Neanderthal’s and Social Darwinism: Perverting Science?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

Among the ongoing battles in anthropology and paleontology since the mid-Nineteenth Century to now, is the distinction between the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man. Specifically this devolves down to what happened to the Neanderthals, since the fossil record appears to show their extinction about 20,000 years ago. My assumption is that most readers are familiar with a lot of this material. It is easily attainable through Google or Wiki. What I find most interesting in this ongoing debate is the impact that Social Darwinism might have played in the original depiction of Neanderthals and in the assumptions made by some scientists about this species.

“Social Darwinism is a term used for various late nineteenth century ideologies predicated on the idea of survival of the fittest.[1] It especially refers to notions of struggle for existence being used to justify social policies which make no distinction between those able to support themselves and those unable to support themselves. The most prominent form of such views stressed competition between individuals in laissez-faire capitalism but it is also connected to the ideas of eugenics, scientific racism, imperialism,[2], Fascism, Nazism and struggle between national or racial groups.”

The first skull of the Neanderthal had been discovered in 1926, but it was the discovery in 1856, in the Neanderthal Valley, in Germany that gave the species a name. We all know that the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” in 1859 set off a firestorm of both intellectual excitement and angry social resistance. By the end of the Nineteenth Century scientists, sociologists, physicians, philosophers, and politicians had misused Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest” to justify a host of theories that boiled down to two intertwined propositions. The first was that White People represented the apogee of human civilization and the second that among white people the Anglo-Saxon Teutonic strain represented the elite. This justified Eugenics, Imperialism and even the attempted genocide of the Native Americans. In politics, it also represented a definite anti-democratic strain, articulated prominently by Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that those of Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic origin should rule the Nation since the “rabble” was incapable of civilized behavior without their strong leadership.

These theories dominated most intellectual thought from the 1870’s through the 1940’s and was adapted accordingly to each new political situation that arose. “Marcellin Boule (1 January 1861 — 4 July 1942) was a French palaeontologist. He studied and published the first analysis of a complete Homo neanderthalensis. The fossil discovered in La Chapelle-aux-Saints was an old man, and Boule characterized it as brutish, bent kneed and not a fully erect biped [1]. In an illustration he commissioned, the Neanderthal was characterized as a hairy gorilla-like figure with opposable toes, according to a skeleton which was already distorted with arthritis. As a result, Neanderthals were viewed as highly primitive creatures in subsequent decades.”

Even before Boule, the discovery of Neanderthal and subsequently Cro-Magnon skeletal remains had become intermixed with racial theories. This was because the skeletal remains of Cro-Magnons were considered to be anatomically those of modern man, while Neanderthals were heavier boned with sloping skulls. Historically, there seems to be no typically Neanderthal remains discovered for perhaps the last 20,000 to 30,000 years. It wasn’t implausible to believe they had become extinct and further that they had lost a battle of survival with the Cro-Magnons, due to the superiority of the Cro-Magnon (modern human) strain. These discoveries were so exciting to the populace in general that it led to many popular depictions of both species. The Neanderthals were depicted as darker skinned, with ape-like bodies and faces. The depictions were strikingly similar to the caricatures of Africans also popular then.

It is little wonder to me that the theories of Neanderthal extinction dovetailed completely into the Social Darwinist concept of survival of the fittest, among what they wrongly characterized as “races” and conflated with ethnicity. With Social Darwinist undertones, it became the dominant theory among anthropologists and paleontologists that the Neanderthal was more primitive socially, technologically and intellectually. This led to their extinction, whether by direct violence or an inability to compete for the necessities of life. Anthropology, Archaeology and Paleontology have always been of great interest to me intellectually. In my readings, one of the most striking things I’ve noticed is the reticence of these sciences to explore or accept new ideas that go against the group’s common wisdom. There is a stultification of ideas in these sciences as the current “stars” of their firmament feel threatened by new ideas that challenge careers spent advocating particular beliefs. Just as Schliemann’s theory that Troy was real was ridiculed by the then Archaeological Establishment, only to be proven correct, so was any suggestion that the Neanderthal may have interbred with the Cro-Magnon’s and modern humans may represent the hybrids of this interbreeding.

Yesterday a story reported on MSNBC brought this to mind, although I was familiar with the ongoing argument.

 There is genetic evidence now that Neanderthals did interbreed with Cro-Magnons coming intoEuropefromAfrica. While this by no means fully settles the question of the fate of the Neanderthals, it does lend credence to the work of Erik Trinkaus, who has led the derided minority faction that believed there was interbreeding.

 We have been brought up to believe that science is a pure search for the truth, backed by solid theories, proven by experimentation. This isn’t always the case. Scientists are human beings first, with all the frailties that connotes. Jealousy, egotism, greed, and other less than scientific behavior are as rife within the scientific community as with any other profession. Prejudice, in my opinion has played a significant role in the “Social Sciences” since their inception. In this instance I use, I do believe that the popularity of an underlying Social Darwinist perspective had a strong influence for many years as to how we viewed the Neanderthal.  

 There is rarely, if ever, perfect proof of any social science theory, that is to be left to what we call the “Hard Sciences”. Consider for instance the belief as to when the Neanderthal’s became extinct, if indeed they have. This is because we haven’t found any Neanderthal skeletal remains after about 20,000 BCE. The world though is a large place. We also know that around 8,000 to 10,000 BCE much land became flooded. Perhaps the “extinction” date exists only because we have not yet found subsequent evidence. When “social scientists” base their careers on only one system of belief, perhaps informed by their own prejudice, they pervert what we know as the Scientific Method and can often inhibit the growth of knowledge, which after all is the true purpose of science.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

72 thoughts on “Neanderthal’s and Social Darwinism: Perverting Science?”

  1. I am also a scientist. Paleontology is not my subject, but I’m very much interested in the “Neandertal case”. We know now that neandertals were humans like ourselves. Even Paabo said it recently: “take two unrelated humans today: their genomes will differ likely in millions of places; but the neandertal genome varies in average from modern humans in only about a hundred thousand positions”. The neanderthal project reports modern humans and neandertals have 99.7% identity! Consider then the global diversity in humans today: about 40 million SNPs, which is 1 % of the whole genome. Therefore, the variation observed in neandertals is within the observed variation among modern people. I am still struggling to understand what does mean that “1-4% contribution” of neanderthal into modern humans. Please can someone explain how it is estimated? Besides, the mitDNA data, seems IMHO contradict the nuclear genome data: the neandertal mitochondrial DNA is much more divergent than it is its nuclear genome, relative to modern humans; how could that be possible?
    As far as I’m concerned, neanderthals are humans like me and you, so no need to explain any supposed “extinction”; the wishful thinking and stubor belief in a darwinian theory can blind anyone.

  2. Typo…..should read: “No single test measures everything. SOME OF those functions mentioned, while measurable, are not considered a part of most standardized IQ measures.”

  3. @OS

    “No single test measures everything and not all those functions mentioned, while measurable, are not considered a part of most standardized IQ measures.”

    Is there an extra “not” in there?

    If there is, then I agree.

    BTW, here are some critiques of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory.

  4. If you noticed, I mentioned the LNNB and the HRNB which have specific subtests that measure things like kinesthetic and other complex processes. Interpersonal functioning is measured by other tests. The RPM is limited, given that it measures non-verbal ability only. No single test measures everything and not all those functions mentioned, while measurable, are not considered a part of most standardized IQ measures.

  5. @OS

    “All those functions are subsumed into cognitive functioning–none can be excluded since all are the product of brain function”

    Cognitive functioning — yes.
    Cognitive ability/intelligence/IQ — no.

    And while you can certainly measure IQ in many ways, a simple inductive reasoning test like Raven’s Progressive Matrices tells you pretty much the same thing as more complex tests.

    Are you saying that the WAIS IV directly tests Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal ability? Which subtests are you referring to?

  6. All those functions are subsumed into cognitive functioning–none can be excluded since all are the product of brain function, which by definition is a cognitive process. None are excluded and all are measurable. Most of those functions are measured by the Wechsler series of ability and achievement tests. If we add a full neuropsychological test battery, every one of those basic functions will be quantified and compared with a normative sample of the general population. For example, the Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Test Battery and the Halstead-Reitan Neuropsychological Test Battery.

  7. @OS, “ps I should ask, to what are you referring, specifically? Examples?”

    We are talking about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences which include Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, and Logical-Mathematical.

    Some are recognized as being part of cognitive ability, others are not.

  8. “….multiple intelligences that are not typically part of cognitive intelligence.”


    Perhaps I should ask, to what are you referring, specifically? Examples?

  9. “….multiple intelligences that are not typically part of cognitive intelligence.”

    That statement makes no sense, since it is not true. All top end intelligence tests assess a panoply of skills and abilities, including processing speed. Emotional responsiveness is not intelligence, since it is a reaction to the environment; however, emotional responsiveness can be measured rather well. Other tests of achievement measure how much one has learned in one’s life when compared with a normative sample of the population. Still other tests of social skill evaluate how one interacts with others and with the community.

    The brain is the organ of all emotion, behavior and awareness. ALL those functions are subsumed into cognition, since that is what the brain does. Cognitive processing.

  10. @Elaine,

    “I wouldn’t call the theory that people have different styles of learning a fad. It’s been around for more than three decades.”

    Good point. It’s a fad with a very long half life.

    “What usefulness are you talking about?”

    The usefulness of changing the definition of intelligence to encompass the multiple intelligences that are not typically part of cognitive intelligence.

  11. kderosa,

    “shouldn’t the burder be on Gardner to show that usefulness?’

    What usefulness are you talking about?

  12. kderosa,

    “…the pernicious practice of learning styles which is the fad today.”

    I’m not sure what you mean exactly when you write “the practice of learning styles.”

    I wouldn’t call the theory that people have different styles of learning a fad. It’s been around for more than three decades.

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