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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: Should we clone Neanderthals?

The current issue of Archaeology magazine has a fascinating article revealing that scientists are very close to sequencing the DNA of a Neanderthal woman who died in what is now Croatia 30,000 years ago. And then:

The ability to use the genes of extinct hominins is going to force the field of paleoanthropology into some unfamiliar ethical territory. There are still technical obstacles, but soon it could be possible to use that long-extinct genome to safely create a healthy, living Neanderthal clone. Should it be done?

The article goes on to explore some of the ethical, moral, and legal aspects of both sides of the question. I find it all utterly riveting. The science geek side of me wants to scream, “Yes! Let’s do it!” But the emotional side of me wonders what life would be like for such a person, who would be more alone than any of us homo sapiens could possibly imagine. The science geek side of me knows that even cloning an individual would not bring back into existence Neanderthal culture, which is well and truly dead to us forever (unless we can invent a time machine, of course). But the emotional side of me wonders what new perspectives on, you know, life, the universe, and everything a different intelligence might have to share with us.
We’re already cloning sheep, dogs, and other higher mammals with great success. As far as technical difficulty goes, human cloning cannot possibly be much more difficult — on a genetic level, are humans more complicated than dogs? (I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if human cloning had already been achieved secretly.) And I have no doubt that as soon as we can clone extinct animals, we will. And I’m not alone in that:

[John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin] believes the barriers to Neanderthal cloning will come down. “We are going to bring back the mammoth…the impetus against doing Neanderthal because it is too weird is going to go away.” He doesn’t think creating a Neanderthal clone is ethical science, but points out that there are always people who are willing to overlook the ethics. “In the end,” Hawks says, “we are going to have a cloned Neanderthal, I’m just sure of it.”

What do you think? Should we clone Neanderthals?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Victor Plenty

    Clone one? No. Clone many, from different sources with enough genetic diversity to form the core of a viable population.

    That would be far more ethically defensible.

    As you mentioned above, bringing into existence a single Neanderthal specimen, completely alone in the modern world, would be heartlessly cruel on multiple levels. It’s true we might learn a great deal from studying that person. But it would be first and foremost a person, a human being whose right to a decent existence trumps any scientific data we could gather by inflicting that suffering on her or him.

    A viable community of Neanderthals would also face many difficulties, but at least no single member of that community would have to feel so totally alone in the universe.

  • Lisa


    Look at what happened when they cloned the dinosaurs!

  • misterb

    I can’t improve on Lisa’s post.
    But I don’t think we could revive Neanderthal culture even if we brought a whole tribe back. Culture undergoes the same evolution that our bodies do, and the Neanderthal would inherit their culture from modern humans, not from their extinct ancestors.

  • mortadella

    No way. Like you guys said, it would be cruel. This
    hypothetical Neanderthal women would become a reality TV celebrity, I’m afraid. In little time, Tim Gunn would be invited to make her over and tabloid TV shows would be discussing whether or not she should get breast implants. Oh god, the headlines: “Paris Hilton and Neanderthal Woman Caught in Sex Tape Scandal!”

  • Mel

    Have they not read the Thursday Next series? As someone with a science background it fascinates me too, but not enough for this person to become the alien that everyone studies and does tests on. But/And I’d be curious how much how a Neanderthal being raised in a modern society would impact on it. They weren’t that different from us…. It
    all hurts my head

  • John H

    I don’t think cloning a live Neanderthal is a good idea. Public opinion (including my own) would weigh heavily against the idea of a clone growing up in a lab as some sort of experiment, being poked and prodded in the name of scientific research. I wonder how a Neanderthal child would develop if they were allowed to grow up as “normally” as possible in the modern world. From what we’ve learned about them so far, it seems likely that they’d have the potential to be mentally equivalent with the average member of the population. I keep getting a mental image of the Geico caveman commercials, but I doubt the reality would be as funny. You’d have a being who might not be that mentally or emotionally different from any of us (because those aspects of a personality are shaped more by surroundings, upbringing, and experience than anything else), but they would forever be separated by their physical appearance. We’d learn nothing of their former culture from that, even if we managed to clone a large group of them. To me, the ethical issues far outweigh whatever scientific knowledge we might gain.
    Seems to me a “small steps” approach makes more sense. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cloning body parts, such as hearts and other internal organs. There’s a big difference between a cloned piece of meat and an actual sentient being. We can learn a great deal from that alone, and doing so first would at least give us time to slow down and take a long hard look at the moral implications of cloning an entire person. I think it’ll eventually happen – it’s inevitable, no matter how we feel about it. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. This is the sort of thing that calls for us to walk, not run.

  • Jim Paradis

    Hey why not? Then we’ll have a GENUINE cave-man for the Geico commercials :)

  • Bluejay

    Mel, I was going to mention the Thursday Next novels too! From the Wiki article:

    In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels Neanderthals are portrayed as having been brought back from extinction by cloning to act as medical test subjects thanks to their close relation to Homo sapiens but lack of legal status as human beings. Following a public outcry at the practice they go on to fill low paying jobs. They have an amazing ability to “read minds” from tiny facial movements and indistinct body-language, even into detail such as marital status, job and true love’s identity; it is said by Neanderthals that faces can form verbs. They can instantly spot a liar, and therefore respect humans more if they say exactly what they mean, no matter how offensive or obtuse. Their art is abstract, but they can instantly understand it as if it were photorealistic, and they will never work, play or even walk in the rain, to show it respect.

    Food for thought…

  • Rachel Hartman

    Color me with the geek crayon, but my first reaction was to remember Asimov’s classic short story “The Ugly Little Boy.” True, that story involved time travel rather than cloning, but it’s lingered in my mind.

  • drewryce

    “The Ugly Little Boy”, yes, exactly.

    Don’t clone the Neanderthal. Not because he is too different from us to fit in with us. But because he isn’t different enough from us to make the scientific gain worth the ethical loss.

    Cloning something from much farther back gives better science re the ape to man question and doesn’t involve the ethical issues of creating something so close to viably human.

  • Pollas

    I’m strongly against the cloning of complex living creatures (dogs, cats, horses, people, etc.). I have no problem with the idea of cloning organs and other smaller scale cloning, though.

  • TommyB

    Every man on this planet having problems with modern women is going to love the idea of dating a cloned female neanderthal who is on his emotional level.

  • i shudder to think how a cloned neanderthal would be treated — look how we already treat our next nearest relations: apes and monkeys. soon they’ll be extinct except in zoos or wildlife parks; why not do something to protect, respect and preserve what’s here, instead of trying to bring back something that’s gone?

    on the other hand, the geek in me says, “wow!”

  • I say we should start with passenger pigeons.

    Then dodos.

    Then great auks.

    Then not so great auks.

    Then giant sloths–though I think that project is likely to move a bit slowly.

    Then woolly mammoths.

    And while we’re at it, the European lion…

  • Fuggle

    John H:

    You’d have a being who might not be that mentally or emotionally different from any of us (because those aspects of a personality are shaped more by surroundings, upbringing, and experience than anything else), but they would forever be separated by their physical appearance.

    Ah, but we don’t know that! We don’t know how much of the similarity is due simply to environmental factors, and how much is human + environmental factors.

    Nor do we really know how they would take to what there is to learn. Maybe they wouldn’t feel so alone until you teach them that they “should” feel lonely.

    Maybe I’m just heartless, but I don’t think it’d be all that bad. If we say we cannot let someone live because they will come into a bad situation, well … that argument seems unpalatable, especially if all the ethical weight against would help set it up that the cloning would involve a support network for the clone. We don’t know how they’d handle it, we can’t really guess, but they’d also have plenty of aid and support. Which is a damn sight better than a lot of people who’d grow up in even worse situations, who it would be considered ethically awful (by many, at least) to forcibly prevent their conception.

    I just cannot be swayed by these arguments in the face of what there is we could learn by having a truly nonhuman intelligence on earth.

    Though then, too, we need to clone more than one. A representative sample size, at least.

  • @fuggle: “I just cannot be swayed by these arguments in the face of what there is we could learn by having a truly nonhuman intelligence on earth.:

    neanderthals were human,just not homo sapiens sapiens…

  • Gold

    In order to really know and understand these ancients it should be observed alive.

    Creating a male/female pair would be a great idea.

  • Victor Plenty

    Recent research suggests a much closer physical resemblance between Neanderthal humans and modern humans than the popular image arising from earlier, less accurate reconstructions. In fact there are some humans alive today who would be nearly indistinguishable from Neanderthals if both were dressed in modern clothing.

    So they probably would not be able to portray the “cavemen” in the Geico ads (not without the same makeup required to let modern humans play such roles), and they might fit into modern society much more easily than most of us seem to think.

  • Kenny

    Neanderthals were probably white, with fair hair. They were a bit more heavily built than modern humans, and had slightly heavier facial features, along with a more pronounced brow ridge. All of this is as compared to the AVERAGE modern human.

    Dress one up in modern clothes and you wouldn’t look twice at them. Sure, they wouldn’t be strutting their stuff on the catwalk, but then, most of us don’t have the incredibly narrowly defined ‘perfect’ bone structure required for such a role either.
    Add all that to the fact that genetically speaking, there shouldn’t be any real barrier to successful interbreeding… and you get a being who would grow up in the best of homes, receive the best education, and then, granted anonymity if they wish it, would have the opportunity to live a full life in human society.

    Having a neanderthal to talk to, to study, would be an incredibly profound and illuminating experience. We would gain so much knowledge of the greater human family. We lived alongside them once. I think we should again. I think that yes, when the technology exists to do it safely, we should do so.
    We should have laws in place to protect this being in our society before he or she is even born.

  • Mel

    So where do we all stand on Human cloning then? Because i don’t feel you can be for Neanderthal cloning and against human cloning. Or rather, for Neanderthal cloning for study, and Human cloning for study, because everyone here who has said they were for it, suggests that we could learn a lot from them so we should clone them….

    Scientists now suggest that Homo Sapiens lived along side them and probably interbred with them, so that makes them so much like us that all the ethical considerations to human studies should also apply to Neanderthal studies. As we don’t clone humans, we shouldn’t clone them

  • Kenny

    I have no problem with human cloning. When the technology exists to do it safely, with zero additional risk as compared to more traditional methods of human reproduction, then why should the practice be banned?

    Human and Neanderthal clones should have the same legal rights as regular human beings. Their wishes should always be taken into account, and they should be paid for their participation.

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