Should we clone Neanderthals?

Forget the jokes. A Harvard professor is serious.
Michael Cook | Feb 23 2010 | comment  

Skeletons of, from left, a chimpanzee, a modern human and a reconstructed Neanderthal at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. / New York TimesNeanderthal is a byword for backwardness, but this relative of ours, who disappeared only 25,000 or 30,000 years ago, was clearly human. The Neanderthals built fires, wore clothes, probably had language, made tools and even had a larger brain than we do.

Despite Neanderthal jokes – “Neanderthals aren’t extinct, I work for one” – Neanderthals didn’t look too much different from us. Normally they are depicted as short, stooped, swarthy and hairy. In fact, they were just a bit shorter than us and they might have had fair skin and red hair. After a visit to the barber’s and Walmart, you probably wouldn’t recognise them on the street. They must have had a simple moral life, too, for they cared for their frail and elderly and buried their dead.

The mystery is why they disappeared as homo sapiens emerged out of Africa and spread across Europe, where most of the Neanderthal sites are. Did Cro-Magnon man bring strange diseases? Were our ancestors so much smarter, better organised, faster or more agile that they bested the Neanderthals in competition for food and finally exterminated them?

There are many theories about their extinction, all spun out of very meagre evidence. Neanderthal speech must have been much different from ours because of anatomical differences. Our ancestors may have had a greater capacity for planning which allowed them to store food for lean seasons and organise themselves into clans and tribes. One theory is that Neanderthals did not have a gender-based division of labour and so had a poorer diet.

One way to solve these and other mysteries about Neanderthals is to clone them. George Church, a leading genome researcher at Harvard Medical School, has claimed that a Neanderthal could be brought to life for about US$30 million. Neanderthal cells could be significant in the discovery of treatments for largely human-specific diseases such as HIV or smallpox, he believes, as they may have genetic immunity. Also, differences in their biology could lead to new gene therapy or drug treatments.

A first draft of the Neanderthal genome was released a year ago by a team based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, but it is certain to contain many errors. Creating an artificial genome is an even greater challenge, but Church – unlike most other geneticists -- is confident that it is possible.

But would it be ethical?

Anticipating objections, Church plans to blunt or confuse them by injecting the reconstructed Neanderthal genome into chimpanzee eggs. Would arguments against human cloning be relevant to such a creature? There is a range of views amongst scientists and bioethicists.

Church himself believes that it might be unethical not to clone them, as so much useful information could be obtained. Because Neanderthals had a larger, but differently shaped brain, they may have thought differently. Perhaps we could learn from their unique problem-solving skills. (Science fiction writers have created Neanderthals who have paranormal powers.)

We need to create “a sibling species” which could give us more genetic diversity, Church believes. Modern humans are a monoculture and monocultures are biologically at risk. (Does this mean a matchmaking service at Harvard Medical School?) "Just saying 'no' [to cloning] is not necessarily the safest or most moral path," he told the magazine Archaeology. "It is a very risky decision to do nothing."

The argument against cloning Neanderthals are basically the same as those marshalled against cloning us, except it stands out more clearly. First of all, despite Church’s optimism, most cloned mammals die and most of those which survive to birth are sick. So far, all attempts to clone human embryos have failed. Cloning a Neanderthal would be very risky indeed – for the clone.

Lori Andrews, of Chicago-Kent College of Law, says that she doesn't see any problem with cloning as such. However, she points out that the Neanderthal's legal rights would include the right not to be experimented on. Since experimentation is the main purpose of cloning them, this makes the whole exercise useless. It’s easy to imagine Neanderthal rights groups springing up to protect them against exploitation.

The ultimate argument against cloning Neanderthals is that it violates human dignity to create a being outside of the loving circle of a family. The first right of a human being is to be loved for who he or she is, not as a product or scientific experiment. A cloned Neanderthal would be as close as possible to synthetic humanity as you can imagine. Part of her would be chimpanzee; the rest would be a patchwork quilt of Neanderthal DNA sequenced from the bones of dozens of forebears who may have lived thousands of years apart, scattered across Europe.  Everyone involved in her conception and birth would want to exploit her; none of them would cherish her. She would enter the world as a circus freak.

If this is true, isn’t there something really troubling about the mindset of scientists who are willing to acquiesce in cloning a Neanderthal? They ignore the humanity of the being they propose to create, viewing it merely as an instrument for their own curiosity or utility. For them, a human being is reduced to his genetic code or to anatomical novelties. Of course, it is just a thought experiment, but an unsettling one. Because what it reveals is the persistent capacity of science for dehumanisation.

James Noonan, a geneticist at Yale University, sums up the loopiness of Church’s idea. "If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have, and if your experiment fails... well. It's a lose-lose," he says.

While a Neanderthal cloning project is highly implausible, it’s disturbing that so many scientists and bioethicists see nothing wrong with it. Is it racism, or speciesism? Or is it simply the hubris of guys in white coats playing God?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 


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