Question 1: Second Place

 

Excerpt from Nathan Swetlitz's winning essay

 

 

... The construction of the Neanderthal genome not only changes our views on the origin of our species, but it also sheds light on the traits that evolved in humans after they split with Neanderthals between 270,000 and 440,000 years ago (Gibbons, 2010). By locating which genes are different in humans and Neanderthals, it may be possible to discover why our species survived and theirs went extinct. Pääbo’s team found 78 nucleotide substitutions in the human genome which encoded proteins for healing wounds, beating sperm flagellum, metabolism, cognitive development and gene transcription (Gibbons, 2010; Green et al., 2010). Perhaps most interestingly, Pääbo’s research indicates that “genes involved in cognitive development were positively selected” during human evolution along with “an evolutionary change in RUNX2 [which] affected the morphology of the upper body and cranium” (Green et al., 2010). By looking at these gene substitutions in modern humans, scientists may discern what allowed modern humans to survive and prevented Neanderthals from doing so. As we generally distinguish ourselves from other animals by our superior cognitive abilities, it is possible that the key to our survival lies in what makes our species most unique. Perhaps in the critical years when humans, Neanderthals, and other hominids all walked this earth, only the species that was best suited for overcoming intellectual challenges could survive...