It’s Nobel week, and paleogenomics wins!

First up, look who won the 2022 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine: it’s human evolution! As represented by the paleogenomics work of Svante Pääbo, who has been recovering ancient genomes, digging up old Homo sapiens and Neandertals and Denisovans.

I do have one reservation, though: the Nobel announcement claims “the ultimate goal of explaining what makes us uniquely human.” I don’t think we can accomplish that by decoding genome sequences. Identifying the different ancestral groups that led to us is interesting and informative, but let’s not get hung up on just DNA.


  1. Roberto Aguirre Maturana says

    Is anybody surprised that this evolution news isn’t mentioned in IDiots site “Evolution News”?

  2. says

    I was of the impression that he had overly hyped early findings and underreported contamination/potential contamination such that a number of papers were called into question.

    I was also of the impression that he later did the work his critics demanded.

    If my impressions accurately reflect the history, it creates an interesting situation where premature announcement of significant scientific developments can be rewarded as long as you’re not actually faking anything and you go back to clean up weaknesses later.

    Supposing that’s true, it creates ever more pressure to be first to publish in a research area, quality be damned (so long as you’re not committing fraud).

    I may be misremembering or it may be that the deficiencies actually existed but were relatively minor, such that this prize couldn’t be seen as rewarding the quick-but-sloppy approach. But it’s interesting nonetheless because my (uninformed/barely-informed) opinion of him has been “cool research, but willing to be slipshod” and this provides me an opportunity to get new info and reassess that tentative conclusion.

    Huh. That makes me sound a lot more like Pääbo than I anticipated when I began this comment.

  3. says

    I know, I’ve felt the same, which is why I chose to emphasize the field of research rather than the guy doing it. It’s a win for paleogenomics, no matter what you think of Pääbo.

  4. CX316 says

    they’re only hung up on the DNA at the moment because epigenetic analysis is pretty much all they have to work with, isn’t it? I saw a thing recently saying they were using the DNA analysis comparing to the human and neanderthal genome because there’s simply not enough bones to work with yet because there’s so few specimens

    Hopefully we can get some new finds sometime soon and get some of the levels of cultural info we have about neandethals but for the denisovans

  5. birgerjohansson says

    The numeroligists will freak out.

    His father Sune Bergström won the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology exactly 40 years before S P got the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    His father had an “interesting” family life with two families who did not know about each other.

  7. whheydt says

    When Paabo was a post-doc at UC Berkeley, my wife was secretary for the professor running that lab. Pity she died 3 months ago. She’d have been delighted the hear about this.

  8. StevoR says

    @ ^ whheydt : My condolences. Respect.

    Curious to know what she thought of him but understand if you can’t or feel it’s better not to say.

  9. Ted Lawry says

    @2 I read Pabbo’s book, he says just the opposite. His lab was making strides in fighting contamination while others were running around making fantastic claims about recovering the 130 MY old boll weevils DNA. His lab’s results finally made ancient DNA scientifically credible, that’s why he got the Nobel!

    BTW, in his book he remarks that he was gay until his 20’s when he got interested in women, got married and had a family. I can’t imagine how the loony right will try to spin that!

  10. whheydt says

    Re: SteveR @ #8…
    She didn’t interact with him very much, he was just another post-doc in the lab. The remarks she made were favorable, though. Mind you, it was quite some years ago.

  11. hillaryrettig1 says

    Also let’s not get hung up on “what makes us uniquely human.” Human exceptionalism is a myth, and it’s pretty obvious that while our species has its good points, we also suck in many ways. We should be WAY humbler.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    hillaryrettig1 @12: I don’t read “uniquely human” as a positive, regardless of the writer’s intent. We are exceptional: the most destructive species to have arisen on this planet. But we do have a dark sense of humour (whether intentional or not). Despite our stupidity and short-sightedness, we call ourselves sapiens.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    Rob Grigjanis @ 13
    The oxygen-producing algae that arose 2 billion years ago may have caused even more die-offs of the anoxic organisms of the time.

    We must be content to be the second most destructive species. So far. Until Dr. Davros succeeds with his project.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Rob Grigjanis @ 13
    The oxygen-producing algae that arose 2 billion years ago may have caused even more die-offs of the anoxic organisms of the time.

    We must be content to be the second most destructive species. So far. Until Dr. Davros succeeds with his project.

  15. John Morales says

    We must be content to be the second most destructive species.

    First, ‘algae’ is not a species.
    To quote Wikipedia: “It is a polyphyletic grouping that includes species from multiple distinct clades. ”

    Second, give us a chance. Working on it, doing pretty well at it.

  16. John Morales says

    Feeling a bit whimsical today.

    So, here’s Sam O’Nella Academy on ‘Where Animals’ Scientific Names Come From’:

  17. StevoR says

    @ ^ John Morales : Cheers for that.

    @11. whheydt : Thanks.

    @9. Ted Lawry : Sigh . I can.Imagine how the homophobes will spin it that is. Erasure of bisexuality and ignoring the reality of the Kinsey scale is depressingly common.

  18. chrislawson says

    Roberto@1 — gotta give ’em a month or two to find a way to spin this is proof of creationism

    birgerjohansson@14 — the fact that the great oxygenation took 2 billion years means there may have been no major die offs; even today there are large populations of anaerobic organisms because even on a high-oxygen Earth there are many low-oxygen environments (and the ancestors of today’s anaerobes survived the 35% oxygen atmosphere of the late Carboniferous); it’s interesting (to me at least) that a lot of the pop-sci sources use references that show no such thing. For instance, the Wikipedia entry on the Great Oxygenation Event says “The sudden injection of toxic oxygen into an anaerobic biosphere caused the extinction of many existing anaerobic species on Earth” with a reference to this paper which points to a huge drop in oxygen production at the very end of the Great Oxygenation Event…and notes that “the end-GOE is not considered a major biotic event” [i.e. no major extinctions]. And yet here is, referenced in support of the idea of a Great Oxygenation extinction!

    Also, we don’t have anything like the fossil abundance to make solid claims about mass extinctions. The accepted major extinctions start with the Ordovician-Silurian ~450 Mya and are subject to considerable ongoing re-analysis due to limitations in the fossil record (e.g. the Signor-Lipps effect). The Great Oxygenation ended >2 Gya.

  19. KG says

    I know paleoanthropologists tend to be taxonomic “splitters” rather than “lumpers” – if only so they can each discover their own species – but I can’t see why Neandertals and Denisovans are not counted as Homo sapiens, since we have clear genetic evidence that they were ancestral to many if not all people living today. If two populations can produce viable offspring which in turn can produce generations of descendants indefinitely, they should be counted as belonging to the same species, anatomical differences notwithstanding.