Posted by: Kash Farooq | January 27, 2013

Is it ethical to clone a Neanderthal?

The Neanderthals are an extinct species of the genus Homo named after the site of the first discovery – the Neander Valley in Germany.

A path through the forest and a creek through the Neanderthal Valley

A path through the forest and a creek through the Neander Valley. Image credit http://www.cordula.ws

They are the most closely related species to modern day humans. They were around at the same time as humans, probably going extinct around 30000 years ago. That’s incredibly recent. We probably shared the Earth with them for a 100,000 years or so.

Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

There are a couple of hypotheses to explain why they went extinct. Perhaps they didn’t cope with climate change as well as Homo sapiens? With grasslands replacing forests, perhaps their hunting techniques failed. Or perhaps they were killed off and out competed by modern humans? DNA analysis of Neanderthal remains has revealed that modern humans share some nuclear DNA with the extinct Neanderthals – so we may have got on OK at some point!

This week, Professor George Church spoke to the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel about cloning Neanderthals. He is a well-respected Harvard professor of synthetic biology; he was involved with Human Genome Project. When asked:

Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?

He answered:

That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so.

Scientists have recovered DNA from Neanderthal fossils and this would form the basis of any cloning attempt. In this book he writes that an “extremely adventurous female human” could serve as the surrogate mother. He also told Der Spiegel that “the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.”

The idea is that parts of the Neanderthal genome would be introduced into human stem cells, a foetus would be created and then implanted into the “extremely adventurous female human”.

And why would we want to do this? One of the reasons he gives is:

Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.

OK….

I’m going to ignore whether cloning a Neanderthal is technically feasible. It isn’t feasible today, but synthetic biology research is progressing rapidly. Who knows what will be possible in 10 to 20 years? I’m also going to ignore the Professor’s suggestion that Neanderthals could help us build some sort of spaceship or whatever he’s suggesting.

I’m going to focus on the ethics.

The idea of cloning extinct species is fascinating. I’m sure we’d all love to be able to go to a zoo and see a sabre-toothed Tiger or a woolly mammoth. But cloning a Neanderthal? Ethically that doesn’t sit very well with me.

Neanderthals were intelligent. They created and used tools. They were social. What kind of psychological pressure would a Neanderthal be under if it knew that it was the only one of its kind? And would we class them as human with the same basic human rights? They evidently have bred with humans in the past, if the cloned Neanderthal wished to breed consensually with Homo sapiens, would it be allowed to? Would we forcibly prevent this? Basically, my question is: would it be ethically sound to create an intelligent species just for scientific curiosity?

And would our clone survive on modern Earth, anyway? Would we be creating an intelligent species for it to die from the common cold? Their genome would have evolved in response to ancient pathogens and would not be able to handle the various microbes we deal with every day. Humans also carry around millions of genes in symbiotic organisms. Where would we get their symbiotic organisms from? Would we actually have to keep our intelligent clone isolated in a “clean room”?

Though anatomically similar to modern humans, Neanderthals do have some strikingly different features. Their heads were shorter; they had a less pronounced facial front. Their chins and foreheads sloped backwards; their nose region protruded forward more. Is it ethically sound to essentially create a modern day version of a 19th century freak show?

A Neanderthal model - reconstructed by the BBC for their "Prehistoric Autopsy" series

A Neanderthal model – reconstructed by the BBC for their “Prehistoric Autopsy” series.

Some humans find it impossible to be decent to other humans with a different skin colour. Can you imagine how a Neanderthal would be treated?

Related articles

Tom Chivers: Spare Neanderthals this modern freak show.

Der Spiegel: Interview with George Church: Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead?

MSN: Scientist: I’m NOT seeking a mom for a Neanderthal.

Alun Salt: Neanderthal Ethics.

All images from Wikimedia Commons.


I recorded a version of this blog post for Episode 171 of The Pod Delusion – a podcast about interesting things.

Thanks for Peter Harrison for some of the text above!


Responses

  1. Those of us whose distant ancestors diffused out of Africa ought to ponder on the fact that our DNA contains a significant contribution from Neanderthals – for a very brief summary see http://earth-pages.co.uk/2011/01/13/top-story-and-most-flawed-hype-of-2010/

  2. Style their hair in the latest fashion, shave their beards, dress them in jeans and tee shirts with a cool pair of Converse and they will look just like you and me. You won’t be able to tell them apart from the rest of humanity.


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