Science & Religion #15: Was Adam Part Neanderthal? (A DNA Primer)

September 28, 2011

Several recent studies suggest that there is a good chance that Homo sapiens (us) mated with Neanderthals in the past?  Did Adam have Neanderthal DNA?  Do we?  What does this mean?  The next few posts in this series will discuss evolution, different species, time lines, etc.  In order to understand this better, this is a short primer on DNA and what it means for science and religion.

DNA is an amazing substance.  It literally makes you you and me me.  But how does it work?  It’s really just a LONG molecule made up of 4 bases: A, T, C and G.  These are packed various ways into chromosomes.  DNA can be be exchanged, reshuffled, duplicated, etc.  Volumes could be written about all of this and we will cover some of these concepts later, but for now that’s really it.

So what does DNA do?  It is essentially a recipe book.  Copies can be made of the main DNA strand to make a “working recipe”.  Every three base pairs together codes for an amino acid, and strings of amino acids make proteins.  Proteins and the products of proteins make up our entire body.  So DNA is essential for life.

The process is very accurate, but not perfect.  Sometimes mistakes are made – like a typo.  Sometimes parts are duplicated or twisted around.  Here are some examples.  Consider the following sentence:

The quick red fox jumped over the lazy brown dogs.

Something can be deleted:  The quick red fx jumped over the lazy brown dogs.
Something can be duplicated: The quick red fox jumped over the the lazy brown dogs.
Something can be reversed: The quick red fox depmuj over the lazy brown dogs.
Something can be changed: The quick red fox jumped over the lady brown dogs.

There is also a lot of “junk” in our DNA that gets cut out when it is used.  For example:
The quasdfghjklick red fox jumweerrsfsfeedped over the lazsdfsfsdfajhsdfjky bradlksfaown dogs.

We call these various things mutations.  Most of the time, a mutation “ruins” what the DNA needs to do, like in the “reverse” example above.  But sometimes a mutation “makes sense” as in the “changed” example.  And occasionally, one of these changes might be better.  Are “lady brown dogs” better than “lazy brown dogs”?  Perhaps.  The theory of evolution suggests that changes that make an organism more likely to survive get passed down, while ones that make an organism less likely to survive get weeded out.

So, back to Adam and Neanderthal DNA.  What does that mean?  And how can we use DNA to determine how closely related different people/animals/etc. are?  Suppose I gave you 10 sentences and told you I changed one thing at a time.  Could you reorder the following sentences in the order I made the changes?

1. The quick red fox
2. Quick reddy fix
3. The quick reddy fox
4. The red red foxs quick
5. The quick red red fox
6. The quick red red boxes
7. The quick fix reddy
8. The quick quick fix reddy
9. The quick reddy fix
10. The quick red red foxes

Try it if you’d like.  Here is the answer:

The quick red fox————————————
!                                                                                       !
The quick reddy fox                                       The quick red fox
!                                                                                       !
The quick reddy fix————–                         The quick red red fox
!                                                    !                                   !
The quick fix reddy   Quick reddy fix      The quick red red foxes——————-
!                                                                              !                                                !
The quick quick fix reddy                        The red red foxes quick      The quick red red boxes

There are several things we can see from this:

1) The split between red and reddy took place early, forming 2 main sub-groups
2) Quick is an important word.  In ALL cases, Quick hasn’t changed.
3) “The quick red red foxes” is more closely related to “The quick red red boxes” than to “The quick reddy fox”
4) It’s possible to recreate lineages, relatedness, etc.

What does this have to do with DNA?  Scientists do the same thing.  We can compare human DNA with that of other animals in the world around us, and animals with each other.  And what do we find?  Human DNA is approximately 98% the same as chimpanzee DNA, 90% the same as mouse DNA, 85% the same as zebra fish DNA, 23% the sane as yeast DNA, and 7% the same as E coli bacteria.  And just like in the “sentence” tree, we can determine how closely organisms are related, when things likely branched, and if we know how fast changes occur in DNA, how long ago various things happened.

So, humans and Neanderthals.  Scientists have been able to sequence DNA from Neanderthal remains.  And when they compared them to human DNA, there is a 1-4% overlap.  It would be like reading the The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and finding snippets from War & Peace mixed throughout.  Either it’s a complete coincidence, or else at some point in the past there was some sort of “intermingling” between the two books.  It begs the question, how did it get there?

Questions:

  • Did Adam have some Neanderthal DNA?  Did it get mixed in AFTER Adam?  Or is our DNA technology up-in-the-night and this is a false association?

  • Do you think that DNA analysis is a valid way of determining relatedness between people?  Between races?  Between species?

  • Many of our prophets and apostles have discounted evolution completely as a tool of Satan to deceive.  Since these statements, DNA technology has shown that we are quite related to the great apes, for example.  Why would God make us so much like apes?  Is it a test?

NOTE: This post is #15 in a series.  For a list of other posts in the series, see the Series Recap.

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27 Responses to Science & Religion #15: Was Adam Part Neanderthal? (A DNA Primer)

  1. geoffsn on September 28, 2011 at 2:20 AM

    Did Adam have some Neanderthal DNA?
    Yes
    Did it get mixed in AFTER Adam?
    If Adam was one specific man who was able to write in a book, then I’m gonna say no.
    Or is our DNA technology up-in-the-night and this is a false association?
    No, it’s legit.

    Do you think that DNA analysis is a valid way of determining relatedness between people? Between races? Between species?
    Yes, yes, yes.

    Many of our prophets and apostles have discounted evolution completely as a tool of Satan to deceive. Since these statements, DNA technology has shown that we are quite related to the great apes, for example. Why would God make us so much like apes? Is it a test?

    Why would God make us so much like all mammals? Why would God let his representatives on earth make such easily falsifiable claims? Why would many in the Quorum of the 12 argue for evolution? Why does BYU participate in the Tree of Life project if it is all part of Satan’s plot to deceive? Does anyone actively work with DNA and study it and still believe that it is a ‘tool of Satan’ or doubt the validity of these new Neanderthal DNA findings? It seems this supposed dichotomy between religion and science is only an issue when people haven’t spent much time studying either DNA and basic biology, or studying religion.

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  2. Paul 2 on September 28, 2011 at 4:25 AM

    1) The Adam story contains profound and true teachings that are universally applicable, i.e. we should consider ourselves as if we were Adam (or Eve). Then the answer is yes in my case, because I have European blood, but a non-European doesn’t have Neanderthal DNA and the answer would be no for that Adam. In this framework, all Neanderthal DNA gets premixed in from my point of view of being an Adam. The DNA research is reliable and also open to further refinement.
    2) DNA mostly gives common descent information. (A huge understatement here!) Convergent evolution produces relatedness that is not based on common descent. A wolf and a thylacine would have more to talk about than a wolf and a mouse.
    Relatedness is very far from the whole story when it comes to humans. For example, there is very little turkic DNA in Anatolia (original invasion was 30k persons in the middle ages), but you have 70+ million people speaking a turkic language there. Another example, I am more closely related to Hitler than to Gandhi, but I deeply admire Gandhi and have studied his teachings.
    3) I can’t claim to speak for God, but sharing a common ancestor with chimpanzees doesn’t at all change the fact that humans have amazing abilities and large responsibilities that chimps don’t have. I don’t know why the question could be threatening or worrisome. I believe in the immortality of the spirit, so I can think of God as the father of my spirit and my father as the father of my body. That this chain of fathers went all the way back to some ancestor primates (and much, much further) is no problem. In a Homo Sapiens brain, knowing about common descent tends to evoke feelings of family and relatedness when we see other creatures. We are the only ones smart enough to be able to help manage the whole planet in wisdom. We are the only ones smart enough to have proved definitively that we are family with all the other creatures on earth.

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  3. Paul on September 28, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    Sorry — perhaps a stupid question: When you say there is 1-4% overlap, is like saying there is 98% “overlap” between humans and chimps (with whom you said humans have 98% of DNA the same)? Just trying to understand terms.

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  4. Will on September 28, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    Mike,

    The only relevant factor, for someone with a testimony of the gospel, is the fact that Michael the spirit child of God, entered into the body of Adam. The passage of scripture “God breathed the breath of life into Adam” denotes the point where the spirit entered into the body.

    What happened prior to that point is irrelevant in my judgment. Whether the body of Adam had evolved for millions of years or whether it was formed by God prior to it receiving his spirit child Michael is irrelevant.

    Yes primates and other animals have a spirit, but they are not spirit Children of God. Bestiality is practiced now by some spirit children of God, so I’m sure it was at that time. Any off spring of this relationship would NOT (in my opinion) be a child of God.

    The fact that we are God’s offspring is what gives us our intellect. It is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It was what gives us the advances in technology. It is what gives us dominion over animals. One of the single most important testimonies we can gain in this life is that we are children of God. It is my testimony that we are.

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  5. Mike S on September 28, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    #3 Paul: Not a stupid question at all. Rather than try to explain the answer, let me give you an example using text.

    Suppose this is a “human”:

    I Nephi having been born of goodly parents therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days nevertheless having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days yea having had a…

    That’s around 200 characters. Now suppose you had a text that was 1-2% different, or 4 characters:

    I Nephi havimg been born of goodly parents therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my fatner and having seen many afllictions in the course of my days nevertheless having been highly favored of the Lord in all ny days yea having had a…

    If you saw this, you might think there is a good chance the texts stemmed from a similar source. This is what human DNA and great ape DNA is like. As you compared mouse DNA and other species, there would be more and more differences, but still many signs that would point to a common source of the text.

    Now suppose you read this:

    I Nephi having been Four score and twenty born of goodly parents therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days nevertheless having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days yea having had a…

    In this case, you might assume that somewhere along the line, the texts from the Book of Mormon and the Gettysburg Address were mixed. There is more than 1-4% in this example, but you get the idea. This is what the Neanderthal / human studies have suggested – that at some point in the past, the two species intermingled.

    Expand this out to thousands and millions of sequences, and it’s how people analyze DNA.

    As to how this integrates into “classic” LDS theology, I don’t have a great answer.

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  6. shenpa warrior on September 28, 2011 at 10:34 AM

    I think Adam was NOT part neanderthal – but that was mixed in later. I remember reading something a while back about how pure Africans are the only race without any neanderthals in their ancestry. It makes the most sense to me that Adam and Eve (assuming they literally existed even if we can’t really know what went on) were black.

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  7. Paul on September 28, 2011 at 10:34 AM

    Mike S, thanks. I admit my extent of DNA knowledge comes from one lecture by Duane Jeffries in a freshman seminar I took at BYU, and working all those Dominant / Recessive charts with my kids as they go through high school biology.

    It seems as if the 1-4% is still too great to be considered random, and the fundamental structures between humans and neanderthals are different enough to make the 1-4% noticeable.

    I find this stuff fascinating, even if it frustrates my cellular biologist DIL that it takes me so long to get it.

    Like you, I have a hard time sorting out how this integrates into the JFS-style anti-evolution teaching. The 1908 FP statement is pretty clear in that it suggests man is a specific creation of God, and that we are God’s children. And by extension, plenty have spoken out against evolution.

    I guess I take a position similar to Henry Eyring’s (the scientist, not the 1P member, though Pr Eyring may share his father’s view). It’s hard to ignore scientific evidence.

    I’m happy to hold two ideas in my head, acknowledging that they are not completely congruent, and believing that one day I’ll understand more.

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  8. BeansDude on September 28, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    I share Paul’s fascination of this topic. Strong archeological evidence suggests that the two groups of ancient hominids did live in some of the the same regions at the same time. I think it’s most likely that humans and Neanderthals did enter-breed from time to time. Who knows if it was ever by choice however – I’m sure those were brutal times to live during. Perhaps the similarities could be re-creations of the same genetic mutations that occurred, but along separate evolutionary lines?

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  9. Douglas on September 28, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    Did “Adam” have Neanderthal DNA? If you subscribe to the notion of a pre-Adamic race. I don’t. If we find fossil evidence of high primates that likely predate Adam, then it would still be consistent with Jehovah and Michael having created the beasts in the prior “day” (or era). As for Neanderthal man, there is ample evidence that his DNA is almost identical to most modern homo sapiens sapiens. In fact, there is an effort called the Neanderthal Genome Project that is attempting to sequence the Neanderthal genome.

    http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal_Genome_Project

    Of course, acceptance of the mixing of Neanderthal DNA runs counter to the unique origin of modern human from a common African ancestor.

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  10. Mike S on September 28, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    #9 Douglas If you subscribe to the notion of a pre-Adamic race. I don’t.

    That’s the topic of the next post in the series – Did Adam Have A Belly Button?

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  11. Mike S on September 28, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    Along the lines of Paul2 and Will:

    It’s much like Galileo and the collapse of the geocentric nature of the universe. Many theologians argued that man would lose his “special” place if the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Eventually the evidence became overwhelming that we were a speck of rock around an average star in a big, big place. Ultimately, however, the important thing is that God still cares and has a role for us.

    Similarly, for millennia people have described about what Adam being the “first man” really means. Was he just created fully formed with no death before him 6000 years ago? Again, the evidence is increasingly pointing toward a much richer and more complex history than that. We may have to reevaluate our descriptions of what it means to be “Adam”.

    But, as Will said, ultimately we can still find a role for God in our lives regardless of where the evidence leads.

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  12. FireTag on September 28, 2011 at 2:45 PM

    I almost go with Will here. However, it’s not the point of “entry” of the spirit into the body that’s the critical point; spirit and element are inseparable and grow together. I think the key division is when the body (as individual or species) evolves to the point that it can discern the presence of the spiritual AND has awareness of self sufficient to imagine exerting power over another spirit’s body.

    There is some evidence that the mystical sense of “connection with all things” comes when normal senses of self awareness are shut down. (I.e., something is taken away rather than added). That would imply that self awareness comes late in the game, though in a game as long as evolution, late could mean long before anything human was around.

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  13. Jake on September 28, 2011 at 4:11 PM

    My question is this: If Adam is part Neanderthal, then where does this put the adam-god theory? Is God therefore part Neanderthal?

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  14. Neal on September 28, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    When God asks, “is man found on the earth?”, he was referring to someone with the potential to become like God, a child of God, if you will. Not necessarily a homo sapien or a Neandertal or any other species that may or may not have been present at the time. God references himself as ‘Man’ many times in the scriptures, i.e. ‘Man of Holiness is my name'; ‘Man of Counsel’. Christ’s most frequent reference to himself was the ‘Son of Man’.

    Perhaps Adam was the first MAN on the earth – a being with the divine birthright and potential to become like God, but he was not the first human.

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  15. FireTag on September 28, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    Jake:

    I think Neal raises a very good point, which has many more implications about subtle impacts of LDS cosmology. More generally, is God “part” a lot-of-things. How human is human?

    http://thefirestillburning.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/does-god-squash-ets-how-human-is-human/

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  16. hawkgrrrl on September 28, 2011 at 9:47 PM

    There was a Star Trek Next Gen epi that had a race that was humanoid who had seeded planets all over the universe. Each of these seedings resulted in genetic variation but tied all the races together to a common ancestral race from another planet. It’s an interesting extention of evolutionary theory, IMO – of course, the question still remains, whence the original race?

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  17. Sonny on September 28, 2011 at 11:17 PM

    I highly recommend reading Relics Of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA, by Daniel Fairbanks of BYU.

    It convincingly answers some of the questions in the OP.

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  18. Paul 2 on September 28, 2011 at 11:29 PM

    Mike S., I would like to suggest you do a post on how DNA variation in our cells give evidence that the human (and/or pre-human, though these people were anatomically modern) population was never smaller than 15,000 individuals. I saw the list of projected topics for this series and I didn’t see this on your list. I think that this has stronger implications for Adam than the Neanderthal DNA discovery. An intro can be found at: “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_bottleneck.” There is a section on the most recent human bottleneck and it points to some references.

    This DNA analysis means that a literal, there-was-one-and-only-one Adam would have contributed almost nothing to our total genetic endowment even if he had some unique genes. We would nonetheless all be his descendants, but we would also all be descended from many others that we typically have not chosen to call Adam. So a literal Adam’s “First Man-ness” would have to be mostly symbolic, and he would strongly resemble a non-literal Adam in that respect.

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  19. Mike S on September 29, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    Thanks for the comments – kind of backed up on time, but will try to get to them later today.

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  20. Douglas on September 29, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    HG – excellent trivia reference, though, as I recall, the varying humanoid races (Cardassian, Romulan, Imperial Klingon, or Ferengi) all had a collective snit at the prospect of being distantly relayed. It’s a variation on the directed Panspermia theory. Of course, being a SW rather than ST devotee (Anakin Skywalker or his alter ego, Lord Vader, could kick ANY Starfleet Officer’s pompous hiney with scarcely any effort!), I’d also give credence to some “Ancient Astronaut” idea to explain the apparent sudden change in “hew-mon” DNA many thousands of years ago, w/o speculation as to the exact nature of said Astronauts.
    Of course, what does Lucifer say when queried by the Lord as to what he was doing in the Garden of Eden…”I have been doing THAT WHICH HAS BEEN DONE IN OTHER WORLDS”…food for thought!

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  21. FireTag on September 29, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    Douglas:

    Would you give the scriptural reference for the Lucifer quote? I’d like to see the context to understand it.

    Mike:

    To further complicate matters, this is from today’s New Scientist about a third human species found in modern DNA:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128323.200-the-vast-asian-realm-of-the-lost-humans.html

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  22. Douglas on September 29, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    FT – it’s from the temple story (not the part we’re obligated not to discuss, however). Whether it can be considered as “scripture” would depend on how much “artistic license” the Church was allowed to employ, if any at all. I’m certain the concept of Lucifer justifying his actions in the Garden of Eden based on recollection of what had been done on other worlds is a true concept; else it wouldn’t be there.
    I leave it to others to describe what was done on these “other worlds” and who was doing it.

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  23. FireTag on September 29, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    Douglas:

    Thanks. That explains why I’d never heard it.

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  24. prometheus on September 29, 2011 at 8:36 PM

    This reminds me a bit of the ‘What does it mean to be human’ series that was up a while ago (here, or elsewhere, I forget). Neanderthal DNA, modified DNA, where do we draw the line?

    I think that it might be worth considering dropping DNA as a distinguishing characteristic of being created in the image of God, as it seems to be a local phenomenon. (Universally speaking, that is.)

    I look at animals like chimpanzees, elephants, and whatnot, and wonder about their fates, and whether they have any capacity for progression to a higher intelligence. I wonder whether there is an ontological difference between us, really. Are we, perhaps, all intelligences (whatever that is defined as), all along a continuum of intelligence, with the opportunity for progression? Are there inherent limits to that progression?

    Answers:
    1. Probably, but who knows, really.

    2. Yes, yes, yes.

    3. We are primates, having the form we do as a result of natural processes. Further light and knowledge and all that.

    Really looking forward to more on this topic. Thanks Mike!

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  25. The Bulwark’s October Blog Review on October 5, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    [...] & Tares has featured some interesting discussions of evolution in relation to the origins of humanity in Adam & Eve — certainly open questions, [...]

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  26. Jonathan on November 28, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    Didn’t the sons of Adam marry ‘daughters of men’ or something like that? Where did they come from?

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  27. equineluvr on January 23, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    “henpa Warrior,”

    Since Adam literally means “one who blushes,” then most certainly he was NOT black.

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