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.


Maybe Neanderthals could speak after all

Paul Raven @ 16-07-2008

skullsAnthropologists have long disagreed on the timing of the emergence of language in our hominid ancestors, and the results of recent research may reignite that debate. CT scans of a 530,000-year-old Homo heidelbergensis skull show that its ear canals are sensitive at 2kHz to 4kHz – the same crucial information-rich frequency range that we modern humans are attuned to – suggesting a much earlier emergence of language than commonly accepted. [via SlashDot] [image by Orin Optiglot; no, they’re not Neanderthal skulls]

Of course, like a great deal of anthropological speculation, it’s educated guesswork:

The results don’t necessarily show that the ancient humans could speak, Quam says. “We’re saying that the ear changed for some reason and that those changes facilitated the possibility of language development…”

Researchers have long tried to determine whether Neandertals could speak by reconstructing their vocal tracts, Quam says. But soft tissue makes up most of the voice box, so few traces remain in the fossil record. The ear is a better candidate because the bony structure reveals more about hearing capacity.

Couple this with the recent discovery that Neanderthals also had a gene which governs the development of language and is only found in modern humans, and we start to get a picture of our distant ancestors that differs considerably from the grunting caveman stereotype.