Thursday, 14 March 2013

Neanderthal eyes were too big

Another foray into science today...

Apparently Neanderthal "man" died out because his eyes were too big.

Supposedly Mr Neanderthal evolved in Africa with a brain as big as or even bigger than a modern human's brain. But then he moved to Europe where it is darker so his eyes grew bigger thus he had to dedicate more of his brain to visual processing and less to thinking so got out-competed by our ancestors which led to his extinction.

There is one immediate giant flaw in this theory. If the eyes got bigger in order to compensation for the lack of light then the amount of information reaching the brain is exactly the same as in the small eye/lots of light situation. The visual cortex would not enlarge because it would be processing the same amount of information as before. Duh!

And even if Neanderthals were a bit thick that would not be enough to render them extinct. Bears are not as intelligent as humans and they are not extinct. And judging by Neanderthal bone thickness they would have been five times stronger than humans and a lot faster runners, probably sustaining 20mph over broken ground (among humans only Olympic athletes can sustain 20mph, and that is on a track.)

The large eyes likely denote a nocturnal lifestyle. They probably had the tapetum lucidum, the crystalline layer behind the retina which gives night vision in most vertebrates, although not humans. (And that's a whole other story. Why did evolution deny us night vision, which frankly is very nearly essential to our survival and interdicts 12 hours out of every 24 to us. Was it because the crystalline layer makes the vision just slightly fuzzy and would make reading and writing impossible? If so, how did evolution know that 120,000 years later reading and writing would be important?)

Despite the Neanderthal imagery you will see all over the 'net, there is no evidence they wore any sort of clothing or used spears. And they probably had thick body hair. It is best to think of them as bipedal bears, occupying the same ecological niche - bears by day, Neanderthals by night. From more than a few tens of yards away you would be hard-pressed to distinguish a Neanderthal from a bear.

(Genetic research shows we share about 98% of our DNA with Neanderthals. We also share about 98% with chimpanzees. Neanderthals could be as different from humans as chimps are.)

And then we come to the "extinct" bit. Is there really any reason to suppose they are extinct? It's true we don't see them walking our streets, but let us not forget that the northern latitudes are girdled by a giant forest, north of the steppe, south of the tundra, called the Taiga. (Very approximately, tundra is Russian for "no trees" and taiga means "too many trees".)

In all probability Neanderthals continue to live in the unexplored taiga cutting across Siberia, Scandinavia and possibly the New World as well. (This land is genuinely unexplored. It has been flown over of course many times but it is impenetrable on foot. Given the difficulty of access and the nocturnal nature of the Neanderthal it would not be surprising if they lived on unremarked. Basically humans really only travel on roads and paths. We don't stray. We don't have the strength to get through the undergrowth. For example, no human can keep up with a gorilla in the forest. A ten-minute amble through the vegetation for a gorilla is half a day with a machete for a human.  Also, there have been sightings.)

All in all, this "eyes too big" story is just another bunch of scientists trying to shore up a rapidly crumbling "evolution" theory by jumping to unwarranted conclusions from a tiny amount of evidence, and of course being reported completely uncritically by the mainstream media.


Paul Levinson said...

for more speculation on the ultimate fate of Neanderthals, see The Silk Code

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