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.

33 responses so far

33 thoughts on “Cloning the Neanderthal”

  1. slipknottin says:

    There is no question on if they could interbreed with us?

  2. Bytor says:

    “Harvard professor blasts Web rumor: Neanderthal clone story blamed on poor translation”.


  3. egoburnswell says:

    How long till they can clone Jesus?
    There’s a bunch of it knocking around, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_the_Holy_Blood#Relic_of_the_Precious_Blood .

  4. Slugsie says:

    While it’s quite easy to accept that a species like Neanderthal could think differently from us Homo Sapiens in their natural environment, I would have to question how that assumption would stand up if the Neanderthal was brought up in a human society and culture? Given that they are pretty close to us on an evolutionary scale it’s not unreasonable to assume that their brains would be equally as adaptable and malleable as ours, and any Neanderthal specimen would adapt accordingly.

    Additionally, it would be very risky to draw any conclusions about Neanderthals unless we do have a moderately sizeable population. I would imagine that the chance of birth defects would be quite high to begin with, and it would be impossible to tell if we had the equivalent of an genius or an idiot.

    Of course at this point we effectively have a sample size of 1 sentient hominid, so no real conclusions could be made.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Yes, the key is that Church said “if it is technically possible someday.” Without a germ/stem cell nucleus to extract fully intact, properly modified DNA, this seems like a pipe dream. We still haven’t sequenced all of the human genome for nucleotide order (e.g., around the centromeres and telomeres), copy number variants and epigenetic modifications. And to assemble all those chromosomes with all that information is way beyond our current technology. But it is fun to think about the ethical and practical aspects…

  6. SARA says:

    Wow this just doesn’t feel right to me. I’m not sure I can articulate it well though and too often “feel” is not a great reason.

    Off the top of my head the reasons for doing it are fuzzy at best. If there were concrete beneficial reasons to do this it would be more compelling to me. Studying what it means to be human? That’s not particularly specific or compelling.

    As it is, it sounds more like the reasons people climb Mount Everest. Just to because it’s there. To prove a point.

  7. delphi_ote says:

    Woudn’t epigenetics pose a serious problem here? Ancient DNA is preserved, but we know nothing about the methylation of the Neanderthal genome. Would what developed truly be a Neanderthal? Or would the changed epigenetics resulting from the cloning process and growth in a human womb alter the development of the organism? We shouldn’t just assume having a Neanderthal genome produces a Neanderthal.

    Also, if we’re putting this in a human egg, won’t the mitochondria be human?

    I think there are serious technical hurdles here that may be as insurmountable as those of cloning dinosaurs.

  8. Yes – I glossed over the technical stuff because I wanted to focus on the ethical questions,

    The mitochondria would be human, unless they also get Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA.

    The other stuff – because Neanderthals are so close to humans, perhaps we can just use human versions as “close enough.’

    I agree we cannot do this now, but probably in 5-10 years.

  9. Kawarthajon says:

    One ethical argument that I have heard when discussing cloning extinct animals is the shear loneliness they would experience being the only creature of their species alive. When it comes to fairly intelligent mamooths (assuming they are around as intelligent as elephants are) and even more intelligent Neanderthals, this would be a significant issue, especially since they are both social species.

  10. And thanks for the Boston Herald follow up. Not the first time a scientists has been wildly misquoted. I will update the blog post to reflect this.

  11. haggholm says:

    “Recently extinct species, like the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), dodo, and carrier pigeon” — should this be passenger pigeon?

  12. Another point to consider is that this Neanderthal, with a Neanderthal genome (and maybe even Neanderthal mitochrondria, but probably never a Neanderthal womb) is still going to be “raised” by humans. How Neanderthalish will its perspective end up being?

  13. SARA says:

    @Ori Vandewalle

    There is an argument that if the Neanderthal brain developed differently, it would process information differently. So even if there isn’t an obvious difference there might be a difference upon closer examination under lab conditions.

    I could even picture it see a different spectrum of colors. Like seeing infared or something.

  14. A (mostly) Neanderthal raised in human culture would be a good test of what cognitive traits are genetic and which cultural. I agree multiple subjects would be needed for this to be valid. Also – that means we need to reconstruct multiple different Neanderthal genomes.

  15. daedalus2u says:

    We are a very long way from being able to do this. They can’t just take raw DNA and do a nuclear transfer the way that Dolly was cloned. Old DNA is substantially degraded as in broken into shorter lengths with no repair because there is no metabolism going on. 30,000 years integrates about 10 lethal doses of radiation from background.

    They can get a whole genome from bits and pieces by sequencing lots of pieces and then putting them together as a jigsaw puzzle. But the techniques do not exist to take bits and pieces of DNA and integrate them together into chromosomes.

    The lack of proper epigeneticc programming is a gigantic problem. The epigenetic programming has a larger influence on the phenotype than does the genome. When animals are cloned, the clones are more different from each other and the donor than are unrelated conspecifics. The only differences in the clones are epigenetic programming on an identical genetic background.

    I think it is extremely likely that a Neanderthal will trigger the uncanny valley in humans.

  16. Could they use a human genome as a template, then insert the Neanderthal bits we have identified?

  17. chrisj says:

    It is an interesting exercise to think through the technical problems and ethical implications of doing this. However, given the current level of science education and the current political climate, this will not happen for quite some time. People are afraid of GM crops and call them “franken-foods.” People think cloning means to make a complete copy of a person with all the same experiences and personality traits. Until this general lack of science education is addressed. Cloning a Neanderthal won’t even be on the table for rational discussion.

  18. tmac57 says:

    egoburnswell said

    How long till they can clone Jesus?
    There’s a bunch of it knocking around,

    Hmmm….not only would it be the second coming,but they could also make sure that he was born of a virgin for sure this time.

  19. pseudonymoniae says:

    As a number of other commenters have pointed out, I think the non-genomic factors are going to be a major problem.

    I’m actually pretty surprised at this guy’s claim. We know enough today to infer that the genetic sequence of a genome, absent any other critical factors involved in how these genes are expressed, would be insufficient to produce a whole living organism. And any modifications we make to these non-genomic factors will lead to deviations from the phenotype of the species from which that DNA was derived.

    We’re talking about synthesizing a complete neandertal genome and then coiling it around chromatin derived from (presumably) human cells, attaching epigenetic modifications which are consistent with those seen in the typical human and then injecting it into a human cell which will then be attached to a human uterus. Given the similarity of our genomes to theirs, it is not unlikely that this baby will be far more human than neandertal.

    The ethical implications are obviously huge, as always, but it’s simply not clear that those implications extend to the possibility of resurrecting a long-dead species. We’re not bringing back the neandertals in their original form without a lot more technology than we will have available in our near future.

  20. Dreaded Anomaly says:

    Many humans already possess a percentage of introgressed DNA from Neanderthals, so we know interbreeding is possible and did in fact occur in the past.

    Anyone interested in the ethical and social implications of resurrecting ancient hominid species should read Blindsight (http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm), which deals with such issues (and others) through a sci-fi lens.

  21. ccbowers says:

    “I think it is extremely likely that a Neanderthal will trigger the uncanny valley in humans.”

    Hmm, I think that this is an interesting idea. A Neaderthal will not have the problems that artificial replications of humans have in terms of emotional expressions, and in fact the Neanderthal will learn the conventions and mannerisms of whichever culture he or she grows up in, but I realize this is only one aspect of the uncanny valley effect.

    One variable I am unsure about (I assume everyone is unsure about) is how different Neanderthal humans will appear relative to the normal phenotypic variations in modern humans. Even in modern human groups that appear very different (e.g. Scandanavian, compared to various Pygmy groups, and compared to indigenous Austronesian people, etc), I don’t believe we see that this uncanny valley effect to a large extent, but I know that people with certain diseases can trigger this reaction in others. I think much of this is due to exposure and learning: in many modern societies people are exposed to others from various groups around the world, and I imagine that this minimizes the possibility of this reaction as this exposure broadens the individual’s concept of a human. In contrast, rare diseases remain rare, so exposure is not increased as much.

  22. Fourier says:

    So the scene I’m imagining is roughly what’s described in the second half of “Brave New World”, probably ending approximately as joyfully…

    Having said that, this would make an awesome plot for a science fiction novel. The protagonist learns that he has been bred as a lone example of an extinct species. It sort-of makes “Actually son, you’re adopted” sound like a non-event.

  23. daedalus2u says:

    CC, I think that humans can and do trigger the uncanny valley in other humans and this is the mechanism behind what causes xenophobia including homophobia, racism, sexism, misogyny, religious bigotry, the hatred expressed toward atheists and even the degree of animosity expressed by political partisans.


    There are different degrees of this, and it is always active more-or-less.

    I think this xenophobia represents the apocryphal “greenbeard” mechanism, but it can’t be genetic per se, it has to be learned. Human sensory neuroanatomy isn’t established genetically, it develops through exposure to sensory information, so a specific human pattern recognition can’t be coded for genetically either, it has to occur during or after development of the sensory neuroanatomy that does the pattern recognition.

  24. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Church appeared on WBUR this week,


    as for female volunteers who want to be a surrogate mother to a Neanderthal baby, he says “…hundreds and hundreds have shown enthusiasm…”.

  25. The uncanny valley in humans is a complex topic, but here is some conventional thinking on the topic.

    The negative emotional reaction to near-human looking beings probably relates to an evolved aversion to people who are unhealthy – either because they may have communicable diseases or because they would be unfit mates.

    Xenophobia is more complex, as there is an overlapping attraction to the “exotic.” It is suspected that attraction to the exotic encourages occasional mixing of different genetic stock. It is also not clear if the “in-group” vs “out-group” phenomenon is the same as those emotions triggering an uncanny valley. They may be similar but distinct.

    But sure – the uncanny valley can be triggered by humans. Why else would it exist.

  26. fritter says:

    Anyone remember the old Asimov story “Ugly Little Boy”?

    Of course, that wasn’t cloning.

  27. ccbowers says:

    “But sure – the uncanny valley can be triggered by humans. Why else would it exist.”

    I’m not sure that anyone is saying otherwise. My main point was that modern societies have increased exposure to a wider range of human groups (therefore increased phenotypic variations), which likely lessens this “uncanny valley” reaction that people may have if all they knew about were the people in their town or village. This will probably lessen this reaction in a Neaderthal, which was a reaction to d2u’s comment above.

    “CC, I think that humans can and do trigger the uncanny valley in other humans and this is the mechanism behind what causes xenophobia”

    I think it may be “a” mechanism, but not “the” mechanism. There is far more to “in group” and “out group” than this effect. I agree that there is a huge “learned” aspect to this, using the broadest sense of the term.

  28. daedalus2u says:

    Dr Novella, did you look at my blog post on xenophobia and the uncanny valley?

    It might have evolved for sickness detection, but other organisms have conspecific recognition which triggers fighting, usually over territory. In social organisms like ants, that detection is based on pheromones and is learned, that is ants that are fostered to a different nest and grow up in that nest act as members and are accepted as members of that nest, even when they are of a different species.

    Regarding sickness detection, how could an organism learn the pattern recognition necessary to diagnose sickness without exposure to the proper patterns? Recognizing differences or unique behaviors would be much easier.

    I suspect that there is regulation of the “gain” on how different someone needs to be before xenophobia is triggered via the uncanny valley. If you are in a low stress state, then someone different may be perceived to be exotic and not a threat. If you are in a high stress state (and it is stress of particular kinds), then the unfamiliar becomes a threat.

    Many social interactions are mediated through oxytocin and maternal bonding is the archetypal social behavior for mammals. All mammals exhibit maternal bonding, even non-social mammals. Maternal bonding has to be regulated, and if times are too hard, too hard for lactation to be successful until weaning, many mammalian mothers will become infanticidal.

  29. Diane says:

    Re: the uncanny valley

    I read about this several years ago and I don’t remember the details well enough to look it up, so my apologies in advance for the vagueness.

    I read a letter or something written by a European who came to the United States in the 18th century, having heard about black slavery and been morally opposed to it, but when they arrived, they saw an African person for the first time and freaked out so much that they converted on the spot to the belief that Africans were subhuman. I am not sure if this can be entirely attributed to the uncanny valley; people who see other humans in a state of degradation sometimes respond by agreeing that they deserve to be degraded, so perhaps the European might have had a different reaction if they had encountered an African dressed in expensive clothes and behaving like an important personage. But I think it is entirely possible that we could respond to Neanderthals with similar shock and revulsion.

    And, Steve, I think you are much too sanguine about the effect of the Neanderthal growing up as an object of public and scientific scrutiny and knowing that he or she was the only one of its kind. If they are anything like us, that is likely to be extremely traumatizing. The analogy to test tube babies is not apt; test tube babies look just like the rest of us so it is easy enough to keep their identity private. A Neanderthal (probably) couldn’t hide. Given the reasons people have given above for why a cloned Neanderthal might not be representative of “true” Neanderthals at all, and the trauma to the individual, I think cloning one would be extremely irresponsible.

  30. ccbowers says:


    The one thought I have, that run somewhat contrast your thoughts, are that some of the strongest animosity occurs between groups that are geographically close and are often similar in many ways. To an outsider the group conflicts seem to be based up very superficial differences, yet within each group those differences have increased importance. I do agree with much of what you wrote, and there is a decent amount of complexity to the topic

  31. daedalus2u says:

    CC, that is completely consistent with an uncanny valley-type mechanism.

    There is more to bigotry than the uncanny valley. Bigotry can be learned also. To some extent the position on an attraction/familiarity curve is only about learning. Brothers and sisters are unlikely to form romantic relationships due to familiarity. Adopted siblings from different biological parents usually don’t become romantically involved either and they are not genetically related. There are cases where brother and sister, separated at birth who later meet are romantically attracted to each other.

    There is probably a gender difference. Many white slave owners did rape and father children with their female black slaves. There may be multiple different attraction/familiarity curves for different people and about different things. That hundreds of women have volunteered may be suggestive that for opposite gender reproductive partners, the valley is very close (siblings) and essentially everyone beyond a certain distance is exotic and attractive.

  32. jre says:

    My wife and I had a spirited discussion this weekend on the subject. She is strongly of the opinion that cloning Neanderthals, Denisovans or whatever would be deeply disrespectful to our revenant relatives, and is to be considered strictly off the research priority list. I thought her sympathy for the cloned subject was admirable, and was reminded of L. Sprague deCamp’s The Gnarly Man, perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal of a Neanderthal in popular fiction. Of note, Gaffney the Neanderthal was nobody’s fool, a corollary to the fact that you don’t live to be 50,000 years old by falling for every Nigerian bank scam. If the cloning ever happens, I suspect that revived H. Heantherthalensis will confound our low expectations.

  33. GolfTango says:

    It would be interesting to know if Mr. Novella thinks, in the 38th century, using genetics
    technology, we might be able to create creatures from Greek mythology?

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