Were self awareness and the ability to plan what set us apart from Neanderthals?

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Credit: Dreamstime
Credit: Dreamstime

We bear a trace of Neandertal legacy in our genome, a bequest from ancestral interbreeding. But some experts argue that, on balance, the sharper innovative capacities of Homo sapiens contributed to pushing our hominin cousins over the extinction cliff. 

Findings published in 2019 have tied the learning and memory necessary for creative thought to three brain networks. These networks, which govern our emotional reactions, self-control and self-awareness, are associated with a suite of 972 genes identified in those studies. 

The same research group has now compared these genes among chimps, Neandertals and modern humans. Across all three species, the results show an overlap in emotional reactivity but a divergence in genetic sequences governing self-control and self-awareness. [A new paper reports] that modern humans also have a set of 267 genes from the larger set that the other two species lack

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That close regulatory oversight of being able to define and recognize the “self” could contribute to the creative flexibility that allows humans to adapt to the most trying environments, the researchers say. They speculate that an especially inhospitable climatic period in Africa 320,000 to 200,000 years ago drove these adaptations.

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