Are you a left-brain or a right-brain person?
In the 1960s, Nobel laureate Roger W. Sperry advanced the idea of the split-brain, with each hemisphere involved in distinct activities. According to this model, the activities of the left hemisphere of the brain include thinking in words, logic, and mathematics while the right hemisphere’s activities include imagination, artistic expression, intuition, and feeling. The popular narrative is that some people, such as artists and musicians, have a more dominant right brain. And people such as scientists and engineers, have a dominant left brain. As it turns out, there is no truth to this idea. Although the activities of the two hemispheres differ, no evidence exists that one side of the brain is more dominant in some people than the other. In reality, both sides of the brain work together to carry out any task.
While there may not be any obvious differences in the brains of artists and scientists, there do appear to be some significant differences between the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals and, according to psychologist Richard Coss, these differences make it unlikely that Neanderthals had artistic capabilities.1
As discussed in Who Was Adam?, one of the differences between the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals is the size of the parietal lobe (cortex).2 The modern human brain has a much larger parietal lobe, contributing to the globular shape of our skull (compared to the elongated Neanderthal skull). This area of the brain is involved in the processing required for language and mathematics. It is also the part of the brain responsible for visuomotor coordination.
Coss argues that the underdeveloped parietal lobe of Neanderthals accounts for the differences in hunting practices between Neanderthals and modern humans. Neanderthals hunted easy-to-kill game that wouldn’t have been wary of their presence. This lack of wariness allowed these hominins to get close enough to the game to thrust their spears into them. On the other hand, the first modern humans hunted dangerous game that would have been cautious of their presence. Modern humans killed these animals from a distance by throwing spears at them. This special hunting practice requires a high degree of hand-eye coordination that is only possible because of our large parietal lobe.
Coss points out that the same degree of hand-eye coordination required to throw a spear is needed to make representative art. To make art, the first modern humans had to mentally visualize from memory animals that they had previously seen and then translate those mental images into highly coordinated hand-eye movements needed to etch, draw, and paint those animals. According to Coss, Neanderthals were not able to do this because of their underdeveloped parietal lobe. To put it simply, Neanderthals did not have the brain for art.
This insight has important implications for recent claims that Neanderthals made art, made music, possessed language, and displayed symbolic behavior, all of which require an enlarged parietal lobe. These claims of Neanderthal symbolism have all been questioned based on additional scientific scrutiny. This latest insight from Coss further justifies skepticism about the claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism and advanced cognition like us. In fact, I would even go one step further. If these hominins didn’t have the brain structure to support artistic expression, then claims of Neanderthal symbolism should be dismissed altogether.
Many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings, contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities and a reflection of our exceptional nature—in ways that align with the image of God. In fact, as a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. Yet, if Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, it would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin.
But when the full body of scientific evidence about Neanderthal biology and behavior is carefully weighed, it becomes clear that human beings uniquely stand apart from all creatures. We are exceptional.