Yes, We Should Clone Neanderthals

By Kyle Munkittrick | July 19, 2010 1:07 pm

Neanderthal_child30,000 years ago a Neanderthal woman died in what would become Croatia’s Vindija cave. Five years ago, 454 Life Sciences and the Max Planck Institute started working together on the tedious and time-consuming task of piecing her fossilized DNA back together. Just over a month ago, they succeeded and, in the process, revealed that most of us are between 1% and 4% Neanderthal. To crudely paraphrase the ever artful Carl Zimmer, knowing where Neanderthals fit into the evolution of Homo sapiens is essential to understanding the development of the human mind.

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.

The argument may seem absurd and offensive at first. Both Zach Zorich, writing for Archaeology, and Andrew Mossman, writing for fellow Discover blog 80beats, explore the idea and come down on the side of “it’d be nice science for science’s sake, but way too unethical to do.” Summarizing Zorich, Moseman says:

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.

Not so. We have tried, and will continue to try, to resurrect extinct species in the past, such as the Spanish ibex. Why should the Neanderthal be any different? If we assume the ability to clone safely – for a moment setting aside the current, significant flaws with the process – we can focus on the ethics of bringing a Neanderthal into the world without a familiar culture or peers. Maybe the Neanderthal would have trouble adapting, picking up language, and adjusting to a modern existence. Or maybe not. We don’t know, and there’s the rub.

Unlike examples found in science fiction, be it Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the more recent sci-horror flick Splice, it’s not as if our only options are to send the neo-Neanderthal into the world on its own or to trap it in a laboratory where it would be poked and prodded to death. The moral of both of those works is that when one fails to take responsibility for one’s creation, when one fails to nurture and protect that new being, that is when an ethical code is breached and damage is done. We don’t know how a Neanderthal would exist in our world, but we know we are capable of studying chimps and apes outside of their natural habitat without causing them harm or reducing their quality of life flagrantly. We also know that we are surrounded by those who are only partially mentally developed, be they children or the mentally disabled, whom we love and care for without question. 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.

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Comments (64)

  1. rich

    for some reason the movie “truman” comes to mind you know with jim carry

  2. DCW

    For all we know, a Neanderthal kid may be just as smart or smarter than modern human kids (IIRC, don’t they have a slightly larger cranial capacity?) – and if he or she were raised in a normal family, why would there be any adjustment problems?

  3. Matt

    These kinds of moral dilemmas have been examined in fiction, science fiction to be more precise. Check out Heinlein’s “Jerry is a Man” and Asimov’s “The Ugly Little Boy.”

  4. megan

    I thought the very fact modern humans and Neanderthals could cross breed or procreate meant they were both at least homo sapien, which equals by definition human doesn’t it and reading Wiki at minimum says ‘human’ sometimes is used to covers all ‘Homo’ subspecies? So using direct word definition a Neanderthal should have ALL human rights and any restrictions based on perceived inability to survive in modern civilization and so guidance was needed. More or less like mentally disabled handicap or children.

  5. Jumblepudding

    As I’ve said before, create the neander kid, get him/her adopted by a family under the pretense that they’re a special needs child with a “rare genetic disorder’, provide periodic checkups by researchers, allow entire family to enjoy benefits when child gets a contract with the NFL as an adult.

  6. Leon Garry

    There’s no need to clone Neanderthals. At least fifty percent of the population of the United States are direct decendants and exhibit all the traits of Neaderthals.

  7. Idlewilde

    Just like in cloning dinosaurs, there is one huge ramification here: what if she ate something that’s extinct now that provided her with vital digestive bacteria or nutrients?

    Same for the aurox…http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1961918,00.html

  8. On one level, yeah it’s cool and on another it’s very sad.
    Am curious as to what markers indicated the correlation in human DNA
    I didn’t think that sort of resolution was possible, as even in crime scene DNA they can’t tell siblings or parents/kids apart that readily.

  9. Christine

    I think cloning a Neanderthal would be a good idea. We can learn about them better. I just think the main problem would be raising one to be happy in this world. If they do such a thing as cloning them, they would need to clone a number of them so they can have others to relate to.

  10. Sorry, but this argument is ridiculous.

    “We don’t know how a Neanderthal would exist in our world, but we know we are capable of studying chimps and apes outside of their natural habitat without causing them harm or reducing their quality of life flagrantly.”

    Neanderthals are not chimpanzees.

    “We also know that we are surrounded by those who are only partially mentally developed, be they children or the mentally disabled, whom we love and care for without question.”

    The difference is that children are raised by parents (or guardians) to be productive adults, and nobody has mentally disabled children on purpose.

    “The very purpose of cloning a Neanderthal would be to see where it fits in our mental development.”

    And here’s where your entire argument crumbles. People don’t have children (mentally disabled or otherwise) for the purpose of seeing where they’ll fit in our mental development. They have children for established genetic and cultural reasons. Cloning a Neanderthal for the purpose of studying it, no matter how much “harm reduction” you apply is a completely different motivation.

    Would you suggest cloning a human (homo sapien) child for the purposes of, say, seeing how well it develops in an environment where nobody speaks language to them? Probably not. If Neanderthals were, as far as we know, possessed with as much self-awareness and intelligence as we are (or at least, well within the bulk of our bell curve), then why should cloning them for scientific study be subject to a different set of rules than for cloning humans?

  11. Robert

    Bravo.

    Very well stated.

  12. Aaron

    I’ve long thought that while there are some ethical issues to be resolved surrounding cloning a Neanderthal, they are pretty easily surmounted. Specifically, given that Neanderthals are hominids, they should be afforded every right and privilege granted extant hominids. That is to say, they should be considered a human for all legal and ethical purposes. To go one step further, a cloned Neanderthal should probably be raised as a member of a family, with all the social and emotional support that entails (human and Neanderthal families may be different, but as we are ignorant of those differences, we should offer the closest analogue we know). The hypothetical Neanderthal should be granted the fundamental right of being the master of his or her own destiny. If he or she chose not to participate in further scientific study, we would have an obligation to respect that request.

    If we are willing to grant those rights to any extinct hominid we bring back into existence, I see no problem moving forward.

    One further thought: if we are worried about the psychological cost of being the only one of your kind, might it not be worth considering cloning a small group of Neanderthals instead of a single individual?

  13. JDuarte

    Yes. We should clone Neandertals. But why just one? Little can be concluded from one data point. We should start with at least 4. That will give them a peer group so they wouldn’t feel so isolated. Also we should find foster parents to raise them with care and love. Then we should send them to standard school (if their abilities allow) not just to learn the basics but also to allow them to build a network of friends. It will not be easy but it will be possible and would give them a better chance for integration. I suspect that the Neanderthals will be just the opposite of what most people are expecting. With a brain 20% larger (in volume) than ours and having evolved for more than 200Ky in an unforgiving environment, where cooperation and team work were crucial for survival, and free loading behavior not acceptable, I think that they will be intrinsically very ethical and great team players.

  14. Mary Switzer

    Have you never heard the term over population? And just why do we need to know where a neandertal would fit in with our developement? Should we consider creating more people to rely on financial support from the few of us who work and contribute to the tax base that supports everyone who doesn’t work?

  15. Brian Too

    Terrible idea. We create a near human, with all kinds of ethical issues swirling around it’s existence, and all for selfish purposes. Do we do this for the Neanderthal’s benefit? No, it’s all about us.

    Humanity has a lousy track record at protecting the rights and interests of other Homo Sapiens. People discriminate at the drop of a hat. You actually raise the issue of animals as a positive example. Are you aware that pets are property and, in many jurisdictions, have little or no legal protection at all?? Wild animals have even less unless endangered, and even then the protections are often ineffective.

    Are we to be impressed with the statement that “…a Neanderthal could be granted enough legal protection…”? Well sure. And a starfish could be given a Dixie cup and taught to drink from it. Neither is very likely!

    Selfish selfish selfish. You start out with selfishness at the core of your argument and then use a series of lame and self-interested justifications in an attempt to prop the turkey up.

  16. ponderingfool

    Terrible idea. We create a near human, with all kinds of ethical issues swirling around it’s existence, and all for selfish purposes. Do we do this for the Neanderthal’s benefit? No, it’s all about us.

    Selfish selfish selfish.
    *****************************************
    Couldn’t you say that of most people having kids to begin with? Why would a Neanderthal be any different than any other human child?

  17. Sal

    “Maybe the Neanderthal would have trouble adapting, picking up language, and adjusting to a modern existence.” – Sounds like just about everyone else I know.

    Assuming that the clone would not be abused any more than the rest of us are, it’s life being difficult is non-argument, My life is/can be difficult. I bet Neanderthals are built of tougher physical and psychological stuff than most of the rest of us. In fact given a lower mental capacity, tougher psychology and greater survival instincts are probably a given. It/he/she may not fit in perfectly but then it/she/he might care.

  18. I see the FOX News viewership community has chimed in:

    “Have you never heard the term over population? And just why do we need to know where a neandertal would fit in with our developement? Should we consider creating more people to rely on financial support from the few of us who work and contribute to the tax base that supports everyone who doesn’t work?”

    Regardless of whether cloning a Neanderthal is a good idea, the person quoted above is so crammed full of reactionary bilge I doubt she’d recognize the truth if she saw it. She needs to spend some time at http://www.mediamatters.org.

  19. Garry

    No doubt this idea will be carried out as soon as technologically possible, that’s just our way. It will also involve a (hopefully caring) surrogate mother in whom the cloned zygote will be implanted. And, public sensation notwithstanding, the little Neanderthal tyke will be born in the usual way, fed in the usual way and grow up in this world as we all do. With a little love the child will probably learn to speak our language and eventually read and write as well. It will eventually want to get married and have children of its own. And looking into the future one can see the concentration of Neanderthal genes born in her/him gradually being watered down after successive generations. We may ask ourselves at that point why we did this and the answer is the usual one, “because we could”.

  20. Matt

    I think a lot of the ethical furor ultimately gets back to the same anti-natalist arguments that you see in Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been and other similar works, where (paraphrasing) bringing life into existance is never justified when there is any certainty of it experiencing pain, even if it could experience an equal amount of pleasure (and even if we could quantify either of those). And the related line of thought where every action is only justified to reduce suffering and not for any other reasons, especially if they would produce suffering, even if they give rise to pleasure.

    However, personally, I guess that I just value new life and the existance of a Neanderthal and what it would add to the diversity of the human species against the possibilities of harm to it, or anyone’s suffering. I can’t really articulate why. I wouldn’t see this as selfish, as it wouldn’t benefit me personally for a new competitor for my genes and resources to exist and there’s no way I can imagine exploiting a Neanderthal for personal gain. But a lot of people would still see that as unethical (and without reference to our moral norms, there’s no reason the same line of argument I’m using couldn’t be justified to create beings with a ratio of suffering:pleasure that we would find unacceptable, so people who are skeptical of the idea that moral norms “just are” [even though they de facto act according to them] and really want an articulated ethical calculus would obviously be aghast at what I am saying).

  21. Afterthought

    Neanderthals: less intelligent or less genocidal?

  22. Katharine

    “I think a lot of the ethical furor ultimately gets back to the same anti-natalist arguments that you see in Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been and other similar works, where (paraphrasing) bringing life into existance is never justified when there is any certainty of it experiencing pain, even if it could experience an equal amount of pleasure (and even if we could quantify either of those). And the related line of thought where every action is only justified to reduce suffering and not for any other reasons, especially if they would produce suffering, even if they give rise to pleasure.”

    1) Why does it always seem that there’s more natalist dudes than women? Probably because they don’t ever risk going through the trouble of carrying the thing IN THEIR FRIGGIN’ BODIES for nine months and de facto being stuck with the kid if the pair splits up and because women do ultimately have control over reproduction (if we want to take some chemicals or hit our bellies with a chair or get our uteruses cleared out or jump off a cliff, by gum we’ll do it). Also, I have a problem with anyone reproducing more than at replacement level (i.e. 2 per pair).

    2) Good luck finding a woman willing to carry and raise the thing.

    3) Does the Neanderthal ultimately get any say in any of this, considering that it’s a subspecies of Homo sapiens?

  23. Pierre Charles

    You should see the movie `Skullduggery` release in 1970.
    It was not a very good movie, with Burt Reynolds, but the novel
    `Les animaux dénaturés’ by VERCORS on wich it was based was very good.

    Here’s the plot of the movie: An expedition into the interior of Papua New Guinea comes across a tribe of ape-like people who may or may not be ancestors of early man. However, the influence of modern man is to have devastating effects upon these forgotten people.

  24. jim sadler

    Humans having offspring for cultural and genetic reasons amounts to proof that humans really are a dumb species. Most people simply should not reproduce as most people simply have little to offer.
    As far as recreating the Neanderthals I say go for it. We could create an entire Neanderthal community. They might be our superiors. And it would amount to a visible proof that might sober up the masses. Humans are a form of animal life. Few have confronted that notion to any real dept.

  25. chris y

    This is an ethically terrible idea. In addition to the points made by Katharine upthread, which seem pretty much unanswerable to me, consider this:

    If we cloned a Neanderthal, or a community of Neanderthals, we would have no idea what we were going to produce, because there are no Neanderthals around any more. So let’s look at the little bit we do know, and see if it helps. First point: we now know that Neanderthals and modern humans were capable of interbreeding, at least sometimes. This doesn’t mean that they were just like us. By one definitione we were the same species, but it isn’t the only definition: here’s a list of 26 (not all relevant). They don’t all fit. Modern humans are all incredibly similar, as animal species go. A 21st century Neanderthal would still look just as alien to us now that we know that her relatives occasionally interbred with our ancestors as she would have done before we knew that. We have no idea what her emotional and behavioural responses to modern conditions would be; she might well be adapted to find them intolerable. Do you want to play the numbers on that?

    Second point: What do we know? I haven’t read the original papers on this, but from the reports it seems that most of our Neanderthal genetic input came from a couple of geographically and temporally restricted periods fairly early in the history of interaction between the two populations; there’s no suggestion that interbreeding was common throughout the long and widespread history of co-existence which followed. I suppose there was a reason for this. I’ve no idea what it was, nor does anyone else, but on the face of it, it suggests that most of the time and under most conditions Neanderthals and moderns didn’t choose to interact much. I’m guessing there was a reason for this, and whatever it may have been, it doesn’t bode well for the happiness of a 21st century Neanderthal.

    Third point: John Hawks discussed the questions raised by the fact that we only inherit a small number of Neanderthal genes in a few loci. What became of the rest? As Hawks points out, they were selected against. Most Neanderthal attributes were actually unsuccessful when they went up directly against modern ones, even in the parts of the world where largish Neanderthal populations had been around for thousands of years and where you would expect them to have been optimally adapted to conditions. So the chances that they were superior to us in most respects are pretty slim. You can argue that today they would be living in a far easier environment where this might not be so important. But is that a chance you want to take?

    Or consider this completely different line of argument: Dolly the sheep was crippled by arthritis as a fairly young animal, because her cells were prematurely aged from being “recycled”. Is this a fate you want to risk for a human being, even a really weird one?

  26. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I would love to meet a Neandertal. The reason? A lot of people tend to assume that Neandertals were in some fundamental way, vastly different(and usually deemed inferior in some way). This is true even among some scientists who study Neandertals. This, despite a lot of genetic and archaeological evidence to the contrary. So I would like to see what a real Neandertal would actually be like.

    OTOH, the ethical questions make me quite queasy. First of all, you would have to clone a number of them. There couldn’t be just one. We are a social species. And as some other people have pointed out, they would have to be raised in a normal family(whatever that is), and allowed to go to school, etc. Given that Neandertals seemed to have acted in ways quite similar to “moder” humans(given their circumstances), and appear to have come up with things like birch pitch and tar to haft some of their weapons, it’s very possible that they would adapt quite well. Possibly they could manage better in arctic and subarctic climates than most “modern” humans can, although what they would end up doing there, I don’t know;l. Unfortunately, the remarks some some people have made about discriminatory tendencies might also well apply They would have to be given “human” status just based on their behavior in the past. And some of us would be quite willing to ignore this. What we really need is some kind of ethics oversight on this. Because, sooner or later, somebody is going to try to clone a Neandertal.

  27. We shouldn’t clone neanderthals for the same reason we shouldn’t have babies just to sell them for spending money: because people, whether Homo sapiens or not, have the right to exist for their own good, not ours.

  28. Justin Kase

    Scientists act as if they know everything about life except in truth they have little wisdom of how life truly works. It is not a matter of if but a matter of when some form of genetically engineered bacteria or virus will be released having dangerous effects on mankind. We need to study nature much more before we begin to act like we can recreate it.

  29. George Noory

    “If you raised a baby and beat it and kicked it and yelled at it, it would turn out to be a mean baby?”

    GN

  30. George Noory

    “Bigfoot may well be an extraterrestrial, because… remember Chewbacca?”

    GN

  31. jimbob

    [Comment removed for being pointless.]

  32. jimbob

    I think if we are going to bring this baby into the world it needs to be treated as a human with real human rights… so give it or should i say HER the same rights as everyone else… Wot harm could come from that? That’s a nice conservative approach to the ethical issue of wot rights to give her… just play it safe and give her our rights?… at the worst she will be a lucky lucky monkey. ;)

  33. jimbob

    [Comment removed for being pointless.]

  34. james

    If it means fully understanding how human beings work, or getting a cure for cancer, or just better understanding ourselves, go ahead DO IT.
    Believe me the person will be studied, but they will also be treated like a king. I also never slept with a Neanderthal, so I’m looking forward for that chance.

  35. justsayupyours

    Since Americans have already cloned over 600 species of animals, I’m positive they’ve already started cloning humans, they just didn’t bother telling anyone. Just like they didn’t tell anyone about the 600 species of animals. Put some smork on your fork.

  36. yetti fan

    Is this what science and some of you wanna be bloggers contemplate? This article speaks of arrogance and self-righteousness with a little “mad scientist” thrown in. Hey #38-james: how do YOU know any person studied would be treated like royalty? Your last sentence was spoken like a true “Knuckle-dragger”!!!! I know, WHY DON’T they study YOU?!!!

  37. Douglas-The-Angry

    I agree wholeheartedly with the person who said that it is totally unnecessary to clone a Neanderthal, as at least 50% of the population ARE Neanderthals, and I would argue that the percentage is much higher. If you doubt that, go to a rock concert, a NASCAR event, a gun show, ride a Greyhound bus, go to a ball game, attend a local movie. They are everywhere, and not nearly as intelligent as their ancestors were.

  38. Douglas-The-Angry

    Case in point: See “james” comment, above.

  39. Douglas-The-Angry

    And his fellow Neanderthal “jimbob.” Or is that “jim-boob?”

  40. Bary

    I think we already did and they are alive and well in Washington.

  41. Dan

    I ask each and every person reading this to define what a right is. I have asked many people this and I have found as many different answers as there are people. Since no one can even agree on what a right is, then how are we to discuss what rights a cloned Neanderthal should have? Hmmm?

    A right is a moral principle sanctioning and defining a human’s (human= specie : rational; genera : animal) range of activity in a social environment. This right principle is that a human must never initiate the use of force or fraud in human interactions. As this definition excludes zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, the faithists, who have imaginary friends and possess only a vague nebular understanding of reality, will reject it.

  42. Bekki

    I swear I saw some at Walmart last week- whole family of them-big heads, low foreheads, deep set eyes, short stocky bodies, hirsute– looked like they came straight out of an old caveman movie. Don’t think you need to clone them, they are still around. :) Plus, IMHO, the question is not whether they should be treated as human, but whether we should act like we are…

  43. D.H.

    The neanderthal would not suffer anything like culture shock or anything…he will be raised if not born, human. So, much of what we would like to know, i.e., their life style, social structures, etc would still be unknowable. The reasons for cloning a Neanderthal then become more esoteric than academic and more philosphical than imperical. We, IMO, are simply lonely up here on top of the food chain, having a buddy from a different species would just be cool..

  44. Bob

    This is the height of arrogance: the article presupposes that since we care for dolphins and apes that we study, that we’re capable of caring and providing for the Neanderthal. But dolphins and apes are extant – we know enough about them to know what they eat, how often, and when. We can only guess with a neanderthal child. We know their diet was not identical to ours, and that they were much more carnivorous. Could they even eat the baby food or gruel our children eat? Could they process grains? We just don’t know.

    “We also know that we are surrounded by those who are only partially mentally developed, be they children or the mentally disabled, whom we love and care for without question.”

    But what if – and we must concede given the size of Neanderthal brains that this is possible – what if we tried to raise our intellectual betters? How well could we care for a human cousin who may have some mental acuities for which we are no match?

  45. Alex

    You know someone would try to have sex with it.

    GIMMA DAT NEANDERTHAL BOOTY

  46. jacob t

    If neanderthal was proven to be a horax

  47. jacob t

    If neanderthal was proven to be a hoax like 100 years ago. How do we make one?

  48. David Byrne (yes, that one) wrote a post on the cloning issue. It’s well worth reading. In it, he says:

    “And like Native Americans, the Inuit and indigenous Australians, [Neanderthals] would get drunk easily and intensely.”

    Anybody know of evidence of this?

  49. Michael the Civilized

    This is like talking about fusion power: it’s not real because it doesn’t work. When “they” can clone successfully something fairly complicated — an ibex comes to mind — then any discussion will make sense. Until then, this is a way to get angry, pretend to have the moral high ground, and pontificate on matters that mean nothing.

  50. Ben

    What a interesting idea. I picture their life resembling Lucy the chimps, only much more human. There is no reason to think they would have to be put in a zoo.

  51. Ben

    And for those who say, ‘someone will try to have sex with it’ who is to say as an adult she wouldn’t voluntarily have sex? It would be interesting to see how easily the two species could reproduce together, though genetic evidence already suggests they likely did.

  52. mfritz0

    I hope you do see where this could lead. Suppose we do genetically engineer a neanderthal human being. Suppose it becomes economically viable to create thousands of them, or perhaps millions of them. What then? Perhaps the military could use them as super soldiers, as they would be greatly enhanced physically, and intelligent. Perhaps man would have a new race of humans to become their “slaves”? Is this what is right? I think not, but it inevitably would happen. I think it’s best to let sleeping dogs lay.

  53. jedward

    wow talk about pandora’s box; try put the lid back on it, will not go back on, therefore we need to spend an awful long time thinking it out first.

  54. Shawn

    Like it or not, I think it’s going to happen.

  55. I really love reading “A Little Death In Dixie” by Lisa Turner on my new Kindle. This newly remodeled reader is more wafer-thin, lighter, quicker, and makes studying easier than with any older Kindle model. Weighing in at but 8.5 ounces, the sleeky configured electronic e-reader is lighter than a paperback,softback,soft-cover book. It’s merely 1/3” thick and feels wonderful in the hand. This novel model is the flattest Kindle notwithstanding.

  56. Install solar panels in New Jersey.

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