Friday, May 07, 2010

A guy gets lonely out on the savanna...

For a very abstruse evolutionary anthropological paper, it got pretty sensational coverage:

Modern humans and Neanderthals had sex across the species barrier, according to a leading geneticist who is overseeing a project to compare their genomes.
Professor Svante Paabo, director of genetics at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, will shortly publish his analysis of the entire Neanderthal genome, using DNA retrieved from fossils. He aims to compare it with the genomes of modern humans and chimpanzees to work out the ancestry of all three species.
Modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa about 40,000 years ago to find Neanderthals already living there. The two species then co-existed for 10,000-12,000 years before Neanderthals died out — a fact that has caused endless academic speculation about whether they interbred. [More]
Of course the operative phrase - from the media viewpoint - is "had sex".  And to be sure that is one quick and easy explanation for what produced the evidence in question.  Plus it got enough attention to show up my blog, as well.

But maybe there are slightly more prosaic ways this could happen.
That's not to say that the hybridization hypothesis is without merit. Indeed, the authors did a damned good job presenting their case, and their reasoning is sound. The point I'm making is that sex isn't the only option. And if hybridization did occur to the extent they predict, we're likely to find more hints at its existence. Analyzing the DNA of some of the suspected hybrid fossils, for example, might settle it once and for all. Or we may never know if the gene variants that are similar between Eurasians and Neandertals are due to sex, selection, or substructure. Time may have simply destroyed too much of the evidence for us to be sure.
What is certain is that sex sells, which is why the only thing the media is talking about when it comes to this paper is that ancient people may have shagged their evolutionary siblings. It's just so damned frustrating because the sexual exploits of early humans is only the tiniest piece of this huge discovery. Oh, the things we may learn from this genome about our own evolution, and our closest relatives! Whether we had sex with Neandertals or not, the work this team has done will change forever our understanding of hominid evolutionary history. The impact this genome will have on the science of human evolution is huge. The breakthrough science, the future implications of this work - that's what the media should be talking about - not ancient sex scandals. [More]
In order to crowd out Lawrence Taylor, the hung Parliament, the BP spill, and "WTF" Thursday at the NYSE, a researcher better have something more than "early humans show mysterious genomic clues".

Sex sells. Period.

No comments: