Even if the technology existed to clone a Neanderthal, why would anyone want to do it, asks Darren Curnoe.
In a sort-of Ice Age version of Jurassic Park, Harvard University’s Professor George Church has suggested – to much media coverage – that, one day soon, scientists somewhere will place a very unusual personal ad in a newspaper: “Wanted, women to carry and give birth to a Neandertal.”
Without doubt the scientists will be swamped with offers from willing participants – provided there’s a (paid) extended TV interview, magazine exclusives, a book deal and a Hollywood movie to go along with it all.
Who knows, Yeti hunters might even make their wombs available in the hope it will finally land their much-sought-after quarry.
After all, the Abominable Snowman belongs, according to newspaper quotes from Russian Yeti-hunter Valentin Sapunov, to an isolated and late-surviving Neandertal population living in Siberia.
Sapunov is even reported in the media as claiming there are 200 such creatures living in various parts of the region.
Moreover, some of his fellow Yeti-believers in Russia are planning to open their own Yeti resort in the town of Sheregesh in southern Siberia: I guess they’ll be needing some Yetis to stock it with, unless they actually catch some soon.
So far, these Neandertals have been far too clever to be seen up close, let alone captured, despite all of our 21st century devices.
Come to think of it, “Yeti Park” might be a great way of paying for the Neandertal cloning, as well as providing a nice place to keep them for us to gawk at, just like in the movie Jurassic Park.
Heck, we could even clone a few mammoths and watch the Neandertals slaughter them for entertainment, all the while munching on our Mammoth Burgers, prepared by our cloned cousins.
‘Misinterpreted and poorly translated’
Seriously though, the recent media coverage of Church’s Q&A, published in Der Spiegel’s online offshoot Spiegel Online, has aroused a lot of media interest and has seen the good professor defending his comments published in German, stating they were misinterpreted and poorly translated.
According to Spiegel Online:
Like no-one else, molecular biologist George Church represents a guild that is prepared to try out anything that can be done, unconditionally.
The magazine further cites Church as saying, an “adventurous female human” needs to be found as a surrogate mother for the first Neandertal baby and, from many individuals, “a kind of Neandertal culture” could arise that could gain “political significance”.
I really hope Church is right about being mistranslated. As an anthropologist who studies the evidence we have for the real Neandertals and our other extinct Ice Age cousins, I find this stuff to be pretty freaky and just a little troubling.
Even if we could do it – and presently we don’t have the technology – why would we want to clone a Neandertal? What would we do with it? What would we do to it?
It’s not like we’re trying to bring some endangered species back from the brink, or even back from human-induced extinction, a situation in which there might be a sound ethical basis for cloning.
While “human rights” have not yet been extended to our ape cousins, in 2011 the US government limited the amount of medical experimentation that can be done on chimpanzees.
But, according to a Nature News Blog, the US government continues to fund invasive research on almost 200 chimpanzees at two medical research institutes.
Is this where we might be headed with cloned Neandertals?
The Nonhuman Rights Project, with primatologist Jane Goodall among its directors, is campaigning to extend legal rights to species other than our own. Perhaps they’ll need to soon place Neandertals on their list.
What is ‘human’?
Most anthropologists regard Neandertals to be a different species to us, albeit it a very closely related one.
So, strictly speaking, despite their many similarities to us, Neandertals are not humans, and would not automatically qualify for human rights.
Cloning them would raise a major ethical conundrum for any scientist considering going down that path. I’m not aware of anyone trying, and I don’t get the impression from Church’s media comments that he plans to himself.
Also, while many of the world’s governments have banned human cloning, would Neandertals fall under such a ban?
The whole idea should bring firmly into our minds the many atrocities perpetrated against cultural minorities around the world over the last few hundred years, some of them in the name of science, others simply because the extinction of one group or other was apparently inevitable.
Most of them – millions of them – were considered less than human by the people carrying out the experiments or atrocities and not worthy of rights or protection.
Finally, the other obvious lesson for scientists from this is to avoid being seduced by the media into thinking your own stupidity is newsworthy.
Associate Professor Darren Curnoe is a specialist in human evolution at the University of New South Wales.
This opinion piece was originally published at The Conversation.