3 Myths That Answers in Genesis Wants You to Believe About Neanderthals

After a four-month-long break, I am happy to finally be returning to my series critiquing the claims of creationists—specifically, Answers in Genesis—about human evolution! Anyone who has created critiques to AiG’s content knows how frustrating and exasperating it can be. For those who do this for a living, I applaud you. AiG has so much content, with so many twists and turns and overlaps, that it is almost too easy to get lost on their website and in their…unique ideas. They seem to have a great fascination with Neanderthals, which in their eyes are just an archaic group of Homo sapiens. (They can’t seem to agree on whether Neanderthals were an ethnic group, a race, or a subspecies.) In the world of paleoanthropology, Neanderthals have always been a hot topic, as we know more about them than any other hominid species but our own. There is a lot of fluctuation in our understanding of Neanderthals, because scientists are discovering more about them by the day.

Even though our vision of Neanderthals is becoming ever more sophisticated, Answers in Genesis is, not surprisingly, dedicated to cling to the same views that they have held for decades. This is evident in their re-publishing of an article from 1995, Making Monkeys Out of Men, in 2000, 2017, and 2020, in which they praise an extremely outdated view from 1857—just because it aligned with their “biblical” views (although I think it is a stretch). This is just one of the six articles whose ideas I will be examining today, along with:

While there are dozens of articles on Answers in Genesis, I did my best to consolidate the big-picture ideas of these six into the three sections below.

Myth #1: Anthropologists want you to think that Neanderthals were “hulking, hairy troglodytes” when creationists always knew they weren’t

Every Answers in Genesis article that deals with Neanderthals is meant to support one central thesis: that Neanderthals were “modern humans” like us. As is their custom, AiG doesn’t define what they mean by “human”, so as the reader, I had to assume that they meant Homo sapiens when saying “modern human,” “mankind,” or often just “man”.

This is one of two examples of creationists straw-manning scientists. They want their readers to believe that the opposition says that Neanderthals were not humans, but rather some kind of ancestral ape when this could not be further from the truth. When you use “human” as a blanket term, then all modern scientists would certainly include Neanderthals in the category of “human”, which scientifically would be a colloquial way of referring to any species in the genus Homo. Thus, their attack of this idea is entirely moot, as no scientist suggested that Neanderthals were not human: it is part of their species name, Homo neanderthalensis. Most paleoanthropologists believe them to be our cousins, not our ancestors. I went deeper into this distinction in my first post in the series.

In addition to the image, the date is also obviously wrong. Hominids haven’t looked remotely like this since about 2 million years ago.

The other instance of straw-manning is evident in the name of this myth: AiG wants you to think that scientists are pushing the narrative of Neanderthals as dim-witted brutes. The truth is that we have only known about the existence of Neanderthals since their fossils were first discovered in 1829 and deemed an early human species in 1856. In the beginning, we didn’t know what to make of them. Some thought that they were Homo sapiens with arthritis or rickets (AiG still thinks this), and some did think they were dim-witted brutes: the stereotypical caveman. This caveman stereotype caught on with the public and made its way into many pop-culture depictions of Neanderthals, like the above 1909 drawing. Perhaps we can blame scientific gate-keeping or public illiteracy for the continuous use of “Neanderthal” as an insult synonymous with “barbarian”, when among those who actually study Neanderthals, very few, if any, still view them as mere savages.

The writers at Answers in Genesis spend a lot of time enforcing the idea that Neanderthals were culturally sophisticated. They provide examples of Neanderthals

  • creating jewelry and other art,
  • wearing makeup,
  • manufacturing stone, bone, and wood tools and weapons,
  • burying their dead (sometimes with grave goods),
  • wearing clothes,
  • engaging in medical care,
  • and perhaps even speaking.

Of course, some of these points are being contested between anthropologists, since we are learning more about Neanderthals every day. What we know to be true is ever-changing as we examine the evidence that we continually accumulate.

Nevertheless, as time goes on, it seems that Neanderthals are proving themselves more and more to be culturally equal in many ways with their peers, the ancient Homo sapiens. Because of this, I’ll grant AiG these points and agree that they were as culturally sophisticated as AiG believes they are. But I end my agreement here for two reasons: being culturally the same does not mean that they were biologically the same species, as their morphology (body structure) and DNA show, and creationists cannot take credit for the work of real scientists.

This is a pattern I see a lot on Answers in Genesis: they sit in their Creation Museum, watching “secular” scientists (in their opinion, anyone that is not a creationist is a secular scientist) make scientific discoveries and progress. They condemn anything found to contradict their version of creationism, and they sneer at anything that they think reinforces their bias, saying, “We’ve known that all along because it says that in Scripture. Finally, you’ve caught up with us.” Their superiority complex is best summed up in this paragraph:

Bible-believing creationists, recognizing that all humans (Neanderthal or otherwise) are descendants of the same first couple, have frequently pointed out the errors of the popular Neanderthal stereotype. Aside from minor skeletal differences—which may have even been caused or worsened by such diseases as rickets—Neanderthals were probably no different from other humans. Furthermore, studies have suggested that modern Europeans carry some Neanderthal DNA. As such, we love to learn about archaeological findings that validate what the Bible teaches: Neanderthals, like all humans, were created in the image of God.

from the article Incorrect Neanderthal Stereotype

It is an insult to science to see creationists not only picking and choosing which science they deem holy, but then patronizing the same scientists who made the discoveries that they agree with, as if the creationists were the ones who made any discoveries at all. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the finds of anthropologists truly do not align with Answers in Genesis’s interpretation of the bible: in the real world, Neanderthals lived from about 250,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago. AiG claims that they were descendants of Noah who lived after the flood no earlier than 6,000 years ago, among other claims that are certainly not reinforced by the findings of archaeology or molecular biology.

Myth #2: Neanderthals had to be Homo sapiens because they interbred with Homo sapiens

Although it has been debated for decades, the case for Neanderthals having interbred with Homo sapiens seems to finally be getting settled. This is due in large part to the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010. Their DNA had surprising implications for those who were still skeptical of the two groups’ mixing: “In the absence of interbreeding their DNA should have been equally dissimilar to that of everyone alive, but instead people lacking sub-Saharan African heritage had significantly more matches to Neanderthals. The only reliable explanation was if H. sapiens had met and had children with Neanderthals after dispersing from the African continent” (Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, p. 323).

This is an example of a time when scientists made a significant discovery onto which creationists quickly and doggedly latched. But it also ties directly to a time when the opposite happened.

The article by Marvin Lubenow, The Neanderthals: Our Worthy Ancestors is the Answers in Genesis article I read that deals the most with Neanderthal DNA. Unfortunately for them, it was published in 2006, four years before the genome was sequenced and we knew more definitively that the two groups mixed. The article is in response to a 1997 Cell article (which AiG did not even link to) that concluded after an mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA which is passed down through the maternal line) analysis that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis split 600,000 years ago and never interbred after, making them two distinct and very separate species.

Since the conclusion was not to his liking, Lubenow dedicated his AiG article to a critique of the methods of their experiment. To his credit, he is the only person I saw on Answers in Genesis this whole time who acknowledges the names of the two species or tries to give his definition of the word “kind”. Conveniently, Lubenow declared that his exact interpretation of the data, and nothing more, would make Neanderthals “biblically” human:

The fact that most paleoanthropologists believe that the Neandertals were a separate species is irrelevant. Most of them also believe that the Neandertals were able to share genes with modern humans. The biblical word “kind” refers to a group of organisms that have/had the ability to mate with one another. Hence, we speak of organisms reproducing “after their kind,” and of “mankind” or “humankind.” The scientific word “species” (not a synonym of the biblical word “kind”) uses interfertility as part of its definition, but also involves elements beyond the scope of this paper. If the Neandertals were able to share genes with modern humans, they qualify biblically as being fully human.

Marvin Lubenow in the article The Neandertals: Our Worthy Ancestors

When I first read that months ago, his saying that the rest of the definition of “species” was beyond the scope of his “paper” made me laugh. What a coincidence! As it turns out, something isn’t “beyond the scope” of an article just because it doesn’t support the author’s biased conclusion. Luckily for me, it is within the scope of this blog post. While the ability to reproduce fertile offspring is the primary way to determine which organisms are in the same species, it can be hard to do when all you have is fossils, so scientists also rely on factors like morphology and DNA sequencing, especially with Neanderthals.

If interfertility was the only factor that determined what made a species, then perhaps Neanderthals and Homo sapiens would be the same species. In fact, paleoanthropologists who self-identify as “lumpers”, who tend to believe that there are fewer species of hominid with greater variation within each species, do also consider Neanderthals to be a subspecies of Homo sapiens: Homo sapiens neanderthalensis rather than a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis. They would refer to us as Homo sapiens sapiens.

Nevertheless, according to Lubenow’s source, a Discover article that I’m unable to locate, Neanderthals and modern humans have an mtDNA difference of about 0.123%. He decides both that this is not enough to warrant a separate species, and that the methods used to come to this conclusion were flawed. He is very proud of himself, saying, “I have been amazed that no one has commented upon what seems to be an obvious flaw in the methodology.”

Here, Lubenow is referring to the fact that Neanderthal mtDNA samples can sometimes be contaminated by the mtDNA of the scientists who handle them. I’m not sure why he thinks he is the only one who knows about this conundrum, since every case I have read about regarding scientists handling Neanderthal DNA has taken this into account. Often, they will either discard data that they think has been contaminated, or they will disregard DNA that is clearly their own, as they would know that Neanderthal DNA is different. Lubenow takes issue with this because he believes it is plausible that Neanderthal DNA would be identical to that of Homo sapiens. Whether or not you believe them to be a subspecies of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals do have their own distinct genome.

Regardless, four years after Lubenow’s article, the Neanderthal genome was sequenced and we discovered, as my earlier quote made clear, that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis did interbreed and create fertile offspring. According to Lubenow’s own admission, this would make them the same “kind”. Do his problems with their methodology apply to the 2010 study that affirms his views as strongly as they did with the 1997 study that refuted them?

Myth #3: Neanderthals’ unique morphological features can be explained by rickets and arthritis

As I said already, Answers in Genesis is all too eager to promote the outdated scientific idea that Neanderthals were just Homo sapiens with various skeletal diseases. They praise the rickety concept of Richard Virchow, but I like the further absurdity of August Franz Mayer’s explanation for their deep brow ridges and curved leg bones:

The physician’s appraisal of the skeleton indicated to him that the preserved leg bones were curved by both rickets and a life on horseback. The pain of his affliction had caused the unfortunate individual to chronically furrow his brow in agony, leading to the excessive development of bone above the eye sockets. . . . Mayer concluded that the Feldhofer remains were those of a Cossack soldier belonging to one of the Russian armies that had rampaged across Germany in 1814 on their way to attack France. After being wounded, this unfortunate individual had crept into the Feldhofer cave to die—and then had implicitly contrived to become covered, in a mere half century, by two meters of fossil-bearing sediments.

Ian Tattersall, The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, p. 33

As you can see from the above images, there are several more variations between the skeletal structures of the two populations, most notably in the rib cage, the pelvis, and the overall shape of the skull. (Answers in Genesis says that the large skull makes them even more human than we are, which doesn’t make sense, although this does at least mean that they’re acknowledging a morphological difference.) Furthermore, the same exact skeletal structure would not be present in all individuals of varying ages, of many populations spread across a continent if it were due to a mere abnormality. What’s more, we now know that furrowing one’s brow does not change one’s cranial structure, and if it did, it certainly would not be passed down genetically.

Conclusion

Historically, Neanderthals’ culture, morphology, and DNA makeup have been the primary reasons why we view them as a separate species from ourselves. For Answers in Genesis, the Neanderthals’ (and all other fossil hominids’) very existence is a threat to their narrow worldview, so they decided that when something can only be a “human” or an “ape”, the Neanderthal must be a human. This meant that every difference, even the most miniscule, must be discounted. I personally think this is a silly approach, especially considering the straw-men that they created, in arguing against an idea that science is disproving quite sufficiently on its own.

I set out to write this post, and read a few books along the way, expecting to completely prove Answers in Genesis wrong. I expected to learn that Neanderthals were culturally inferior, that they couldn’t speak, and that they would physically stand out on the subway if you shaved one and put him in a business suit. It turns out that Answers in Genesis may have rolled their biblical die and landed (in one small way) on the right answer: whether we share a species or only a genus, Neanderthals were humans who weren’t that different from us.

What I ended up really taking issue with were their methods and their dogma. They had to twist the story the entire way to make the facts fit their narrative. They praised scientists when they got the “scripturally sound” answer and suspiciously had a lot to criticize when science didn’t agree with them. If they were in any way dedicated to preaching the truth, they would do away with all the assumptions and start with the data—not with a predetermined conclusion.


Sources/further reading:

Papagianni, Dimitra, and Michael A. Morse. The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story. Revised and Updated edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Pääbo, Svante. Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2014.

Sykes, Rebecca Wragg. Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love and Art. London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020.

Tattersall, Ian. Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. (my review)

—. The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. (my review)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s