Svante Pääbo, Evolutionary Anthropologist, Geneticist, and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work on the DNA of extinct humans and human ancestors. Dr. Pääbo established the new scientific discipline of paleogenomics, a complex process that makes it possible to extract, duplicate and read the highly degraded DNA found in ancient bones. It was through this process that Dr. Pääbo and his colleagues sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome less than a decade after the first human genome was sequenced and published. It was about this same time that a new species of hominids were discovered in Denisova Cave in Siberia that lived about the same time as Neanderthals.
What Have We Learned?
According to Dr. Pääbo, we now know that there was gene flow between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans (Homo sapiens) meaning that rather than “make war,” as early evolutionists believed, our ancestors “made love,” forcing a search for new scenarios to explain the demise of the Denisovans and Neanderthals, while modern humans survived to become the only species of Homo to populate the globe.
The Power of the Paradigm
This change in evolutionary scenarios calls to mind the power of the paradigm as explicated by Thomas Kuhn in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions first published in 1962. It is the paradigm that organizes the data, suggests hypotheses and guides the normal research that constitutes the business of science. Most evolutionary anthropologists at the time were men and they were persuaded by the perpetual violence seen in the behavior of Homo sapiens (inappropriately named “wise man”?) to offer a scenario of modern Homo sapiens sapiens sweeping across the continents and wiping out any Neanderthal species they encountered. But thanks to Pääbo’s genomic work, we now know that intermingling and cooperation were the order of the day.
Man the Hunter?
Reading about Dr. Pääbo’s findings reminds me of the once-dominant male-centered model of early human evolution referred to as “Man the Hunter.” The first paper I presented in graduate school was titled, “The Role of Gender Bias in the Formulation of Archaeological Theory,” and was based on a paper by Sally Slocum. It was man, the man, to whom we owed our cultural evolution, man the hunter who went out with his fluted points and spears to hunt the giant game, while the woman tended the home fires and took care of the kids, waiting for the man to “bring home the meat.” All manner of explanatory hypotheses were derived from this Man the Hunter paradigm, from language evolution and development, to the differentiation of family roles based on gender.
Thanks, however, to graduate student Sally Slocum, who presented her arguments in 1975 to the American Anthropological Association in a paper titled, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology,” female anthropologists found their voice and pressed forward with an alternative paradigm to explain the cultural evolution of modern humans. This female onslaught eventually shattered the myth of “Man the Hunter” and ushered in new studies about the prominent role women played in the development of plant agriculture, the domestication of numerous plant food species, and the dominant contribution of plant foods including seeds to the daily caloric intake and overall human diet. This led to such publications as Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter (1975), the feminist Marxist critiques of human cultural evolution by Eleanor Leacock, and the pioneering research of biological anthropologist, Adrienne Zihlman, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Ancient Genetic Variants and Modern Physiology
Svante Pääbo’s research reveals that traces of genetic variants from Denisova and Neanderthal populations conferred certain survival advantages to particular groups of humans. For example, modern-day Tibetans have a gene called EPAS1 that helps them survive at high altitudes. Other benefits involve increased resistance to certain pathogens. Dr. Pääbo’s paleogenomic methods promise to reveal more about the complex, nuanced history of human evolution in ways not accessible before the advent of these new research technologies. I encourage you to read more about Svante Pääbo and human biological and cultural evolution in Quanta magazine and on the pages of the NOMIS Foundation