Tuesday 31 January 2012

Clone a Neanderthal?

Wow. I really think push has come to shove. A tip o' the  hat tip to Lauren Davis for pointing us in the direction of Should We Clone Neanderthals?, from an early 2010 online edition of Archaeology (A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America).  
     I'm thankful, for the moment, for all of the technological hurdles laid out in this article. Scientists won't be in a position to clone a Neanderthal in the near future. But, as John Hawkes puts it, someone might try it when it becomes feasible, regardless of any legal, ethical or moral proscriptions against it.
     I want to focus on what will almost certainly transpire in the future: the inevitable discussions about where to draw the line between animal and human. As most of you know by now, I'm not much of a fan of the 'Neanderthals are Us!' school of thought. My take on them is that, face to face with a Neanderthal, most of us wouldn't think they were human. 
     As a species, we've already drawn the line at cloning humans. But we clone sheep and other mammals with relative ease, and without much lost sleep. What about monkeys? What about orangutans, gibbons, chimpanzees, and gorillas? I can't imagine why we'd want to clone these close cousins, unless the survival of that species hung in the balance.
     The extinction of the Neanderthals, while still the subject of opposing viewpoints, may one day come to be widely accepted. We're looking forward to the day that a wooly mammoth is cloned. Why not a cloned Neanderthal? Why not, indeed. Where do we draw the line, and why?
     I don't have an answer. Sorry. I hope I'm not disappointing you. My gut tells me no. Unlike the endangered primate species, about which we might think it appropriate to maintain the lineage artificially, we're not about to 'bring back' the Neanderthals, any more, one would hope, than we would try to establish a wild population of wooly mammoth. So why would we do it? To see if it's possible to have Neanderthal-sapiens babies? I highly doubt it. If I'm correct in my assessment of the humanness of Neanderthals, it would be tantamount to attempting a hybrid chimp or gorilla and human cross. 
A chimera from ancient Greek mythology 
     We all say that that would be 'just wrong.' And we're right to say so. Because, even if it were possible to hybridize humans and chimps or gorillas, think of what that hybrid might turn out to be like. It's hard to imagine that the human genetic input could possibly result in a human that looks like a chimp or gorilla, much less a chimp that thinks like a human. We would be creating a chimera, nothing more. In so doing we'd be doing violence to both the chimp and the human halves of the offspring.
     It's difficult not to see the cloning of a Neanderthal in that same light (unless there really is no cognitive difference between us and them--and the jury's still out). If it turns out that the Neanderthal isn't like us, it still wouldn't be as different from us as a chimp or a gorilla. That much we can ascertain from the minute quantity of DNA that we don't have in common.
     So, we'd have brought into existence a near human, a quasi-human. And we would no doubt be dooming that individual to an existence along the lines of a zoo animal. It's impossible to say how nearly human the cloned Neanderthal would be. But what if a cage or other form of incarceration were necessary, rather than a bow tie and a top hat? Neanderthals were manifestly stronger than modern humans. What if we had to keep it in chains, or sedated, to mitigate the mismatch between our lofty scientific aspirations and the reality of existence for the clone? It would represent, in my view, the height of human arrogance to perpetrate such an act.
     I'll say no to cloning a Neanderthal, in firm opposition to any palaeoanthropologist or other person for whom it is a burning desire to settle the question, once and for all, of whether the Neanderthals 'R Us.
     I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say. Please leave a comment.


  1. You remind me of a conference I attended along with a lot of very eminent chimpologists. At dinner towards the end of the conference the equally eminent social anthropologist who was our "leader" asked whether any of us thought that humans could breed with chimpanzees. Aside from the sniggering suggestion that someone has probably tried (which turned out to be true--the Russians tried it in the early 20th century) people waffled. My response was: "why would be want to know the answer? The only interesting thing that could come out of the gross experiment --gross for all the reasons you say--would be some interesting attitudes about a hybrid species. And guess what? We would still think it was more a chimp that was bumped up a bit and not a chimp that had somehow produced an offspring worthy of being treated as an equal. So why would we want to do it? We can do the thought experiment about those reactions without doing the breeding. You could see if you could fertilise egg and sperm, but then destroy the fertilised egg. But more than that would be bad."

  2. We don't need to clone a Neandertal in order to know if Neandertals could hybridize with Homo sapiens. We already know they can, and did. Each current Eurasian has 2% to 4% of Neandertal genes as a result of hybridization 40-60 ka ago.
    It is therefore interesting that you state: "think of what that hybrid might turn out to be like". Well, I can tell you: more like us than you might think. After all, me, typing this, and you too, are a 2% to 4% Neandertal-sapiens hybrid.
    So, are "they" really that much different from us then, per your suggestion? I doubt it.
    And that is exactly a reason why we shouldn't clone them. But with regard to hybridization with such a clone product: we already have been there and did that, during the Pleistocene. And kept hybridizing with the offspring, to the point that nowadays each and every Eurasian person has Neandertal genes in him or her. This wouldn't have happened, if "they" were really that animaline.

  3. One thing about these discussions that people seem unable to fathom is that, unless the world has a technological implosion, sooner or later in the years, centuries and millenia to come, someone will clone, crossbreed and engineer virtually everything. Should we or shouldn't we is irrelevant. It will happen.
    Aside from religion based objections, the only real problem is the celebrity "zoo animal" status that a cloned neanderthal or half chimp or whatever could face. That is the ethical dilema that should be addressed. No creature of human or near human intelligence deserves to be raised in a fish bowl.


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