We May Soon Be Able to Clone Neanderthals. But Should We?

By Andrew Moseman | February 10, 2010 1:57 pm

neanderthal_childLast year DISCOVER asked the question, “Did We Mate With Neanderthals, or Did We Murder Them?” Now, Zach Zorich at Archaeology magazine is asking another big question about our hominid siblings: Should we bring them back?

Thanks to a slew of recent advances, the possibility is getting closer. 80beats reported a year ago that researchers had published the rough draft of the Neanderthal genome. However, that’s likely to contain many errors because it’s so difficult to reconstruct ancient DNA. Within hours of death, cells begin to break down in a process called apoptosis. The dying cells release enzymes that chop up DNA into tiny pieces. In a human cell, this means that the entire three-billion-base-pair genome is reduced to fragments about 50 base-pairs long [Archaeology].

Even if scientists succeed in figuring out the entire Neanderthal genome, they’d be faced with another problem before they could even consider the possibility of cloning one of these ancient hominids: We don’t have any living Neanderthal cells to work with. Thus, researchers will have to figure out how to put DNA into chromosomes, and how to get those chromosomes into the nucleus of a cell. What about altering the DNA inside a living human cell, and tweaking our genetic code to match the Neanderthal’s? This kind of genetic engineering can already be done, but very few changes can be made at one time. To clone a Neanderthal, thousands or possibly millions of changes would have to be made to a human cell’s DNA [Archaeology].

Even if scientists manage to put Neanderthal DNA in a cell nucleus, their problems aren’t over. The next step in creating a baby clone is to move the cell nucleus into the egg of a related species in a technique called nuclear transfer, and then implanting the altered egg in a female who can bear it to term. But in this process, which has been extensively tested on animals, cells often get sick or die, causing fetuses to die in the womb or clones to die young. That’s why the vast majority of scientists oppose using this method on people. Even if nuclear transfer cloning could be perfected in humans or Neanderthals, it would likely require a horrifying period of trial and error [Archaeology].

But Archaeology suggests that many of these obstacles will eventually be overcome, and proposes another cloning option: making Neanderthal stem cells. Last year researchers managed to turn mouse skin cells back into a pluripotent state, where they can act like stem cells, and used those to create a cloned mouse. Cloning a Neanderthal is a lot different than cloning a mouse, but if the process worked, a cloned Neanderthal would grow up with their genes expressing they way they were meant to.

That’s the “could we.” But what about the “should we?” More work has been done on this than you might think. In 1997, Stuart Newman, a biology professor at New York Medical School attempted to patent the genome of a chimpanzee-human as a means of preventing anyone from creating such a creature [Archaeology]. But he lost his case because the patent office said it would violate the 13th amendment prohibitions against slavery. And since Neanderthals would be even more human, it stands to reason that they’d receive at least some human rights protections.

Rightfully so. But as the bioethicist Bernard Rollin points out in the Archaeology piece, there’s more to worry about than the law. While Neanderthals are our close relatives on the evolutionary tree, you’d know one if you saw one. Tulane anthropologist Trenton Holliday argues that they could talk and act like us, therefore eventually they’d fit in. But that seems like wishful thinking. With no culture, no peers, and an unknown capacity to cope with the modern world mentally or physically, a Neanderthal would be adrift—caught between a zoo animal and a human being. The main point in cloning one would be for scientists to study it, but as law professor Lori Andrews says, a Neanderthal could be granted enough legal protection to make doing extensive research on it illegal, not just unethical.

That’s not to say there would be no benefits to science. But some things are best left in the past.

Related Content:
80beats: Did Spear-Throwing Humans Kill Neanderthals?
80beats: Controversial Study Suggests Early Humans Feasted on Neanderthals
80beats: Neanderthal DNA Shows They Rarely Interbred With Us Very Different Humans
80beats: Give Neanderthals Some Credit: They Made Nice Tools
80beats: Scientists Reprogram Skin Cells To Create Cloned Mice
DISCOVER: Will We Ever Clone a Caveman?
DISCOVER: Did We Mate With Neanderthals, or Did We Murder Them?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

  • Matt

    Isaac Asimov explored a similar idea with “The Ugly Little Boy” back in 1958.

  • Jumblepudding

    This almost makes me wish that some rogue lab in China would clone one, who would then be taken into the custody of a more benevolent organization as an infant, perhaps raised by a “sapiens” family under the cover story of “a rare genetic disorder”. It seems we have more to gain than to lose from studying such an individual in a respectful manner.

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    I’d like to point out Craig Venter’s work in constructing artificial genomes. Not that anything near the scale of human genome construction has been attempted, but the technology for assembling DNA structures and putting them into other organisms to reprogram them is coming along quite nicely. Ten years? Maybe. This century? Bet yer ass.

    We could just clone parts of them at a time, no brains, that would give us plenty to study and should skirt most legal and ethical issues associated with the practice.

  • Femme Fatale

    It’s like the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde where they do clone extinct animals and Neanderthals and the ‘Thals live in a ghetto basically with very little rights and even less respect except for from a select few.

  • Carl feind

    Shouldn’t make nuclear bombs either

  • Hank Fox

    Yeah, right. Ask the question and instantly answer it in the negative.

    We’re oh-so-delicate when it comes to these hypothetical “ethical questions” regarding scientific advances, but we have no problem at all with murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent bystanders in real war, right here and now.

    Oh, but that’s just collateral damage, and we don’t have to think about that. That’s not like, you know, an ETHICAL question, that’s just war. Yeah.

    When the subject of cloning pets comes up in the news occasionally, I’m amazed at the number of people who leap into the discussion with 100 percent negative opinions. They instantly come up with the stupidest damned ideas about it, with no apparent process of thought beyond what they remember seeing in some cheap science fiction movie.

    My point is: REALLY examine the idea, the possibilities negative AND positive, before blowing off your mouth as if you’re some deep thinker rather than a church lady bobble-head.

    Just because you can s*** out your two paragraphs on “ethical questions,” don’t pretend you’ve done some sort of deep analysis worthy of planning the possibilities of our future.

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • Fatkid

    Hell, we’re already actively trying to recreate the mammoth, why not Neanderthals? I don’t believe that we necessarily wiped them out, it may be selfish guilt to think so. A comet, climate or disease could have easily killed them. Ntal gestation and child rearing took longer than ours. Massive swings in envirenment could decimate a group if they couldn’t repopulate quickly.

    I just want to live to see “Win a date with a Neanderthal” on Fox, or how about “Guess which one’s the Neanderthal”? In that one you have 30 seconds in a dark room to grope and make out with the rooms 3 occupants- which one’s a Neanderthal?

  • Mike

    Fatkid – Mammoth = cool…Neanderthal = creepy.

    I think some of them and their traits slipped in with the human population. I have seen people (for some reason, mostly in small towns in the middle of nowhere) that look like them.

  • marty

    we already have enough neanderthals running around grunting about global warming. why clone more of them?

  • Katharine

    “Yeah, right. Ask the question and instantly answer it in the negative.

    We’re oh-so-delicate when it comes to these hypothetical “ethical questions” regarding scientific advances, but we have no problem at all with murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent bystanders in real war, right here and now.

    Oh, but that’s just collateral damage, and we don’t have to think about that. That’s not like, you know, an ETHICAL question, that’s just war. Yeah. ”

    I don’t think this is so much a question for Discover as it is for world governments. All of them.

  • xznofile

    This article is a subtle device to promote favorable arguments. Not for me though, I think if these genes were to somehow be released in the environment by some cinemagraphically bumbling sequence of events, they would spread like wildfire through all 6 (?) billion H. sapiens. We would become ravenous sweating degenerates, & civilization would end within months. The RAGE virus would be mild by comparison, because Neanderthals were intelligent.

  • Dave

    At this point I just don’t see a need to clone a neanderthal. Maybe we should let science evolve some more before we decide, but right now I would say hold off…. Although, maybe the Chinese could do it?

    I’ve always wondered, too, how much the clone and the original would think alike.

  • Boo

    With rising sterility, and a generationally diminishing gene pool, we need to research cloning as much as possible. Any research that leads us to ways of reintroducing old lines of viable sperm to healthy eggs should be encouraged. The advances to humans by studying Neandertals could be a boon for man.

  • michel sigouin

    Ethics? which ethics? whose ethics? Knowledge is such a rare commodity, hardly anyone uses it anymore. I look at the comments and see how people are conditionned.

    If ethical people are going to decide what society is able to do or not do, then they should learn more of science…a great deal more…please

  • Nealon L. Dumas

    What would be the point ? Just to say we can do it. I say know their is a lot more thing we can do.

  • http://discovermagazine Iain Park

    With the racial hatred that is so often displayed amongst ourselves I fail to see how bring back the neanderthal would do anything good.

  • Mark
  • taylor

    Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends.
    Space is… boundless. It squashes a man’s ego.

    Tell me, though…

    Does man, that marvel of the universe,that glorious paradox who has sent me to the stars,still make war against his brother, keep his neighbor’s children starving?

  • Bronk Nagurski

    Practically speaking, couldn’t we use Neanderthals to serve mankind? If we use Chimpanzees for medical experimentation, why not Neanderthals? If Neanderthals are even closer to us than Chimps, couldn’t we cross breed with them in a lab, so our medical research would be more productive? Why conduct research at all if we don’t seek the maximum benefit to man from it?

    As for the Chinese, If we see that they are doing genetic research on Neanderthal lines, it is in our national interest to keep ahead of them. If we could utilize the strength and intelligence of Neanderthals as soldiers, think of the millions of human lives we could save.

    Jesus spoke of slaves in the Bible, yet never condemned slavery. If God condones the subjugation of men, why not beasts? We cry Crocodile tears for nature as we deplete all of it’s resources, why not create resources when we can?

  • Gecko

    If we do clone a neanderthal, I would like just 15 minutes with him. I could save him 15 percent on his auto insurance, so easy…

  • http://- Phil Doran

    Would adding Neanderthal genes to human infants produce athletes for events requiring great strength?

    Will that be the next sort of cheating in the Olympics by countries determined to get medals?

  • Jennifer Angela

    I am certain that we can all think of people who behave like and look like neanderthals – people in small towns and in big cities too. People who gave up on themselves, ruined their own lives, attempted to or managed to ruin other people´s live too. These people either drank much too much alcohol, often combined with drugs or took drugs only. People who never had or lost their moral values. Some of these people did not drink or take drugs and yet fit into the categories mentioned above.

    Certainly those people are scarey. And Neanderthal persons are scarey too, simpely because they are very different and uncivilised. Yet I do assume that if a young (child) Neanderthaler person would be adopted by people and treated in a good way the result could be very satisfying. Provided people WOULD be able to provide that girl or boy with equal rights. Are people really ready for that big a step?

  • Mentat

    We already have enough Neanderthals running denying global warming and advocating supply side economics. Why clone more of them.

  • neosman

    i dont know about you but i feel awfully alone on this planet the neandertals if raisd the same as a normal child they would act like a normal child some how i feel kinder gulty obout there disapirance i think mabye if we died out and they dident would they be asking the same questions weather to leave us or to cloan us we should clone them becuase we need to give them a fare chance at life like we did i mean they did not have vaccines for diseases they had no guns and they didnt have perfect weather.

  • Normicus

    Some of these ideas are insane or like bad sci fi movies! I would hope that any engineered species from our past would be treated with respect and dignity. Neanderthals may not be able to coexist in modern times, which could lead to making very tough decisions with any specimen but I hope that we would not make excuses to treat them poorly. Some of your ideas remind me of how Europeans treated Native Americans or Africans in our recent past. The intellectual level of a species should not determin its level of respect or lack of rights.

  • Alyson

    I think we should clone a Neanderthal if we could. Absolutely. Why not? Like others have said, ethical concerns? Since when do humans really care about ethics? This is a world where a small percentage of the worlds people play chess games with the rest of us, ffs. Slaughtering millions, or allowing millions to starve in the name of profit. Why pretend we are civilized and ethical now?

    And “with no culture, no peers, ” yadda yadda, so what? How do you think those with very high IQs feel? Or others who similarly fall far outside the “norm” and have the capacity to understand that? There are many ways to “have no peers” and feel utterly alone, even as a human being. Hence the popularity of that as a recurring theme in literature. And “caught between a human being and a zoo animal?” We really dont know how intelligent they are, so thats just a possibility, not a certainty. And there are already plenty of human examples of people caught between being a zoo animal and a human, barely able to cope with what we call “civilization.” (And Im not even talking about those who are born with genuine intellectual handicaps or congenital conditions whom we also manage to handle with some compassion) As long as the Neanderthal was given the same rights as humans, up front, and had an actual “family” (presumably the surrogate) to act as guardian and advocate, and ensure his/her well being, I dont see why we should not.

  • jeff e

    i think we should clone them, why not? who knows it could help the human race find cures for cancer and such.

  • Jess

    To everybody who has disagreed with the article:

    “You create new life forms, about which you know nothing at all. You create many of them in a very short time, you never learn anything about them, yet you expect them to do your bidding, because you made them and you therefore think you own them; you forget that they are alive, they have an intelligence of their own, and they may not do your bidding.” -Ian Malcolm

    What if you create a Neanderthal who’s a psychopath? What if you create one who is intelligent enough to not want to take part in your science experiment? What if you create a Neanderthal who has no immunities to any of today’s diseases? What if in the process, you create thousands of Neanderthals that are born with tremendous birth defects, and have to live out a miserable life in the name of “Hey, why not? It’s not like we have anything better to do today.”

    It’s been argued in another article about cloning mammoths that if the argument for doing something is “No bad consequences — why not?” you still don’t have an actual reason FOR doing it.

    Also, if Mark from the comment section’s post is correct, and Neanderthals end up looking like this: http://themandus.org/what_they_looked_like.html do you really think it’ll be easy as pie for people to accept them? You’d probably have more luck getting a chimpanzee (provided it had increased intelligence) accepted as a human being. Chimps don’t fall into the Uncanny Valley. That does.

  • John

    Quote #1:
    “This almost makes me wish that some rogue lab in China would clone one, who would then be taken into the custody of a more benevolent organization as an infant”

    Quote #2:
    “Although, maybe the Chinese could do it?”

    Quote #3:
    “As for the Chinese, If we see that they are doing genetic research on Neanderthal lines, it is in our national interest to keep ahead of them. If we could utilize the strength and intelligence of Neanderthals as soldiers, think of the millions of human lives we could save.”

    Wow, isn’t it funny how people seem to be perfectly fine with associating “The Chinese” with planning some shady operations in order to take over the world, etc.

    As a Chinese person I am very offended. Mind you that not all Chinese are evil bastards like what you see in the Dr. Fu Manchu stereotype. We are human, just like you.


  • Stephen

    It’s likely that they were more intelligent than us, aside from being stronger. It is widely accepted by many scientists that they had a larger brain.

    The structure of their jaw et al suggests that they may not have been able to communicate as effectively as we can though.

    However, if the technology did exist to clone one successfully, then surely a lot of our concerns could be answered? Should it not at least be attempted once for that reason alone? If it did work we would then have some basis of understanding with which to form a moral and ethical opinion? And if we did kill them off (we don’t know) then would we not have a moral obligation?

    As it stands this whole debate is founded almost entirely on media driven hype and baseless assumptions. Lets look to science to put some flesh on it (no pun intended)

    I also feel people underestimate the possible value of this, if it were successful. Not only could their physical existance teach us about medical science and history, but if they were more intelligent and could learn how to communicate with us, perhaps they could make some significant scientific advancements of their own, once they had been gifted our education. All just imagination of course, but if there is one thing we know; humans have always been driven to ‘know’ and this has led our advancement. Lets not stop now, we’ve gone too far and need to continue this path in order to survive the natural changes in the planet, let alone our own destruction of it.

  • Stephanie Venturo

    larger brains do not mean there is more intelligence it could mean that it took more of their brain to function. So my question is why ? Shouldn’t we be going forward instead of backward. Science and life itself speak of not turning backwards but to move ahead or death is a sure consequence. It seems this is just a curiosity for those who could be finding ways to genetically proceed and make mutations improbable instead of raising the dead that obviously environment eliminated. Isn’t it science that speaks of the stronger prevailing and evolutionary progress away from those things that have deceased. There could be some big reasons that neanderthals no longer exist and should we open Pandora’s box to find out or just accept our own Darwinism.


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