Friday morning, I got back to teaching after my trip this week. So I filled my students in a bit about the Neandertal genome. One of them had been reading the news, and noticed several stories seemed to obsess over the chance that Neandertals would someday be cloned.
So she asked, "Is that something that you anthropologists sit around talking about?"
Well, naturally I couldn't give away any professional secrets....but in this case I can honestly say I've never sat at the meetings, even after several beers, and discussed cloning Neandertals with other anthropologists.
Not unexpectedly, this led to a short but animated class discussion about the ethics of Neandertal resurrection. I pointed out that some people are morally opposed to mammoth cloning, on the logic that we have to provide a full habitat for them, rewilding the American prairie. And even more think it unethical to bring a Neandertal baby into the world -- even disregarding the current inefficiencies of cloning. But some students found that thoroughly unconvincing.
One who was unconcerned by the plight of the Neandertal baby nevertheless thought that the necessary mixture of Neandertal genes and human (or chimpanzee) oocytes was an ethical problem.
Meanwhile, apparently just at the time I was discussing this little ethical conundrum in class, John Tierney was posting about it (Why Not Bring a Neanderthal to Life?). Well, why not indeed?
But I’m afraid I can’t see the problem. If we discovered a small band of Neanderthals hidden somewhere, we’d do everything to keep them alive, just as we try to keep alive so many other endangered populations of humans and animals — including man-biting mosquitoes and man-eating polar bears. We’ve also spent lots of money reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished. Shouldn’t be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?
... If our species disappeared and a smarter species took over the planet, I’d take the offer to be resurrected just on the theory that being alive beats being dead.
Naturally, that drew a whole lot of comments -- many inane, but some give an interesting cross-section of peoples' base assumptions about Neandertals. In response to Tierney's last question, the first commenter wrote:
Sure, I would too. But would you choose to have this smarter species create a virtual great-grandchild, who you would never meet or interact with, who you would have no opportunity to pass on any knowledge or wisdom or kinship to, who would live a life essentially as lab animal and historical exhibit? I would not.
One was more sanguine:
Yet, the hunger gatherer culture [sic] of the humans we label Neanderthal is truly dead –not hidden in genes. We will find out once we bring them back that Neanderthal will fully enjoy sitcoms, buy T shirts, and go shopping. In fact, with their bigger musculature and bigger brains, they are sure to find many a willing partner in match.com.
From one who doubts that Neandertals are internet dating material:
Mr. Tierney, if you knew with 100-percent certainty — before conception — that a pregnancy would lead to a severely mentally challenged human, would you think it “nifty” and a “gift” to bring to life such a hypothetical child? I see no difference between your proposal and giving a deliberate lobotomy to a newborn.
I won't carry this on any further, but I find the exercise revealing. Some respondents want to bring them back to be lab animals for pharmaceutical testing, others think they will have as-yet-unknown powers. A few suggest that Neandertals are walking around us now; others think that we'd better be ready for female Neandertals that go into heat.
My favorite, spinning off the "Dame Edna" high-pitched Neandertal voice idea, suggests that we may find a new Steve Perry.
Tierney and others have given the price of Neandertal cloning as $30 million. As far as I can tell, that's just a wild-ass guess. But since I happen to be looking at a Geico ad right now, I would say that the price has to drop before there's likely to be a corporate sponsor. How about $6 million?
I will say one thing, in all seriousness. Someday not too far from now, we will have the technology to add genes to chromosomes in human embryos, or to generate human embryos with artificially constructed chromosomes. On that day, the Neandertal genome will already be published and freely available. And there will be nothing to stop someone from generating an embryo with as high a fraction of Neandertal genes as desired.
I can easily imagine the Abraham Lincoln genome, or the Mozart genome, or the Einstein being published. Once they are published, what would stop potential mothers from birthing baby Einsteins, or baby Lincolns?
Is it really such a stretch from a baby Lincoln to a Neanderbaby?