Jan 22 2013

Cloning the Neanderthal

Cloning technology has advanced to the point that we can reliably clone large mammals, like Dolly the sheep. Today you can have your pet cloned. So far no one has cloned a human as we are still sorting out the complex ethical issues. In some countries, like the UK, human reproductive cloning is illegal.

There are many wrinkles to this new technology – one is using it to bring back extinct species. There are efforts underway, for example, to clone the wooly mammoth. Recently extinct species, like the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), dodo, and passenger pigeon, also might be resurrected by cloning technology. Although, don’t expect Jurassic Park anytime soon as current evidence strongly suggests that DNA cannot survive for millions of years.

But it can survive for thousands, and even tens of thousands in the right conditions. We have mostly reconstructed, for example, the DNA of our closest evolutionary cousins, Homo neanderthalensis. Now a Harvard scientist, George Church, is proposing that it may be possible to clone a Neanderthal.

From a technological point of view his claim is not controversial. We have a fairly complete reconstruction of Neanderthal DNA. Insert that DNA into a denucleated human embryo and you have a Neanderthal embryo. There are still technical hurdles, however, and we are probably still 5-10 years away from pulling something like this off.

It was originally reported that Church was looking for a female volunteer who wants to be a surrogate mother to a Neanderthal baby. However, more recent reports indicate that this was the result of a significant misinterpretation. Church was just talking about the theoretically possibility – this is not even the area of his own research.

In any case, the ethical considerations are interesting to contemplate. The resulting Neanderthal would be a person, deserving of every right and freedom we grant to Homo sapiens. Potential concerns include the kind of life that we will be bringing that person into. I actually think this is the least ethical concern. The same concerns were brought up about the first “test tube” baby, that they would be living their life under a microscope. Such concerns turned out to be overhyped.

This would be very different, of course. There would be great scientific interest in studying a living Neanderthal. This can easily be dealt with, however by simple informed consent. Scientists will have to make do with whatever studies the resulting Neanderthal consents to. Perhaps they should even be assigned a special advocate to help them manage such request and to personally ensure they are not being abused. In other words – the concern that the resulting Neanderthal will be a scientific curiosity can be managed, in my opinion.

I also don’t think that any questions about whether such a life would be worth living are worth asking at this point.  People find happiness on their own terms and it’s extremely difficult to say the least to objectively determine such things.

Another ethical question concerns the societal effects of creating another hominid species. Perhaps this is inevitable, even if we don’t resurrect extinct hominids (through genetic manipulation, for example). In any case, there are problems with racism even given the fact that humans are all one species and the concept of race is fuzzy at best. Imagine if there were an actual distinct hominid species. Ultimately I don’t think it’s legitimate to argue that we should not do this because people are racist, but it is something to consider.

This also raises the question – would Church clone one Neanderthal? Two? A breeding population? Either way it seems likely that Neanderthal DNA would ultimately become mixed with human DNA. I don’t think there is any ethical problem with this, but it is one of the consequences that need to be considered – is this an indirect way of genetically engineering humans?

Church thinks there may be benefits to such a cloning, He argues:

‘Neanderthals might think differently than we do. They could even be more intelligent than us.

‘When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.’

This is a bit speculative, but I think he has a point. What would be most interesting, in my opinion, are the cognitive differences between sapiens and neanderthalensis. This is something that does not fossilize. I think we can learn a great deal about what it means to be human by studying sentient beings who are not human. Eventually we are likely to encounter such beings from other worlds, but until then resurrecting the Neanderthal is probably our best bet. They are closely related to us, but even still we might learn a great deal from this.


In the end I think there is more to gain than to risk from cloning a Neanderthal. Perhaps this can be a maturing event for humanity – even just having to confront all of the ethical questions that are raised. Anything that forces us to think about what it means to be human, and the social and cultural forces that drive our ethical questions about such a cloning, is likely to be productive.

There are certain to be difficult and unpleasant aspects of the project as well, but I think in the end such concerns will have been overblown (much like with other biological advances in the last half century). There will be controversy, no doubt. Controversy can be productive too, however.

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