can only speculate why that might be the case. Were they night hunters? We can create scenarios where that makes sense. Sneaking up on prey in the dark would give them some advantage. Or perhaps they stayed up all night to prevent other predators from sneaking up on them. Either way, it’s mind-boggling that such traits could still influence our biorhythms and our internal clocks today.

The third aspect of this study also matched the Vindija study in showing a link to addictive behaviors. This study zeroed in on smoking for some reason, though there’s absolutely no evidence that Neanderthals even had access to tobacco. The smoking addiction was prevalent in the modern humans, though, and the genomic inference is that the presence of addictive traits in one’s DNA facilitates an inclination toward such behavior and the difficulty some have in quitting.

100,000 people is a huge sample so the findings seem rather certain. Perhaps most striking, though, is the influence of DNA on skin tone and hair color. Now, we have to be careful here, because again, there’s a lot of different evolution at play here, but what the research shows is a link between variations of Neanderthal DNA and one’s blondness and fair skin or dark hair and darker complexions. What that means is that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed goal of Hitler’s “master race” was dependent in part on being less human and part Neanderthal. Feel free to remind white supremacists of that the next time they open their dirty mouths.

Oh, and this same research also confirms that there were, in all probability, zero red-headed Neanderthals. None. They didn’t exist. Which means we still don’t have a clue where those gingers came from. They may be even less human than the rest of us. I’m kidding, of course. Maybe.

But Wait, There’s More!

As if all that wasn’t fun enough, a third study published this week looks at early humans from somewhere around 34,000 years ago. This is important for our current discussion because of the close proximity between these early humans and the only recently-extinct Neanderthals. The DNA studied comes from three individuals, an adult male, and two children, as well as a hollowed-out thigh bone buried with the children. The two children were in the same grave buried head-to-head and the adult was buried nearby. From the proximity of the graves, by modern standards, one could assume that the three were related, but full DNA mapping revealed that to not be the case. Not even the children were related to each other.

Not only were none of the people tested related, but they were much more genetically diverse than one might have expected. Now, this is a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around, but in order to create individuals as diverse as those sampled, at least 300 genetically diverse people would have had to have sex with each other to produce people this diverse! Stop and just try to think about that for a moment. 300 people, over time, of course, coming from all over the freakin’ place, ultimately responsible for the three people in these graves.

What does this mean? What lessons might the sex habits of our earliest human ancestors have for us? Dude, this is getting heavy. You might want to take a moment to roll one and take puff or two.

According to the Danish researchers involved in this study, this discovery supports the hypothesis that ancient humans had incredibly complex social structures that involved mate swapping within small groups that were part of a larger social network that exchanged ideas and had sex. What we would now consider the nuclear family, two adults and their children, had yet to form. Instead, within the larger social network of what we might consider a decent-sized town, smaller groups cohabitated regardless of whether they were directly related, with groups of adults overseeing the development of a group of children that might or might not have been their own. Such diversity and social grouping is likely a primary reason why humans survived where Neanderthals didn’t.

In short, being horny little bastards has its advantages when it comes to the perpetuation of the species.

There’s more than that present in this study, though. We also see that these early humans were the product of extreme migration, having come up from the African continent by way of Persia (specifically Iran) through what we now recognize as Greece, Hungary, France, Malta, and Romania before settling in the Western part of what is now Russia. There were many more places involved, of course, but that gives you a general idea of how wide-ranging the diversity of these people were. At each step along the way, they encountered other communities of humans and enjoyed procreational activities within those communities before traveling on. As all these various humans traveled hither and fro, they scattered their genetic material far and wide, creating a diversity throughout the entire species that weeded out weaknesses and enhanced shared strengths.

We also see in this research a heightened sense of adventure. These early humans would have almost certainly put pineapple on their pizza at least once. In fact, they were likely down for trying just about anything someone put in front of them. Of course, there was the designated tester because no one likes food poisoning and back then almost anything would have been fatal. Still, one of the distinctions between these early humans and their extinct Neanderthal counterparts was their willingness to travel to new places and try new things. Had these habits, especially the enlarged social networks, not been in place, humans, as a species, might not have survived, either.

Pizza Toppings, Neanderthals, And The Ability To Chill
photo credit: charles i. letbetter
What We Learn From Neanderthals And Humans

So, we’ve done all this reading and studying and research and have acquired all this knowledge. Now, the question in front of us is what wisdom to we obtain from all this frantic activity of ours? Knowledge for knowledge’s sake can be fun but is ultimately useless if we don’t have any place to put it. Remember how you first felt when some teacher introduced you to Calculus? That pondering of “why in the world do I need to know this stuff?” is exactly the question we have to ask now.

I find in all this research at least three takeaways which we can apply to our attempts to abide in peace.

  1. What we, collectively, do now impacts humanity at a genetic level longer than our minds can possibly imagine.
  2. Being fearful and conservative doom us; being adventurous and liberal helps us thrive.
  3. Diversity strengthens us and is critical to our survival.

Taking those three truths, let us consider how we might apply them to our lives. Of course, this is just, like, my opinion, man. You are free to draw whatever conclusions you think you can support based on the evidence available.

Chill begets chill.

Traits repeated from generation to generation eventually become encoded into our DNA which is then passed down practically forever. I mean, if we still have the DNA of Neanderthals causing us problems and making us susceptible to some pretty serious problems, imagine the impact if we take it the other direction and pass down a genetic influence that makes it easier to abide! Human DNA does not change quickly but once a change occurs it takes a lot to unseat it.

This creates in us a responsibility to teach our children to chill. I gotta be honest, I’m not sure exactly how to do that. As I’m writing, the two little heathens who co-occupy this house have been running back and forth screaming at each other as siblings often do. They’re both diagnosed ADHD with one on the autism spectrum. We’ve yet to figure out how to get them to sit still for more than five seconds, let alone totally chill. There’s also that pesky matter of free will that dictates one has to choose to chill. Chill cannot be forced upon anyone.

Therefore, the best we can do is set an example that our children and others want to emulate, to show that abiding is a better alternative to all this running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. They must see us abiding in the face of ridiculousness and chaos. We can teach them the words of the Tao but it is how we live, not what we read, that changes humanity at a genetic level.

One thing of which I am convinced as that, as the Jesus told his dudes, the chill shall inherit the earth. The survival of our species depends on we who do not see war as an option and understand the value of shrugging our shoulders and walking away. We do this, we teach our children and grandchildren to do this, and we save humanity at least for a while longer.

Bowl with the other hand.

Survival of the species depends on us moving around, not staying in one place, and having large social networks. It also depends on us trying new and different things. We tend to think that everything edible has already been found, but the fact is that overpopulation of the planet puts us in a position where we need to find new sources of protein and other foods that can be generated to meet heavy demand. Somewhere along the line, that’s going to mean putting something on our pizza that is more foreign than pineapple. Not everything will work, mind you, and we don’t have to keep doing things that don’t work for us. What is important is that we try.

This also means not cutting ourselves off from those who are different from us, whatever that might mean. The fact that many of us still carry Neanderthal DNA is evidence that, on more than a few occasions, Neanderthals and humans did some interspecies banging. Yes, I’m talking about coitus, dude. Billions of us, Caucasian, Indian, Asian, Persian, and every blend that is not pure African has some Neanderthal DNA lingering. We exist because humans dared to leave the African continent and hook up someone fundamentally different from them. When we cut ourselves off from other people, regardless of the reason, we weaken the species.

Our longevity as humans depends on us doing things differently. For example, I’m a right-handed bowler. I’m pretty much a right-handed everything. A lot of people are the same way. One advantage that many left-handed people have, though, is that they tend to be more ambidextrous than those of us who have a dominant right hand. That means they can adapt to certain situations more easily. So, what happens when we, say, bowl every fourth game or so with our “weak” hand? Over time, that hand becomes stronger, more able to not only bowl but handle other tasks as well. We become more adaptable and better capable of handling adversity. The better we adapt, the longer our species survives.

Hook it on up, dude

Obviously, we have to be a bit careful in drawing correlations between the sex lives of early humans and our sex lives today, but they had one thing right: diversity is good. Contemporary humans have this silly notion, perpetuated by our mythologies, that we should only hook up with people who are like us. Yet, had our ancestors taken that approach, chances are pretty fucking high that you and I wouldn’t be here today.

This gets a bit tricky. On one hand, do we really need to add another soul to this over-crowded planet? We’ve already reached a level where the planet cannot continue to sustain life in its current form. All biological and environmental markers indicate that we’re headed toward a mass extinction event the likes of which we’ve not seen in at least 20,000 years. We’re already killing off other species at the rate of about 200 per day. So, the justification of making more people, no matter how noble the cause, is a bit strained.

We also have to consider that pesky problem of sexually transmitted disease, especially if we start getting really diverse and numerous in our selection of sexual partners. One of the children in the third study had malformed hips and legs. At first, the thought was that inbreeding might have led to such a deformity, but with the proof of extreme genetic diversity, it seems more likely that the child was a victim of a parent’s STD.

Still, if any form of humanity is going to survive that requires a more diverse attitude toward procreation than humans have held for the past two thousand years or so. By diverse, I don’t mean going out and banging the first person of color one finds, either. There’s not a great deal of genetic diversity between a black person in Virginia and an Asian in Maryland. To get genetic diversity means someone is going to have to do some traveling. We’re talking intercontinental hookups, dude. As with those humans studied in the third study, those who survive into the next hundred thousand years need genetic markers in their DNA from all over the world, not a 10-square-mile patch of white bread Iowa.

Concluding Thoughts

I always reach this point wondering if I have been sufficient in explaining the key complexities of the research brought to bear. There really is a great deal of information and extrapolation to be derived from everything I’ve tried to consume this week and I worry that I’ve done little more than confuse you. If that is the case, I deeply and sincerely apologize. There’s also the chance that I’ve misinterpreted everything. If that’s the case, I’ll apologize for that as well.

What seems obvious to me, though, is that now, more than ever, humanity needs more people who understand how to abide. Long-term survival is not easy and if we think we have it all figured out we’re kidding ourselves. How many times does the Tao teach us that the more we know the more ignorant we become? Even now, I’m sitting here with thousands of questions in my head that all the research may never answer.

Survival of the species hinges on backing away from violence, racism, and conservatism and embracing the ability to abide, to take no offense in the casual action of others that do us no harm, to share the good stuff when we have it, and abide in peace with one another all over the world. You and I are participants in that survival. There’s no magic, no mantra, merely abiding.

May many others join us.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

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Pizza Toppings, Neanderthals, And The Ability To Chill
photo credit: charles i. letbetter

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