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Neanderthal Theory

January 4, 2008

Personally, I have problems with the Neanderthal theory:

  • From an ethical perspective, it seems to have racist overtones. Race refers, from an evolutionary perspective, to any physical traits of a particular population. The assumption is that these traits continued because they helped that population survive. For instance, aside from the usual focus on skin pigmentation and the Asian eye fold, persons from the Himalayan Mountains tend to have, on average, larger lung capacity. Those from colder climates have, on average, shorter arms. However, no reputable scientist would then correlate these evolutionary adaptations (natural selection) with behavioral traits. Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism was rejected long ago. The Neanderthal theory, however, seems to me to do just that.
  • I still have ethical problems with the idea. Accusations of being a different “species” have also, at various times, been made, in the U.S., against African Americans and others. Scientifically, I see it hugely speculative and probably untestable, which is why I have focused on the ethical dimension.
  • I suppose I see it as speculative metaphysics. IMO, Asperger’s autism is simply a humanly devised category for certain observed variation in individuals. The Neanderthal theory, aside from its Social Darwinism, is also essentialist. I have seen people in this forum use the Neanderthal theory as a justification for a kind of racism (i.e., superior physical traits), but perhaps that idea was not in the mind of the person who proposed it.
  • Hypotheses are testable. One does not need to guess on how to test them. The methodology for doing so is included in the research design. I do not think that the Neanderthal theory is grounded, i.e., grounded in supported, or supportable, hypotheses. Charles Darwin did not correlate natural selection with behavior. However, Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” did precisely that. Actually, the term Social Darwinism is a bit of a misnomer. It has nothing to do with Darwin. Spencer developed the idea prior to Darwin’s publication of his research. Darwin rejected that aspect of Spencer’s work. Essentialism refers to idea, now largely rejected by scientists and academics, that there is some kind of ontological essence, a universal form, which transcends particular things. From an essentialist standpoint, Asperger’s autism or (name the trait) can be treated as a real thing. The problem is that, because the theory is not grounded (i.e., is more philosophy than science), people are free to speculate. However, IMO, the basic assumption of the “Neanderthal theory” is a racist one. Singling out a human population for behavioral traits which the author clearly regarded as desirable is, IMO, racist.
  • I did not see a testable methodology in the paper. By “testable,” I mean that, if I had the required education and credentials in that field, I could test it myself (right now). If that is not possible, his idea may be loosely defined as a proposition, but not as a hypothesis. In performing those tests, no assumption is made regarding an underlying essence. The testing process is required to be precise and to avoid unnecessary assumptions. Natural selection is a behavior. However, I was distinguishing evolutionary theory (aka, the modern evolutionary synthesis) from crude attempts to argue that some races or social classes are inherently superior at doing certain tasks. That is what Spencer did. Spencer’s approach to biological evolution was neo-Lamarckian. However, his Social Darwinism, and the Social Darwinisms of those who followed him (like Benjamin Kidd), were more sociological than either Lamarckian or axiological. Spencer was proposing a comprehensive theory of human development, and his so-called Social Darwinism was the main factor in it. The Neanderthal theory treats Asperger’s syndrome as an inherited behavioral trait, a genetic essence, which can be found in certain people. Superstring theory is not really testable. For that reason, I would call it a conceptual model, not a theory. Maybe we will discover show that humans are dogs, not apes, but there is no evidence for it yet. 😉 For that reason, I would also call it a conceptual model or philosophy. IMO, it is dangerous, unethical (racist) speculation. If there were some means of testing it right now, that would be different.

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