The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The brain of Neanderthal Man

Neanderthal man: what do those two words conjure up in you? For many it will be a picture of brutish stupidity. The common image of Neanderthal Man is of a dull-witted race trudging to extinction out of their own inability to cope. Yet, is this so? Was Neanderthal Man our inferior?

Let us look at some data. A typical modern human has a brain size of about 1,300 cubic centimetres. So, Neanderthal Man, being "brutish and stupid" is going to have a smaller one...right? Wrong. From a table of brain size and race that I have seen, Neanderthal man is listed at 1,700 cubic centimetres - a full 400 cubic centimetres larger than the brains of modern men.

Now, brain size has been correlated with intelligence, in many studies (I will post about this on another occasion) - but there is another factor to take into account: brain size to body ratio. A Neanderthal was stronger and more robust than a modern human - about a quarter heavier or so - and muscular with it. Taking this larger size into account still gives Neanderthal Man an advantage over us - for the ratio of 1,700 to 1,300 is about 1.30 - which is larger than the 1.25 scaling for body mass. By this measure Neanderthal Man should still have been smarter than us.

I find it curious that there has been such a tendency to denigrate the Neanderthal man. Just as in marketing, in evolution I am sure that it is not always the case, that the best "product" wins. Apple lost out to Windows - even though for a long time, it was a better product. Betamax lost out to VHS - when it, too, had been a better product. No doubt it is quite possible that a superior human could have lost out to an inferior one, for various reasons.

No-one disputes that they were stronger than us. Perhaps they were smarter too. Certainly, their brain size is suggestive of a significant intelligence, of some kind. There is other evidence, too, that they were not as stupid as people have made them out to be. They managed to move into and populate areas of Europe that had defeated their immediate ancestors, Homo Heidelbergensis, establishing themselves in Central and Eastern Europe. They also show evidence of developing new stone working techniques over time, showing a gradual accumulation of technological skill. These last two statements are supported by a paper by Dr Terry Hopkinson of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, of the University of Leicester, published in the journal Antiquity.

Some researchers rather oddly argue away the Neanderthal's superiority in brain size by saying that modern human brains are more "efficient". They state that we have advantages in circuitry and brain organization. I find this funny. It is funny because they cannot possibly have any evidence of these statements - they are just supposition - and constitute self-justifying argumentation. We will never have a Neanderthal brain to dissect to study its circuitry. We will never be able to MRI a Neanderthal brain to study its organization. We can only succumb to the temptation to make up a story to say why modern man must be superior to our extinct counterpart. Maybe we are not superior, maybe we were just lucky (or better at warfare...) Whether or not we are superior to Neanderthal Man, the fact remains that Neanderthal Man was not the stupid brute he is made out to be. The archaelogical evidence suggests an adaptable, technologically skilled, very "human" race, which just happens to have died out for reasons that may never be entirely clear.

I, for one, would like to meet a Neanderthal man and have a talk. It would be good to meet someone so different from the Homo Sapiens one normally talks to. He (or she) is likely to think in quite a different way - and that would be refreshing. The one thing that would really surprise me, however, would be finding that they were, in fact, stupid and brutish. I have rather a different expectation.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and ten months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and three months, and Tiarnan, twenty months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:46 PM 


Blogger EbTech said...

How do you define "superior"? By the evolutionary definition, the surviving species is the better one, at least in their specific environment. In this sense, stronger and smarter do not necessarily imply better.

No doubt the Neanderthals were highly intelligent, for they were among our closest relatives. A deeper analysis may be needed to determine which was smarter.

I found an article which gives a possible cause of the Neanderthal's extinction:

10:53 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am using the word "superior" to mean more capable, in some respect. In those terms, Neanderthal were our least it seems so from their remains: they were stronger and probably more intelligent (given the positive relationship of brain size and intellectual function in modern humans).

Yes. It is true that in evolutionary terms superiority is defined purely in terms of survival within an environment. However, it is not really measuring superiority - it is measuring how well a population fits its environment, that is all - it says nothing of intelligence, or strength or any other positive just says who is better at surviving within the environmental constrictions present.

That we survived and they did not indicates that we were better suited to prevailing conditions. It does not suggest that we were "superior" in absolute terms. VHS was better marketed, than Betamax...that made it better suited to its environment (higher market share) - so it won, despite being considerably inferior to its rival. No doubt there is a tale of how we won out over a better rival...but we may never know it for sure.

Thanks for your point.

12:38 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

The meaning of "absolute" terms is not so clear; I think your definition is a good one, but also a very human one. Nature could easily have made us twice as strong with brains twice as large, but there are disadvantages to such traits, such as high energy cost. In evolution, efficiency is of paramount importance.

The article I pointed to suggests that our improved larynx made us better at communicating than the Neanderthals. A subtle fact, but those extra phonemes might have meant the difference between life and death.

Then again, it is possible that our ancestors waged a genocidal war and won by sheer numbers.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I rather think that a genocidal war is by far the most likely explanation. Humans...Homo Sapiens humans, at least, have shown, by our history that we love war rather more than we love anything else.

I think that a war is a far more likely selective pressure than a less efficient larynx.

We probably murdered our way to "superiority"...not a pleasant or edifying thought, but the most likely one in my opinion.

Yes, there are evolutionary pressures against high energy cost situations. We are a result of many factors, none of which necessarily lead us to greatness. We are probably, therefore, much less than we could be, in terms of what is possible biologically and physically. Perhaps the future will hold more interesting specimens than the present and past have known!

1:46 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Re. genocidal war: I hope not! While our demonstrated racist tendencies are cause for pessimism, it is hard to imagine a rational cause for war when the human population was too low for resource struggles.

The Neanderthals were so similar to homo sapiens that some scientists suggest the two species could interbred. Thus, we may have a little bit of Neanderthal DNA in us after all! This would seem a happier outcome, though perhaps an unlikely one.

Genetic engineering is an intriguing possibility, for we could potentially take evolution into our own hands! It is also very dangerous, and ethical issues are raised over the possibility of engineering mistakes. It would also challenge the emotionally comforting philosophy of "everyone is created equal."

Nonetheless, I believe genetic engineering to be a necessary part of our future, if we are to have any. We shelter our physically and mentally weak so that they may survive; a noble thing to do rather than the 20th century eugenics. However, opposing the tide of evolution has profound consequences, lest we should find ourselves in the low-IQ world depicted in the film Idiocracy.

Genetic engineering is the only solution that comes to mind. With the advancement of AI, we must constantly integrate ourselves with our most advanced means of intelligence, or else risk being left behind. Homo sapiens in our present form, like all other species, must eventually go extinct. I hope at least for our legacy to continue with evolved versions of ourselves, carbon-based or otherwise.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. genetic engineering and the salvation of man...I am not sure that is either necessary or wise. The "mistakes" you refer to are in the form of seriously messed up lives: is that a reasonable thing to do whilst we learn what we should be doing? It sounds the stuff of Nazi nightmares.

I will give you an example. I read once of a genetic experiment on mice in which their memories were improved by a genetic alteration...but there was a nasty side effect: they gave every appearance of being very sensitive to pain (if I recall the details correctly) imagine a human version of that: yes, great memory...but a life of utter distress to go with it. How abhorrent to inflict that on a fellow human. Quite simply, at this stage of our understanding, WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE ARE DOING...and the consequences of not knowing can be truly appalling in terms of human suffering.

There are good people around. Sadly, many of them are not having many children. So, another solution presents itself: good people should start thinking less of their "career" and more of their family...though some would be angry at the suggestion (feminists etc.). Really, we are getting ourselves into a real mess by putting the wrong things first.

(There is a negative correlation between high intelligence and education and total fecundity...basically the smart ones have fewer children than the dumb ones...which is, of course, a quick route to Idiocracy, as you mentioned.)

Thanks for your thoughts.

2:53 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

I mention engineering mistakes as a risk that MUST be overcome before we attempt human genetic engineering. Our error rate should become substantially lower than the natural rate of birth defects. If this task proves too difficult for the human mind, we may have to employ supercomputers running fast-forward evolutionary algorithms. Such algorithms have been known to produce remarkably insightful results.

Another possibility is to develop technological enhancements, hence becoming cyborgs. We are already on the way to becoming cyborgs: many of us wear clothing, watches, corrective lenses, ear implants, artificial limbs, artificial organs, and even brain implants.

What you are suggesting sounds like a reverse form of eugenics. It is in principle a good idea, resulting in much slower but safer evolution. However, I cannot think of a practical way to implement it. How would we selectively encourage those with good genes to reproduce more than their peers? Even if we could identify and convince such people, others will fight back, resulting in overpopulation and devolution. In fact, natural selection prefers those who fight back. Evolution is not so easy to control. I do not wish to dismiss your idea. Rather, we need to devise a strategy!

It is sad but true that many intelligent people choose to delay raising a family until they complete their education and secure a reliable income, only to find it difficult to have children in their relatively older age.

Thank you too for sharing your thoughts. I do need my ideas questioned once in a while! :)

4:17 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

The more I reflect on this subject, the more I am in awe of evolution's power. Yet it is not always for the better...

Consider the animal kingdom. Every creature is a survival machine, living for the sole purpose of replicating its genes. In modern times, we appear to have defied evolution, freeing ourselves to pursue goals which do not aid, and may in fact harm, our genetic survival. But for how long?

Our present condition is unstable. The global population cannot grow forever; once it reaches an equilibrium, evolutionary rules will return to full force. Who will be selected for? Since survival is no longer a struggle of wits and strength, those who CHOOSE to devote their lives to their genes will win. Ultimately, we will become slaves to our selfish genes, to borrow Dawkins' phrase. Survival machine4s.

Is this an outcome that we are prepared to accept, or should we do something to prevent it? Perhaps we have not yet detected an intelligent alien race because advanced society is an unstable phenomenon. I hope this is false, so it would be nice to hear any reassuring counter-arguments you may have to offer.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear EbTech,

I am not sure the population equilibrium will be so easy to achieve. Some societies will want to continue breeding, and breeding until they is no more room for new humans - then they will breed some more. They will breed until large numbers of them start dying due to starvation, lack of shelter etc. They just won't stop.

Then again, the ones who now tend to breed more abundantly are the ones we would least want to be abundant if we value the complexity of our culture - they are the less "intelligent" among us. So, unfortunately, I think the ones who are providing the bulk of the next generation (and the generations to come) are the less capable humans in absolute computational terms. This promises an unenviable future for Man. Indeed, its effects can already be seen: have you been to the UK recently? Compared to the UK of my youth, it has become a place overrun by idiots. They are far more common than they used to be. No doubt the same thing is happening all over the world.

I have taught in a certain high ranking US University - and I was struck by the limits I perceived in the intelligence of the students. Young people are just not what they used to be. Or perhaps, old people, like me, retain something that has been lost - or is being lost. Or maybe I had learnt a lot in the decade (as it was then) since I had left University (certainly I learnt little actually AT university!)

I would like to be able to reassure you. However, I don't think I can. For me, a powerful argument for why we have NOT been overrun by aliens is that they just don't survive long enough to become the kinds of civilization able to overrun us. Their technological civilizations probably do not endure long enough to reach out far beyond their worlds. Perhaps a species would have to be very wise to survive to become interstellar. Are we wise? Well, some of us are. However, we are, generally, ruled by fools of various kinds, whose sight is too short and whose understanding of the future, and its needs, too limited. Perhaps if we could change the calibre of those who "lead" us, we might survive as a society. I hope so.

All of us can do something to help, of course. Every time it comes to a vote, choose the brighter one...always choose the brighter one. Forget the "film star" gloss of many a politician...and go for the core: do they have a brain?

4:12 PM  

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