The Neanderthal Problem

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

The NYTimes magazine describes efforts to resurrect extinct species such as mammoths. Let’s suppose this is possible. Perhaps it will even be possible with Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo Erectus and other pre-modern human types.

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine thousands of Neanderthals on some privately held land in Siberia, perhaps the secret project of a reclusive billionaire oligarch.

It’s very likely these Neanderthals, although able to interbreed with humans, and probably capable of speech, will be on average considerably less intelligent than humans. If I had to guess I would suppose their average adult IQ to be about 70, or -2 SD relative to modern humans. You might wonder how they could have survived for 300k+ years with such modest intelligence, but based on my experiences with 5-10 year old kids I don’t think that a sub-adult level of maximum intelligence precludes the ability to form societies and function as hunter-gatherers. (Apes survive with even less cognitive ability.) I just don’t think that higher developments (e.g., invention of writing) are likely for such a population. What Homo Sapiens accomplished in 50-100k years far outstrips Neanderthal accomplishments over a much longer period of time.

Modern humans differ from each other at about 1 in 1000 places in the genome, whereas a Neanderthal and a human differ at a few per 1000 places. Some subset of these additional differences cause them to be broader, more powerfully muscled, and, most likely, less intelligent. (See Neanderthals dumb?)

Now to the problem: how should we integrate these Neanderthals into modern society?

Perhaps we should not integrate them — better to leave them alone on protected lands, to live their ”natural” (= nasty, brutish and short?) lives. But what if some Neanderthals express the wish to join our society? How should we best help them?

I think it’s likely that no amount of special education or training will allow average Neanderthals to be successful in cognitively demanding jobs. They might face significant discrimination, given their appearance.

However, let us suppose that in this future the technology exists to modify the genes which cause the cognitive gap between moderns and Neanderthals. Suppose it is possible, through genetic engineering, to modify the genomes of Neanderthal embryos, causing their brains to develop as ours do. Would it not be our moral duty to make this modification available to Neanderthal parents who want it?

Extra credit questions:

1) Is it “racist” to make the assumptions used in our hypothetical?

2) Is it also our moral duty to make similar modifications available to human parents who happen to be well below average in cognitive ability?

See also Darwin’s Savages

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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