Friday, January 15, 2016

On Neanderthals and Political Debates

That headline is quite likely to make you expect something different from this post than what it actually contains!  And that's part of its lesson.  Let's start:

I spotted this headline a few days ago and stashed it away as a potential source for delicious thinking:

You might have a peanut allergy because your ancestors had sex with Neanderthals

What's weird about that headline is pretty obvious:  The Neanderthal in that headline would also be your ancestor if the described sex was productive, and if it wasn't productive that ancient nookie cannot explain your peanut allergy.

So I began this post with what looks like hair-splitting.  But it isn't, really.  It can be a valuable lesson about how we introduce new information (the idea of a Neanderthal ancestry of some humans is a novel thesis) and how we interpret information in general.

People tend to have a certain prior structures (or strategies) of thinking and those can affect what we read from certain information.  In this example the prior structure is the assumption that the Neanderthals didn't pass their genes on to any currently existing human populations, that they were out-competed by the Cro-Magnons*, that they were a genetic dead end.  Besides, they were ugly, and "we" beat them!

Thus, a useful starting point is to assume that most readers of that headline see the Neanderthals as outsiders, not really in the ancestry chain, and to inject them into the conversation from that starting position, as if our "ancestors" had a bit of illegitimate exotic sex on the side.**

The political implications of this are enormous, my erudite readers, enormous!

Just spend some time reading how the right-wingers wrote about the Cologne mass sexual harassment and then how the left-wingers and feminists wrote or didn't write about it.  Granted, those particular knots have many more threads intertwined, but one important thread consists of the thought structures people have earlier built about and around the issues.

And by those I don't mean solely the basic value structures, but also personal experiences, the selective sieves we use to filter reality, the values of the groups we belong to and how those groups can give us both pleasurable praise or make us suffer from shunning, and, of courseAll those affect the information we see and how we go about interpreting it, and any new information will be interpreted within those thought structures we already have and the older information we have accepted into them.

None of that is new thinking, of course.  I'm sure that experts have proper names (or detestable acronyms) for the phenomena I grasp with here.  Still, it can be worthwhile to enter an old room through a new door, right?  
* We are not supposed to use that term anymore.  But, honestly, the proposed alternative EEMH for European early modern humans is nowhere near as memorable.  Besides, I detest acronyms almost as much as I detest raisins.

**  Assuming, of course, that EEMHs and Neanderthals did interbreed in Europe or Asia.