Updated: Jan 22
Recently, someone discovered an ancient skull in China. MSN News, our leading purveyor of misinformation of all kinds enthused.
Researchers believe a fossilized skull found in China and dubbed "dragon man" could be the missing link between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
If researchers used the term “missing link” they should be ashamed of themselves. Biologists these days loathe the phrase “missing link”
"Missing link is an outmoded term in biology, which I have to say most of us think should be forgotten and never used," says Paleo Anthropologist John Hawks.
The missing link idea is misleading insofar as it implies “linear--a chain” rather than “branching”, a "tree-like" organic evolutionary progression. In addition, "missing link" concepts rely on perceived changes in what I shall call “gross anatomy” -- bone structure--—whatever we can see from fossils.
If you read my last two articles on wolves, dogs, neoteny, and self-domestication, you will notice that research suggests that anatomically “modern” human beings evolved around the same time as Neanderthals and Denisovans, no doubt occupying different ecological niches in the same way that Chimpanzees and Bonobos do. Homo sapiens was “gracile” compared to other Homo species, fine boned just as bonobos are, compared to chimpanzees and gorillas. But it took at least 50,000 years before Homo Sapiens won out and all other hominids became extinct.
That "something" we understand from fossil studies. And Dragon Man is irrelevant.
What changed was not our skulls--but what is inside our skulls.
We didn’t’ have higher IQs than other hominids. And we didn't become the dominant species because we were meaner, more warlike and aggressive: we didn’t kill off our Neanderthal and Denisovan neighbours. It was actually “make love not war”. Our ancestors, were, if anything, proto-hippies.
To put this in simple terms that most people can understand, we developed brains capable of high EQ, which means the enhanced pro-sociality that all young animals possess.
Neanderthals were neotenous also --just not to the same degree as we became over time.
How do I know? For the same reason that I know that early Homo Sapiens only became fully neotenous about 35000 years ago.
Our partnership with wolves is the key.
Neanderthals didn’t have dogs and didn’t’ partner with wolves as far as we know. Nor, for that matter did early homo sapiens.
That partnership evolved over time and suggests evolution “under the hood” in the brain. Partnering with animals—in fact, any sentient “other” -- requires a high degree of neoteny and also self-transcendence. Empathy and altruism must transcend the limitations of ego, “identity”, and culture. Maslow, as you will recall, thought that self-transcendence was the highest level of psychological evolution, an end point in human development. For our species, it was not an end-point, except neurologically but instead a beginning, allowing us to spread all over the globe -- like gray wolves.
Our ancestors were neuro-diverse, something clear from the high prevalence of neurodiversity in almost all hunting and gathering communities. ADD? ADHD? Asperger’s? Autism? No problem. There was no bullying in ancestral communities, which were (by and large) reverse dominance societies.
Yeah, your Granny, many eons removed had sex with a hunky Neanderthal guy she met out picking berries…and that led to your 2% Neanderthal DNA. Granny could do as she liked – and she did. The Original Ethical Slut.
However, this kind of EQ did not appear immediately. It needed a boost from wolves, specifically gray wolves, which have their own kind of EQ, so they can hunt cooperatively. Like human beings compared to other hominids, the gray wolf was “gracile” compared to the dire wolf and less specialized in diet. Like Homo Sapiens, the gray wolf did its share of scavenging.
That’s how we got together. A dead Mastodon that stumbled off a cliff was the Paleo version of Friday Night pub. Your guys get one table. Those other guys, the nasty-looking ones with the big teeth, get another table. You don’t talk. But you don’t fight. Too busy “wolfing” down the booze and other stuff.
Eventually you get used to each other. The guys with the teeth (or tats) keep other nasties away, and if necessary you help.
In any case, the ability to get along with wolves was a survival advantage, as good as a spear, a knife, fire, or a good throwing arm. Those who had it, lived to reproduce. Those who didn’t, didn’t.
The same applied to our partnerships with neurodiverse people, each of whom was “different” but many of whom had special skills.
So human beings self-selected for a kind of consciousness which was a.) neotenous b.) highly cooperative.
Wolves similarly self-selected. And wandering omegas joined the human family as the first dogs.
Dogs are the missing link in our own understanding of our nature.
The missing link in human evolution series :