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. @Elaine, shouldn’t the burder be on Gardner to show that usefulness? It may be that it does add something to our undrstanding of intelligence, it just hasn’t yet.

  2. kderosa,

    So if something isn’t included under the traditional definition of intelligence and doesn’t add to the predictive value of IQ, we shouldn’t consider it as a form of intelligence? I’m not sure what you mean by practical application. I think if we look beyond the typical ways of defining intelligence and testing for intelligence–we may find new methods and inventive ways to teach and better meet the needs of all students.

  3. The faq does highlight one of the disadvantages of following MI theory — the pernicious practice of learning styles which is the fad today.

  4. @Elaine, it includes a bunch of things that aren’t normally included under the traditional definition. And, that bunch of things adds nothing to the predictive value of IQ. So while an interesting theory, it has no practical application, except perhaps for people who are lacking in the IQ department but exceling in one or more of the other talents to feel good about themselves.

  5. @Elaine:

    Gardner listed seven intelligences: Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, and Logical -Mathematical.

    Some are part of cognitive intelligence – Visual-Spatial, Logical-Mathematical, and perhaps Linguistic.

    The others are unrelated talents that are not.

  6. Congratulations on your first grandchild. By all means, reading to children is good. We have a number of boxes of children’s books that we saved. They never go out of date. When my youngest was getting chemotherapy, I would recite Dr. Seuss to her from memory (I had lots of practice). She was only two at the time. It helped her relax and seemed to help with the nausea. One of the nurses said she had never seen anything like the way I worked.

  7. Gardner, merely expanded “intelligence” to include a bunch of unrelated talents. It’s one of those interesting unfalsifiable theories that hasn’t really benefited our understanding of IQ in anyway.

    And as far as motivation and IQ goes, the same gaps between groups show up in both low-stake and high-stake tests where motivation should play a factor.

  8. Otteray,

    I know about the shelf space problem myself. When I retired from my school library position, we built a library/office in the basement for me with ten floor to ceiling bookcases. Before work was finished on my library, my husband looked around and said, “I don’t think there’s going to be enough space for all your books. He was right!

    I’ve given away many of my old adult books. I kept all the poetry books and some of my other favorites. I have thousands of children’s books. Many of which I plan to read to my first grandchild–who should be born any day now.

  9. Elaine, i do not recall that one. I have been looking for my copy of Getzel’s book. I bought it new back about 1963. Cannot find it, so I suppose it has been taken to the storage shed with about fifty to a hundred other boxes of books. No shelf space either at the office or at home–I gotta stop buying stuff, but I can’t seem to help myself.

  10. Otteray,

    Have you read Howard Gardner’s book “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences?” It was published in the 1980s.

  11. Regarding creativity, Jacob Getzels wrote a book back in the early 1960s, entitled “Creativity and Intelligence: Explorations With Gifted Students.”

    IIRC, Getzels and his researchers found the most highly creative students tended to have an IQ somewhere around 135. That is really bright, but not what is generally considered “genius.”

    Terman’s studies of genius are very instructive. Several of the most creative people in history had an IQ in the average range.

    As for motive and drive, that is a function of personalty rather than native intelligence. I know average people who are almost driven, and some very bright people who are almost too lazy to breathe.

  12. Mike S. & Otteray,

    IQ tests don’t test for creativity–nor do they test the passion one may have for learning…or for learning about a particular subject. They also don’t test one’s ability/desire to work hard to achieve one’s goals.

  13. Regarding vocabulary, of course that is one function of learning easily. The easier it is to learn; e.g., the higher the intelligence functioning, the greater the vocabulary. I don’t think IQ is necessarily completely static, and that if a child is exposed to a “target rich” environment, they expand their abilities. There is a limit to what can be poured in, but think of it like growing a plant. No corn stalk will grow twenty feet tall, but a good one might grow taller than either of us. If a corn seed is planted in poor soil, the farmer will be lucky if it gets five feet tall, but add fertilizer and it may grow to its maximum height.

    You are not going to take a child without the genetic makeup and potential and turn them into a Mozart of Einstein; however, even a potential genius needs stimulation. However, a high IQ is no guarantee that things will turn out well. Caryl Chessman had a 136 IQ, but was a drifter before being arrested for murder. As I recall, Ted Bundy was a bright law student with an IQ of 124.

  14. “If someone has test anxiety, any halfway decent psychologist or examiner will take time and try to make it fun. There is no excuse for having a panicky or anxious subject.”


    That should be true but and when administered individually the tester can make a significant difference. However, when you look at tests like the SAT’s and standardized school IQ testing making the individual comfortable is not happening. Got to run, more later.

  15. Mike, tension is a function of the examiner, not the examinee. Individual tests take much more time and are labor intensive, but are far more accurate than a paper-and-pencil test for the exact reason you name. If someone has test anxiety, any halfway decent psychologist or examiner will take time and try to make it fun. There is no excuse for having a panicky or anxious subject.

  16. “Mike, verbal skills as measured by IQ tests such as the Wechsler series depend on far more than vocabulary.”


    i’m well aware of that and don’t discount it. However, a good vocabulary is important in understanding the wording of reasoning questions. Also there is an ability I think to do well on tests by enjoying them. A brilliant cousin of mine was a straight A student, but did poorly on standardized tests, because they made her tense. I was a C- student, but walked into standardized tests confidently and enjoyed them and so I always scored very well. I don’t think that I am any more intelligent than my cousin.

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