August 12, 2010


Our Neandertal Brethren: Genome sequencing has revealed our common humanity (Michael Schermer, August 2010, Scientic American)

According to the late Harvard University biologist Ernst W. Mayr, the greatest evolutionary theorist since Charles Darwin, “species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations which are reproductively isolated from other such groups.”

Reproductive isolation is the key to understanding how new species form, and many types of barriers can divide a population and split it into two different groups: geographic (such as a mountain range, desert, ocean or river), morphological (a change in coloration, body type or reproductive organs), behavioral (a change in breeding season, mating calls or courtship actions), and others. After isolation, if members of the split populations encounter one another and cannot produce viable offspring that can themselves later successfully interbreed and produce viable offspring (hybrids such as mules are infertile), then these two populations constitute two different species.

Let’s say that a species migrates out of Africa into Europe around 400,000 years ago and becomes reproductively isolated from its ancestral population for the next 320,000 years. It evolves distinctive anatomical features and adaptations for the colder climes. Moreover, even after other descendants of the original ancestral population move into Europe around 80,000 years ago, the skeletons from both groups show no obvious signs of blended characteristics. Modern scientists classify the creatures as two different species.

Then, however, genetic analysis reveals that members of these two species interbred and produced viable offspring that populated Europe and spread eastward as far as China and Papua New Guinea. By Mayr’s definition, these two interbreeding populations are not two species after all, but two sibling subspecies of the original African species. A subspecies has a characteristic appearance and geographic range, Mayr explains, yet he adds this significant qualifier: “It is a unit of convenience for the taxonomist, but not a unit of evolution.”

Thus it is — revealing the identity of my example — that we must reclassify Homo neanderthalensis as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a subspecies of Homo sapiens. A comprehensive and technically sophisticated study published in the May 7 issue of Science, “A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome,” by Max Planck Institute evolutionary anthropologists Richard E. Green, Svante Pääbo and 54 of their colleagues, demonstrates that “between 1 and 4% of the genomes of people in Eurasia are derived from Neandertals” and that “Neandertals are on average closer to individuals in Eurasia than to individuals in Africa.” In fact, the authors note, “a striking observation is that Neandertals are as closely related to a Chinese and Papuan individual as to a French individual…. Thus, the gene flow between Neandertals and modern humans that we detect most likely occurred before the divergence of Europeans, East Asians, and Papuans.” In other words, our anatomically hirsute cousins are actually our genetic brothers. that this easy interbreeding turns out to be true for everything and puts paid to the notion of speciation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2010 5:33 AM
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