Neanderthal 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
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
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
Michael Cook is
editor of MercatorNet.