January 2013

Students of human evolution may have encountered stories in the press over the past year that ‘we’ are a hybrid species – specifically that modern human beings interbred with at least two groups of other ‘human’ species, in particular the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, about 50,000 years ago. (The New York Times reporter called the latter group ‘mysterious’, presumably because it destroyed all records of its charter and member rolls, like MI6, whereas the Neanderthals were prototypical Liberal Democrats, and believed in open access and maximum publicity.) Now I don’t know if there is a word that expresses the notion that homo sapiens is culturally superior to other hominid cousins (anthropomorphism is already taken, and anything around homo- is fraught with danger), but this strikes me as a very arrogant and unscientific way of presenting the facts. After all, if ‘we’ interbred with Neanderthals (or those Denisovans, who were in fact far more alluring because of their mystery), weren’t those Neanderthals part of ‘us’, too? It is not as if the offspring of a Neanderthal and an – ahem – ‘modern’ humanoid lady, taught to be houseproud and to clean his fingernails regularly, could have told his father: “Sorry, Dad, you’re a Neanderthal, and I’m not, and I’m not going to put up with your filthy habits any longer.”

Now this analysis raises all sorts of testy questions about the immutability of species, and the gradualism of evolution, and may remind us that our DNA has a helluva lot in common with that of fruitflies, anyway. I don’t intend to go into those questions now. All this is mere preamble to the fact that, this month, I ordered my DNA testing-kit from the Genographic Project via National Geographic Magazine, took the swab samples from my cheeks, and sent them by mail to Texas. By this method, I shall learn, in a few weeks, about my own biological heritage, and how closely I am related to Attila the Hun, which would explain a lot about my famed curmudgeonliness. I suspect it will also show a dense packing of Denisovan genes, which would account for my fascination with spies and detective stories and cryptic crosswords, and for my absorption with the Great Mysteries of Life. And when my wife accuses me of being enigmatic and obtuse, I can just tell her: “Sorry, dear. It’s in my DNA.”  More to follow in a few weeks.

A new year of Commonplace entries starts here.                                                                                                                                                     (January 31, 2013)

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