Homo Collectivus

Collectivism, teamwork, cooperation.

Could these be the traits that allowed Modern humans (Homo sapiens) to drive Neanderthals into extinction and populate the Earth like no other mammal has accomplished?

A couple of years ago, a certain Dr. Daniel Stark offered the following hypothesis:

“Essentially [Neanderthals] were overwhelmed. Forced into the margins. There is evidence of some interbreeding between the two species. That’s why some modern humans have this trace of DNA. But for the most part, the Neanderthals couldn’t compete with Homo sapiens. …. There [was] something unique about the wiring in a human brain that makes us different, special. Even with a bigger brain, Neanderthals lacked that.”

“…. it was culture that did them in. Or the lack of it. For example, one-on-one, in hand to hand combat, the Neanderthal would almost always come out on top. They’d simply pound you into the ground. However, in groups, Homo sapiens had the advantage. They had better communications skills, better sociological skills. They developed culture, group dynamics. They could plan and execute better as a team.”

“[Essentially]  teamwork killed off [Homo neanderthalensis]. The better social skills of [the] Homo sapiens allowed them to coordinate and work together in larger, more cohesive groups; tribes essentially. It was the first step toward the development of modern cultures. Neanderthals were outsmarted, … Especially when it  [came] to hunting big prey. Big game hunting is a big payoff. It feeds more than the hunters. It feeds the village; the kids, the elders, everyone. A team of hunters taking down a large animal yields all sorts of extra benefits compared to a single hunter catching a rabbit. The modern humans had an advantage. Not everybody had to go hunt. Some could stay back and do other things. Not only the obvious things like childcare, but things like pottery, building huts, making weapons, preparing food, making clothing. The larger, coordinated groups of humans could take better advantage of their environment. They could breed faster and more often since they had a better food supply. After some time the Neanderthals were outnumbered and forced into the less hospitable areas of northern Europe. That made it even tougher to survive. Eventually, they died out.”

Now, a hypothesis offered by Dr. Curtis Marean attempts to extend Dr. Stark’s original ideas. In a recent article in the August issue of Scientific American, Dr. Marean postulates that a genetic propensity for cooperation with unrelated individuals primed the modern humans (Homo sapiens) for world domination. This trait, along with the new technology of the throwing spear, gave us the edge over Neanderthals when hunting big game.

Has fiction become fact?

The Ugly Extinction

There are a number of theories regarding Neanderthal extinction. Some of these center around the struggle between the already established Neanderthal population and the encroaching anatomically modern human (Homo sapiens or Cro-magnon) population in the Levant, and subsequently into Central and Western Europe.

The theories contend that modern humans were better adapted, had superior hunting, intellectual, and social skills. These advantages ultimately forced the Neanderthal population into into less hospitable environs with substandard resources, then ultimately into extinction.

This all may be true. However, I’d like to put forth a slightly different interpretation to the Neanderthal extinction. Sure, I’ll agree it was contention with the new human population. However, instead of the aforementioned characteristics, I believe that Neanderthals died off because modern humans were simply more attractive.

Yes, you read that correctly. Humans won the day because they were (and still are) better looking than Neanderthals.  Face it (and have you seen a Neanderthal facial reconstruction?), a Neanderthal is not the most handsome or prettiest face at the dance.

I contend that Neanderthal males were much more attracted to human females than to their own female counterparts, plain and simple.

It’s a basic instinct and can be observed through the animal kingdom; the better looking male individuals are more likely to mate more frequently with the attractive females. These more attractive females are also more likely to gain favor with the males to bring them food and offer shelter.

To those of us who survived high school, this all makes perfect sense. The current infatuation with geekdom aside, the good looking girl did not always end up with the good looking guy. Singer/songwriter Joe Jackson summed it up succinctly in his hit single Is she really going out with him? “Pretty women walking with gorillas down my street.”

Males are attracted to beautiful women. Females, on the other hand, are attracted to strong males who can provide and protect. Who can blame a young homo sapiens female for choosing a hulking Neanderthal over a slim (albeit possibly more handsome) male Homo sapiens?  The Neanderthal was the better hunter and protector, given the sheer difference in size and strength compared to a modern human. Neanderthal women on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with scrawny homo sapiens males. Sure, modern human males could run faster. So what? Big game hunting (the type that put food on the table at that time) was an ambush game in wooded highlands that required bulk strength. No one chased after big game in an open field.

The problems arose when reproduction is factored in. Hybridization overwhelmingly favored offspring from a male Neanderthal with female human coupling. The offspring tended to be more modern human than Neanderthal . They carried human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) rather than Neanderthal mtDNA, and, most importantly, the hybridized male offspring were infertile. This skewed the subsequent generations further toward human rather than Neanderthal genetics.

With the Neanderthal males chasing human females, Neanderthal to Neanderthal mating was reduced. Sure, the ugly Neanderthal women tried to compete, but as the saying goes: lipstick on a pig….

I suspect that the human females who coupled with Neanderthal males still went off for trysts with human males while their Neanderthal mates were off hunting, further skewing the subsequent generations toward human DNA.

Eventually, the lopsided mating resulted in a diminishing number of pure Neanderthal males. Neanderthal females who had no mates had already died off due to lack of hunting skills and ability to feed themselves and their own offspring.

The rest, I’m afraid, is history.

Offending the Offensive

Writers are always challenged to come up with fresh, interesting plot twists, unique or unusual characters, and innovative character relationships.

Although money can be made on recycling tried and true formulas (witness the financial, if not necessarily literary or artistic success of many sequels), a writer, like any artist, wants to be known for a groundbreaking achievement that will place him or her into the upper echelons of the literary world.

In order to make a story interesting and keep the reader engaged and turning pages, a writer needs to employ an interesting plot, three dimensional characters, tension and conflict. There must be a challenge or an issue to resolve. Sides must be taken by the characters. A moral or ethical struggle between protagonist and antagonist should grip the reader.

Invariably, one or more readers may feel personally insulted by a character’s intellectual or moral position. This is unfortunate but unavoidable when creating a enthralling narrative. The alternative is to write a saccharine story about rainbows and unicorns (which itself may be found insulting by someone).

One must consider political and demographics sensibilities; in this age of political correctness, certain types of people are considered unfair game when portrayed in an unflattering light as a fictional character.

With that in mind, I’ve made a concerted effort to push people’s buttons in writing my latest novel. If you’re looking for the smug satisfaction of self-righteous political correctness, well, sorry. Not gonna happen. At least not in this series of novels.

Happy reading.

Try not to snap your tablet in half.