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.