Should we clone Neanderthals?

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

It’s another hat-tip to Chairman Bruce for flagging up this thoughtful article on whether or not we should clone Neanderthals from their mapped DNA, though I’ve seen others link it since (slow on the uptake, that’s me). But note the thrust of the question: it’s not can we clone them, but should we? Some real sf-nal thinking going on in here:

Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, doesn’t believe that creating a Neanderthal clone would be an ethical problem in and of itself. The problem lies in how that individual would be treated by others. “I don’t think it is fair to put people…into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared,” he says, “and this is equally important, it’s not going to have a peer group. Given that humans are at some level social beings, it would be grossly unfair.” The sentiment was echoed by Stringer, “You would be bringing this Neanderthal back into a world it did not belong to….It doesn’t have its home environment anymore.”

There were no cities when the Neanderthals went extinct, and at their population’s peak there may have only been 10,000 of them spread across Europe. A cloned Neanderthal might be missing the genetic adaptations we have evolved to cope with the world’s greater population density, whatever those adaptations might be. But, not everyone agrees that Neanderthals were so different from modern humans that they would automatically be shunned as outcasts.

“I’m convinced that if one were to raise a Neanderthal in a modern human family he would function just like everybody else,” says Trenton Holliday, a paleoanthropologist at Tulane University. “I have no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do.”

“I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties,” says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. The law does not define what a human being is, but legal scholars are debating questions of human rights in cases involving genetic engineering. “This is a species-altering event,” says Andrews, “it changes the way we are creating a new generation.” How much does a human genome need to be changed before the individual created from it is no longer considered human?

Plenty of food for thought (and fuel for stories) there. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve already read a few stories with cloned and/or back-bred Neanderthals in them – anyone in the audience remember anything similar?

One thing’s for certain – a real Neanderthal would think those New Yorican ‘Paleolithic’ fad-diet hipsters were pretty lame.