Every day, we get a little closer to bringing prehistoric species back from extinction. Already, researchers are hard at work preparing woolly mammoth tissue for cloning and breeding chickens to more closely resemble the mighty T-Rex. One species on the possible "to-clone" list is modern human's close cousin, the Neanderthal. But if we develop the technology to clone a Neanderthal, does that mean we should? We want to know what you think.
Photo by Tyrone Jackson from On Location Vacations.
This isn't meant to be a comprehensive discussion of Neanderthal cloning ethics — just a jumping off point to launch a discussion about whether or not we should clone a Neanderthal. So please, contribute your two cents in the comments.
About a year and a half ago, Archaeology published an article by Zach Zorich titled "Should We Clone Neanderthals?", which offers a great overview of where the scientific, legal, and ethical issues around Neanderthal cloning currently stand. Here, we're looking at the ethical pros and cons of cloning a Neanderthal. Contribute your thoughts in the comments.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that we have the technology to clone a healthy Neanderthal. The challenge of getting cloning technology to the point where we can reliably clone healthy humans is a whole different kettle of ethical fish.
So let's look at some of the ethical pros and cons:
We stand to learn a great deal more about human beings. Probably the most compelling argument for cloning a Neanderthal is that we may learn a great deal about ourselves. Sequencing the Neanderthal genome will give us insight into human evolution, but there are things we could learn from a live Neanderthal that we can't from paleoanthropology and DNA. For example, we don't know for certain whether Neanderthals could speak. Being able to interact with another subspecies of human could very well teach us more about our evolutionary history, and even what it means to be a human being.
The Neanderthal would be carefully nurtured. Kyle Munkittrick, who runs the site Pop Bioethics, wrote a rebuttal piece to the piece in Archaeology for Discovery's Science Not Fiction blog titled "Yes, We Should Clone Neanderthals," in which he argues that cloning a Neanderthal would be pointless unless she were well cared for:
The very purpose of cloning a Neanderthal would be to see where it fits in our mental development. Attentive and accurate nurture and care would be central to any scientific effort to study Neanderthal development and mental growth. Allowing the clone to be neglected would upend the very purpose of cloning her in the first place.
Munkittrick's point is that it would be counterproductive to treat a Neanderthal as some sort of Frankenstein's monster, or Snuppy the first cloned dog who lived out his years caged up in a lab. Researchers interested in learning more about human nature would want to let the Neanderthal grow and develop to the best of her abilities — physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
At least in the US, she would probably have human rights. In the Archaeology article, Zorich cites Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, who believes there is "no question" that Neanderthals would be granted full rights under the US Constitution. Andrews looks at the precedent case of NYU biology professor Stuart Newman, who tried to patent chimpanzee-human hybrids (to block their creation — at least for the duration of the patent). The Patent Office rejected the professor's patent on the grounds that a patent on a half-human being would be tantamount to slavery, and thus a violation of the 13th Amendment. I suspect that, now that we know that all non-African humans are part Neanderthal, courts would be quick to grant human rights to the people who contributed to the modern human genetic makeup.
You would be creating a person specifically to be studied. Neanderthals might offer us greater knowledge of the human species, but we have to consider whether arranging the birth of a person for the express purpose of studying that person fails to respect human dignity. On a practical level, to what extent could we study our hypothetical child before she reached an age where she could reasonably consent to it? (Also, presumably, a human child would have to have legal parents, who would, in turn, need to be willing to work with researchers, opening up a whole other set of complications.)
She would have no peers. Another point the Archaeology article makes is that the first clone Neanderthals would lack a peer group. Colorado State University bioethicist Bernard Rollin notes:
I don't think it is fair to put people...into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared, 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.
Some researchers have suggested that a Neanderthal would fit in just fine with a modern human family and peer group. But again, we don't know for certain how the Neanderthal brain would work in a living being and how Neanderthal and modern humans would relate to one another.
Neanderthals might not be built for modern life. The last recognizably Neanderthal human died out tens of thousands of years ago. Since then, modern humans have moved into cities and proven, to varying degrees, our ability to live in modern society. It's entirely possible that a Neanderthal would adjust to modern life as easily as any other child. But we won't know for sure until we clone one.