Did the Neanderthals die out because of universal health care?
We know that Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens (i.e., us humans) overlapped for tens of thousands of years. Neanderthals existed for about one hundred thousand years before going extinct, and the bulk of the evidence suggests they did not interbreed with us, though we did share a common ancestor. They were our distant cousins.
There must have been some critical difference that let us flourish but killed them off, but no one knows for sure what that difference is. We both used sophisticated tools, hunted animals, built shelters, buried our dead, sang and talked, and wore clothes. Our DNA is between 99.5 and 99.9 percent identical with theirs.
Common perceptions of Neanderthals as being short, hunched over, hairy, stupid, and clumsy cavemen are wrong. It turns out some of the first fossils found were of arthritic Neanderthals. In fact, they walked as upright as we do today. Some lived in caves but some lived in huts. They were about as tall and as big and as hairless as an average American is today. They had the same physical capacity for speech. You wouldn't do a double take if you saw a Neanderthal on the street.
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There were some physical differences; they were a different species, after all. They couldn't run as well as early humans — then again, with the exception of a small percentage of athletes, how many Americans can really run that well anymore either? But they were about as smart and as well armed with weapons as our ancestors.
They also had some social differences. Neanderthals lived in smaller communities and took care of each other more. They used herbs to cure disease and even buried their dead with medicines. Fossils have been found that show individuals with life-threatening illnesses had been healed and continued to live. And Neanderthals didn't specialize as much as we did: both men and women hunted, and there didn't seem to be as many class divisions.
Basically, they lived in communes. They were proto-socialists.
Could their commitment to community have caused their downfall?
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It's not surprising that they cared more for their sick and shared their chores more equally. The smaller the unit of government, the closer it can approximate pure communism without crumbling. Think about your own family or your circle of very close friends. Don't we all chip in to help out? Don't we try to reach consensus on what movie to watch or where to eat?
But then think about your world at large. You hire a taxi driver to take you exactly where you want to go, his particular desires be damned. You pay for a meal off the menu without regard to the personal tastes of the waiter or the owner.
The larger the unit of government, the closer it must be to pure libertarianism to keep from collapsing. If there are infinitely many people, it would take infinitely long to ask everybody's opinion, to vote, or to redistribute income or wealth. The only practical solution is local: every person talks to whichever other people he wants, and others nearby only get involved in the event of a dispute. That's pure libertarianism. It doesn't mean you don't care about your own family — quite the contrary! It means you have hierarchies of caring. It means you care more for your family than you do for a stranger. A Neanderthal doesn't distinguish.
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Will you help someone who is sick? Will you do someone a favor? A Neanderthal says yes, of course, no matter who, because to him, any other Neanderthal is a part of his group. An early Homo sapiens asks, who is it, exactly, and if it's not one of my closest relationships, what can I get in return? The Homo sapiens learned to trade better because there were more gains to his exchanges. The Neanderthals were just one big happy family. From the perspective of a Neanderthal, if someone asks you to pass the salt, you don't say, "Give me a nickel." If someone asks you to save a life, you don't say, "Pay me for my time."
Now, we are likely to soon see a Neanderthal system of government applied to hundreds of millions of Homo sapiens. Barack Obama's health plan will force us all to pay for the life-threatening illnesses of strangers while higher taxes and new regulations will continue to discourage free trade.
We will take money from those that have it, pay a reasonable wage to the doctors, and save the lives of everybody in our community. What kind of inconsiderate person would balk at slightly higher taxes for more universal health coverage?
That's exactly what the Neanderthals must have thought about those selfish, greedy, grubbing new humans over there. Just look at them, each only caring about a few particular people instead of everybody all at once. How barbaric. They'll never last, those upstarts.
If they were alive today, how would a Neanderthal participate in politics today? They would always support more government, on all issues: they'd support Bush's wars and invasions of privacy, and they'd support Obama's health care plan and bailouts. Anything less, to them, would be considered uncaring.
Recently, the entire Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA has been mapped. Perhaps they could eventually be cloned and brought back to life.
But what would be the point? And how could we tell the difference?
This originally appeared in the Fairfield Weekly.
August 12, 2009