Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Prize for Discoverying Neantherthal Ancestry

The Nobel Prize folks announced:
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Svante Pääbo for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution

Humanity has always been intrigued by its origins. Where do we come from, and how are we related to those who came before us? What makes us, Homo sapiens, different from other hominins?

Through his pioneering research, Svante Pääbo accomplished something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans. He also made the sensational discovery of a previously unknown hominin, Denisova. Importantly, Pääbo also found that gene transfer had occurred from these now extinct hominins to Homo sapiens following the migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago. This ancient flow of genes to present-day humans has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune system reacts to infections.

That last sentence was probably thrown in to justify giving this award in "Physiology or Medicine". They don't usually give awards in archeology or paleontology.

Paabo discovered that modern non-African humans are descended from Neanderthals. So why do they keep calling the Neanderthals "extinct"? Neanderthals were thought to be extinct before Paabo, but the DNA evidence proved that Neanderthals mated with other hominins, resulting in today's humans. Neanderthals are no more extinct than the other hominin ancestors.

The wording is so strange. Saying "gene transfer had occurred from these now extinct hominins to Homo sapiens" is like saying, "gene transfer occurred from the now extinct Spanish Conquistadors to humans in the Aztec empire. The conquistadors were human also.They mated and had offspring.  

You could say that we have more DNA in common with the Africans than the Neanderthal, so it is more appropriate to call the Africans the homo sapiens. Your Neanderthal DNA is about the same as that of your great-great-great-grandfather.

But the Neanderthals had big brains, and there is no evidence that the Africans were any smarter. Maybe interbreeding resulted in humans smarter than either group. The Neanderthals had brow ridges, but I don't think that made them sub-human.

The Nobel folks are not the only ones who badmouth Neanderthals. A lot of others do also. I think it used to be done in order to preserve some Adam and Eve Out of Africa story. But Paabo proved that Neanderthal were human ancestors about ten years ago, so the story needs to be updated.

The Physics prize went for Bell test experiments. More on this later.

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