Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, February 14, 2010

To clone or not to clone? Neandertals, that is

This past week has seen a bunch of articles, in various venues, about the possibility of cloning Neandertals back into existence.  You, gentle reader, can get an idea of what this is all about in Archaeology Magazine, and also here, and here, and  here. If you read through all the links, you will find varying degrees of enthusiasm or caution about the idea.


I must, for the record, admit that I would naturally be very interested if Neandertals were to somehow show up again.  But then, I would love to see a few woolly mammoths, too.  Trouble is, woolly mammoths though just as extinct as the Neandertal population, are not and never were, human beings.  When you get into the idea of cloning a human being -- and I definitely consider Neandertals to have been human beings, however they may or may not have been related to "us" -- gets into territory that definitely makes me a bit queasy. Even Svante Pääbo, the geneticist who sequenced the first Neandertal genome back in 1997, thinks it would be unethical to do this. From the Max Planck Institute, he has said on a number of occasions, that he thinks it would be unethical to do this. If you read the articles, apparently a number of people agree with this.


Though the idea of having Neandertals around, to compare and contrast, excites my fantasies to some degree, I tend to agree with those who think it would be an unethical idea.  On the other hand, if you read the article, it's obvious that there are people who are "behind" the idea.  And in any case, regardless of whether or not people think it's a good idea to clone Neandertals back into existence, it's probably reality to say that once enough knowledge about the cloning process becomes available(as applied to humans, at least), someone is bound to try to clone a Neandertal. 


So the questions become manifold.  First of all, why would anybody want to do this?  To study what the differences between "them" and "us" really are, the enthusiasts reply. Some enthusiasts might also claim it would help us understand how certain diseases work in human populations.  Others might be more interested in presumed differences in brain function, or language capabilities. The list of reasons for cloning Neandertals is potentially endless.  Which raise a lot of questions right there. 


First, would this Neandertal simply be considered an "experiment"?  If so, that should raise a lot of red flags.  It's all too easy, even with "modern" humans, to consider certain groups "other" or "not us".  And this has happened in recent history -- if one googles  the "Tuskegee study", they will find a good example of the sort of thing that makes me queasy, and should make any person with half a brain queasy too.  This raises further questions of how a Neandertal under such circumstances would even be regarded.  Because if he or she was regarded as "human", it seems to me he or she would have to be given the kind of basic human rights everyone is now thought to be entitled to.  If people started thinking of Neandertals as basically "subhuman" -- and some people, even scientists, still sort of do -- then it would be only a short step to the kind of thinking that put Jews and other people some Germans didn't like, into Auschwitz and other such horrors.  There is no guarantee that such thinking has been entirely wiped out, even in the 21st century. 


So, in order to be protected, a Neandertal would have to be given full human rights, assuming it would be possible to clone one at all in some relatively near future. If he or she were given full human rights, then they would have to be allowed to consent to any experiments performed on them for scientific purposes, with full understanding(assuming, as I tend to, that a reasonably intelligent Neandertal would be able to fully appreciate the implications) of the possible consequences.  Otherwise, it might end up being very much like people who claim aliens from outer space abducted them, and performed experiments on them.  Most of us consider that people who make such claims are slightly crazy, but can anybody imagine how a Neandertal might feel, if these things weren't fully explained to them, or if, for whatever reason, they couldn't fully understand the reason?  I'm not entirely sure some of the enthusiasts for cloning Neandertals back into existence, have fully consider this.


If, however, any such project decided to clone a small population of Neandertals, there might be less opposition, provided, of course, that all of them were given full human rights and responsibilities.  After all, there doesn't seem to have been any indication that their brains were anything much different from "ours", though their skulls were slightly larger.  But corrected for overall size, the amount of brain inside a Neandertal skull would have been roughly the same as a "modern" human's. Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be any archaeological indication that they were unable to do anything contemporary "modern" humans could do.  They certainly seem to have had at least the potential for such capacities.  My guess is, that if they didn't exhibit some of these capacities, this was probably due to (a) what was available in their environment and (b) restrictions partially imposed by population size.  Neandertal populations, as I've said elsewhere, seem to have been quite small and scattered, which at times and in places, may have hindered the kind of  communication that fosters the adoption of new ideas. Nevertheless, they seem to have been perfectly capable of "upgrading" their toolkit, and doing things like painting and decorating themselves, as finds from places like El Sidrón and Arcy-sur-Cure seem to show. And these things, in addition to the burials I've mentioned elsewhere, and the find, in Bruniquel Cave, of a rectangle or oval, deep in its interior, with a burned cave bear bone inside this oval or rectangle suggest that they were perfectly capable of symbolic thinking and language.


So what are we left with? Well, the anatomical differences are fairly obvious, but even here, most people probably wouldn't "recognize" Neandertals if they were walking around dressed in modern clothes(this, by the way, forms part of the premise of my Invaders trilogy; medieval people never heard of Neandertals, and though some of them recognize "something" about them, in some situations, they have no idea what it is). So unless these differences were pointed out to them, people mostly wouldn't "have a clue".  And if they did  "have a clue", how would they react?  I don't know, but this is another reason, which again the cloning enthusiasts seem not to have considered, why they would need to be protected by legal, basic human rights, and treated as any other human being.  I doubt eve everyone would be equally enthusiastic about Neandertals, once they started walking around the Earth again, and formed their own social groupings, which might or might not include "modern" humans in some circumstances. 


So for now, I remain queasy about the idea of cloning "a" Neandertal.  I would be a bit less queasy it if it was going to be a bunch of them, but I would still be somewhat queasy. Fortunately, it seems that at the present time, even cloning woolly mammoths(some scientists are actually working on this) seems not to be feasible.  At the present time, cloning Neandertals seems even less so.  So I remain queasy at the idea of cloning "a" Neandertal, or even some Neandertals, into existence.  But I'm not going to actually try to "do" anything about it till the day comes that it might be possible.

Anne G


Duh-Science said...

Have you ever read Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy"? I think the little Neandertal in that case was snatched by a time machine, though.

Anne Gilbert said...


Yeah, the "ugly little boy" was temporarily snatched up so they could see how a little Neandertal learned things. I first read this story when I was about 13 or 14, and have read it again several times since then, including when I started my "background research".
Anne G

Joansz said...

I think the moral dilemma goes well beyond the cloning issue.

From what I understand about cloning--and it's quite limited--an in vitro fertilized egg is placed in the host mother's uterus (I think this is how Dolly, the cloned sheep was created). Assuming they'd find willing volunteers to try to carry cloned/fertilized eggs to term, how would these modern human mothers react to their neanderthal babies? Would they become part of the general population, only followed in detail for research purposes? Will they be able to be fed on mother's milk, or would they need special formulas? The questions--biological, moral, and ethical, seem endless and must be explored.

Assuming the clones have working immune systems, the disease issue may not be as problematic as bringing isolated aborigines into modern cultures because they would be developing their own immunities and resistance to diseases simply by being immersed in the population.

Anonymous said...

I'm new around here, seems like a cool place though. I'll be around a bit, more of a lurker than a poster though :)
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