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Got These Bad Habits? Blame Neanderthals!

Image credit: Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

This from a recent DNA analysis study:

Around 40% of the Neandertal genome can still be found in present-day non-Africans, and each individual still carries ~2% of Neandertal DNA. Some of the archaic genetic variants may have conferred benefits at some point in our evolutionary past. Today, scientists can use this information to learn more about the impact of these genetic variants on human behaviour and the risk of developing diseases.

Using this approach, a new study from an international team led by researchers from the University of Tartu, Charité Berlin and the Amsterdam UMC analysed Neandertal DNA associations with a large variety of more than a hundred brain disorders and traits such as sleep, smoking or alcohol use in the UK Biobank with the aim to narrow down the specific contribution of Neandertal DNA to variation in behavioural features in people today.

The study found that while Neandertal DNA showed over-proportional numbers of associations with several traits that are associated with central nervous system diseases, the diseases themselves did not show any significant numbers of Neandertal DNA associations. Among the traits with the strongest Neandertal DNA contribution were smoking habits, alcohol consumption and sleeping patterns. Using data from other cohorts such as the Estonian Biobank, the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety, FinnGen, Biobank Japan and deCode, several of these results could be replicated. Of specific note were two independent top-risk Neandertal variants for a positive smoking status that were found in the UK Biobank and Biobank Japan respectively. 


So. Neanderthal man, long extinct as a separate human group, now explains why we smoke and drink to excess… How handy. And who can refute it?

Once Just a Brute

Recently fossil scientists have also suggested, based on their research, that Neanderthals couldn’t meditate. But wait. How can we know that from fossil skulls, given that the mind–brain relationship is unclear even in currently living human beings? Do you know if your next-door neighbor can meditate? Does your cube-sharing co-worker know if you can? Really?

The interesting thing is that, over the years, Neanderthal man — once just a brute — has actually gotten smarter. That’s not because he has changed. It’s because we know more than we used to about our ancestors. It would be nice to think that it is also because we are less arrogant now but that would be much very harder to prove.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.