Daily Archives: July 21st, 2010

The Ethics of Neanderthal Cloning

For a break from space stuff, I would like to put forth an ethical conundrum of science; “Should we clone Neanderthals?”

Neanderthals were a branch of humanity (according to mainstream science) that existed for over 450,000 years and coexisted with our homo sapien ancestors 50-60,000 years ago.

They supposedly were less intelligent than homo sapiens and one prevailing theory up until recently said that our ancestors wiped out the less aggressive Neanderthals.

Now there seems to be proof that both branches of humanity where able to interbreed (viva la differance!) and instead of being wiped out, the Neanderthals were absorbed into the larger homo sapien gene pool.

With the advances in genetic engineering, it has become possible to resurrect the Neanderthal race of homo sapiens, but that has started an interesting problem and the the question posed at the beginning of the post:

[…]The Neanderthals broke away from the lineage of modern humans around 450,000 years ago. They evolved larger brains and became shorter than their likely ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis. They also developed a wider variety of stone tools and more efficient techniques for making them. On average, Neanderthals had brains that were 100 cubic centimeters (about 3 ounces) larger than those of people living today. But those differences are likely due to their larger overall body size. Those large brains were housed inside skulls that were broader and flatter, with lower foreheads than modern humans. Their faces protruded forward and lacked chins. Their arms and the lower part of their legs were shorter than modern humans’, making them slower and less efficient runners, but they also had more muscle mass. Their bones were often thicker and stronger than ours, but they typically show a lot of healed breaks that are thought to result from hunting techniques requiring close contact with large game such as bison and mammoths. They had barrel-shaped chests and broad, projecting noses, traits some paleoanthropologists believe would have helped Neanderthals breathe more easily when chasing prey in cold environments.

Recent studies comparing Neanderthal and modern human anatomy have created some surprising insights. “Neanderthals are not just sort of funny Eskimos who lived 60,000 years ago,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist at Max Planck. “They have a different way to give birth to babies, differences in life history, shape of inner ear, genetics, the speed of development of individuals, weaning, age of puberty.” A study comparing Neanderthal and modern children showed Neanderthals had shorter childhoods. Some paleoanthropologists believe they reached physical maturity at age 15.

As different as Neanderthals were, they may not have been different enough to be considered a separate species. “There are humans today who are more different from each other in phenotype [physical characteristics],” says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin. He has studied differences in the DNA of modern human populations to understand the rate of evolutionary change in Homo sapiens. Many of the differences between a Neanderthal clone and a modern human would be due to genetic changes our species has undergone since Neanderthals became extinct. “In the last 30,000 years we count about 2,500 to 3,000 events that resulted in positive functional changes [in the human genome],” says Hawks. Modern humans, he says, are as different from Homo sapiens who lived in the Neolithic period 10,000 years ago, as Neolithic people would have been from Neanderthals.

Clones created from a genome that is more than 30,000 years old will not have immunity to a wide variety of diseases, some of which would likely be fatal. They will be lactose intolerant, have difficulty metabolizing alcohol, be prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease, and maybe most importantly, will have brains different from modern people’s.

Bruce Lahn at the University of Chicago studies the evolutionary history of the genes that control human brain development. One gene that affects brain size particularly interests him, a variant of the microcephalin gene, which Lahn thinks may have entered the human gene pool through interbreeding with Neanderthals. If that turns out to be true, roughly 75 percent of the world’s population has a brain gene inherited from Neanderthals. Lahn is excited to see what the Neanderthal microcephalin gene sequence looks like. “Is the Neanderthal sequence more similar to the ancestral version or the newer, derived version of the gene?” Lahn asks. “Or is the Neanderthal yet a third version that is very different from either of the two human versions? No matter how you look at it, it makes that data very interesting.”

The Neanderthals’ brains made them capable of some impressive cultural innovations. They were burying their dead as early as 110,000 years ago, which means that they had a social system that required formal disposal of the deceased. Around 40,000 years ago, they adopted new stone-tool-making traditions, the Châttelperronian tradition in Western Europe and the Uluzzian in Italy, that included a greater variety of tools than they had used in hundreds of thousands of years. But even if they were as adaptable as Homo sapiens, the question remains–if they were so smart, why are they dead? Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum believes our species hunted and gathered food so intensively that there simply was not enough room for the Neanderthals to make a living. In other words, they had the same problem as many species facing extinction today–they were crowded out of their ecological niche by Homo sapiens. Finding a place in the world for a Neanderthal clone would be only one dilemma that would have to be solved.

Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, doesn’t believe that creating a Neanderthal clone would be an ethical problem in and of itself. The problem lies in how that individual would be treated by others. “I don’t think it is fair to put people…into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared,” he says, “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.” The sentiment was echoed by Stringer, “You would be bringing this Neanderthal back into a world it did not belong to….It doesn’t have its home environment anymore.”

There were no cities when the Neanderthals went extinct, and at their population’s peak there may have only been 10,000 of them spread across Europe. A cloned Neanderthal might be missing the genetic adaptations we have evolved to cope with the world’s greater population density, whatever those adaptations might be. But, not everyone agrees that Neanderthals were so different from modern humans that they would automatically be shunned as outcasts.

“I’m convinced that if one were to raise a Neanderthal in a modern human family he would function just like everybody else,” says Trenton Holliday, a paleoanthropologist at Tulane University. “I have no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do.”

“I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties,” says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. The law does not define what a human being is, but legal scholars are debating questions of human rights in cases involving genetic engineering. “This is a species-altering event,” says Andrews, “it changes the way we are creating a new generation.” How much does a human genome need to be changed before the individual created from it is no longer considered human?


Legal precedent in the United States seems to be on the side of Neanderthal human rights. In 1997, Stuart Newman, a biology professor at New York Medical School attempted to patent the genome of a chimpanzee-human hybrid as a means of preventing anyone from creating such a creature. The patent office, however, turned down his application on the basis that it would violate the Constitution’s 13th amendment prohibition against slavery. Andrews believes the patent office’s ruling shows the law recognizes that an individual with a half-chimpanzee and half-human genome would deserve human rights. A Neanderthal would have a genome that is even more recognizably human than Newman’s hybrid. “If we are going to give the Neanderthals humans rights…what’s going to happen to that individual?” Andrews says. “Obviously, it won’t have traditional freedoms. It’s going to be studied and it’s going to be experimented on. And yet, if it is accorded legal protections, it will have the right to not be the subject of research, so the very reasons for which you would create it would be an abridgment of rights.”


Human rights laws vary widely around the world. “There is not a universal ban on cloning,” says Anderson. “Even in the United States there are some states that ban it, others that don’t.” On August 8, 2005, the United Nations voted to ban human cloning. It sent a clear message that most governments believe that human cloning is unethical. The ban, however, is non-binding.

The legal issues surrounding a cloned Neanderthal would not stop with its rights. Under current laws, genomes can be patented, meaning that someone or some company could potentially own the genetic code of a long-dead person. Svante Pääbo, who heads the Neanderthal genome sequencing project at Max Planck, refused to comment for this article, citing concerns about violating an embargo agreement with the journal that is going to publish the genome sequence. But he did send ARCHAEOLOGY this statement: “We have no plans to patent any of the genes in the Neanderthal.”

The ultimate goal of studying human evolution is to better understand the human race. The opportunity to meet a Neanderthal and see firsthand our common but separate humanity seems, on the surface, too good to pass up. But what if the thing we learned from cloning a Neanderthal is that our curiosity is greater than our compassion? Would there be enough scientific benefit to make it worth the risks? “I’d rather not be on record saying there would,” Holliday told me, laughing at the question. “I mean, come on, of course I’d like to see a cloned Neanderthal, but my desire to see a cloned Neanderthal and the little bit of information we would get out of it…I don’t think it would be worth the obvious problems.” Hublin takes a harder line. “We are not Frankenstein doctors who use human genes to create creatures just to see how they work.” Noonan agrees, “If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have,” he says, “and if your experiment fails…well. It’s a lose-lose.” Other scientists think there may be circumstances that could justify Neanderthal cloning.

“If we could really do it and we know we are doing it right, I’m actually for it,” says Lahn. “Not to understate the problem of that person living in an environment where they might not fit in. So, if we could also create their habitat and create a bunch of them, that would be a different story.”

“We could learn a lot more from a living adult Neanderthal than we could from cell cultures,” says Church. Special arrangements would have to be made to create a place for a cloned Neanderthal to live and pursue the life he or she would want, he says. The clone would also have to have a peer group, which would mean creating several clones, if not a whole colony. According to Church, studying those Neanderthals, with their consent, would have the potential to cure diseases and save lives. The Neanderthals’ differently shaped brains might give them a different way of thinking that would be useful in problem-solving. They would also expand humanity’s genetic diversity, helping protect our genus from future extinction. “Just saying ‘no’ is not necessarily the safest or most moral path,” he says. “It is a very risky decision to do nothing.”

Hawks believes the barriers to Neanderthal cloning will come down. “We are going to bring back the mammoth…the impetus against doing Neanderthal because it is too weird is going to go away.” He doesn’t think creating a Neanderthal clone is ethical science, but points out that there are always people who are willing to overlook the ethics. “In the end,” Hawks says, “we are going to have a cloned Neanderthal, I’m just sure of it.”

I’m not sure I agree with Hawk’s rational of cloning the Neanderthal genome, just because we can clone the mammoth’s genome, we should clone the Neanderthals’.

In my view, just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

And the ethics of bringing another race of potentially intelligent beings back into existence should be considered. What of their ‘rights?’ Should they be afforded the same as other human beings? What of their ‘nationality?’ Does that influence what rights of being they have?

To me, the legalities of this act should be considered before any ‘resurrection’ is performed.

What do you think?

Should We Clone Neanderthals?

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