Wednesday, December 20, 2006

No Better Angels

Our neighbor, the one who alerts us to the bobcats in the neighborhood, works at a cool second hand store in town. She brings us stuff from the store sometimes. The other day she came over with a copy of the October 2006 issue of Smithsonian magazine. I put it on the coffee table and didn't look at it until Tuesday morning. That's when I noticed it had an article on Neanderthal DNA. Have I ever told you how much I love Neanderthals? It's true, I do. I don't know why exactly, but I think it's because their presence is so profoundly mysterious. Who were they? Why didn't they survive? Were our more lithe and lissome ancestors responsible for their extinction? I love the fact of Neanderthals, their brutish bodies and pronounced brow ridges, and their bigger-than-ours braincase. These were brainy hominids. What were they thinking at the end of their days? I have always wished for some evidence of co-mingling of their DNA with ours. It meant something to me.

So, I read the Smithsonian article, delighted by the research being conducted at the Max Planck Intsitute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany (a city my grandmother lived in as a child). One of the things that struck me about this article was its conclusion. Not the conclusion that it is unlikely that we share any Neanderthal DNA, and quite probably displaced them-- as our ancestors did all other ancient humans on the planet. No, it wasn't that, but it was the consideration of the impact of DNA research on our sense of ourselves as humans.
The article posed these questions: "Will the knowledge generated by studying our DNA place limits on the human soul? Will people come to see themselves as biological automatons bereft of compassion and morality? Will genetics 'biologize' human relationships so that we define ourselves and others in terms of our DNA sequences?"

I loved these questions. Not because I took them seriously, as they were intended, but because they struck me as utterly absurd. That we humans-- we who have been butchering each other for millions of years, who have beheaded other humans, who have done medical experiments on babies, who have raped women and children, who have murdered nuns, who have set fire to day laborers, who have poured napalm on villages, who have built crematoriums-- that we might find DNA research objectionable because it could make us question our compassion and morality, our humanity. This was an absurdity, no?

The lead DNA researcher Svante Paabo worried about such possibilities. He noted that DNA studies have revealed how similar we are to other organisms, even such lowly creatures as worms and flies. Could such information be "a source of humility and a blow to the idea of human uniqueness." Yes, but for me it is this very information that reinforces my compassion and morality. It makes me feel connected to and stirs my empathy for every living thing. How it could be otherwise? I sincerely do not understand.

Who are we? We humans -- taller, more graceful creatures with round skulls and prominent chins who first appeared in the fossil record in eastern Africa 200,000 years ago. The article noted that, "The apparent lack of interbreeding between archaic and modern humans means that we are a very young species-- brash upstarts that overran the older and more established species of humans." We overcame all the other human species that lived on the earth. I wondered, aren't we still on that same path, except now we make war with each other. Why do we wonder who we are? Haven't we always been this? Brash upstarts. If only there were evidence that Neanderthal DNA had co-mingled with ours, then we would know that we could live with others, could make peace, could co-exist. It would be written in our genes.

Nothing makes me question the limits on the human soul more than the ways humans have treated each other since the beginning of time. Ask a Neanderthal about it, if you can find one.

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