Why we should clone a Neanderthal

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2010

Earlier in the year, there was some discussion over the possibility of cloning Neanderthals from archaeological remains. Now Kyle Munkittrick of Discover Magazine‘s Science Not Fiction blog speaks out in favour of the idea:

Knowing where Neanderthals fit, however, also creates a problem. What do we do if what makes humans “human” isn’t from a “human” at all? How do we justify “human rights” in light of evidence that our rational and moral minds are in no small part the result of prehistoric crossbreeding? In short: if human rights are based on being human, what rights would a cloned Neanderthal have?

The problem is, of course, that we don’t have a cloned Neanderthal. Which is why we need to make one.

[…]

To assert that the Neanderthal is between human and animal and is therefore an impossible fit for our world simply not true. The line between human and animal is blurred. Dolphins, whales, chimps, great apes, and other species are already changing the way we think about intelligence and rights; perhaps a Neanderthal, fully developed but so mentally different as to be incompatible with our way of living is the very example our society needs to change our perception of intelligent non-humans. When the technology is safe and the ability to nurture and care for her in place, we owe it to humanity as a whole to clone a Neanderthal and see what wonders she might teach us about ourselves.

There’s no simple answer, of course. Much as a cloned Neanderthal might teach us a great deal about ourselves, responsibility for his or her happiness and well-being would have to come first: to do otherwise would be to derail the essentially humanist thrust of Munkittrick’s argument. Human or not, a Neanderthal would be a sapient being, and quite likely more than capable of understanding that they were created for the sake of science… a lab rat that knew it was a lab rat, in other words. It’s a fascinating intellectual exercise to imagine how it might work out, but to actually do it?

All I can say is that as much as I’d love to learn how much of what we call being human is a cultural artefact as opposed to a biological phenomenon, I don’t know that I’d be able to take responsibility for the decision to create a living creature that might never feel it was living a life that made sense.

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4 Responses to “Why we should clone a Neanderthal”

  1. Sterling Camden says:

    Would a Neanderthal clone really be a Neanderthal, without its culture?

    Yes, it would still be a sapient being, and we’d probably learn a lot, but we wouldn’t be learning from Neanderthals — we’d be learning from “Neanderthal DNA repurposed”.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Good point, Sterling; it’s the best chance we have to unravel some of the nature/nurture questions about our own being. Which is precisely why it’s such an ethical quandary. 🙂

  3. Stelios says:

    What came to mind once I read the snippet above was “Flowers for Algernon”

  4. Barry says:

    We allow people to have children with disabilities such as autism or down syndrome, yet this is not ‘unethical’. Apes and Dolphins are all sentient, yet we don’t extend human rights to them.

    A Neanderthal child will provide us with insight into our evolution. There is no reason why a Neanderthal can’t be happy, with the appropriate support, in our society.