January 1, 2013

John Sterling Editor in Chief Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

For this BioPerspective originally posted on November 1, 2011, GEN spoke with George Church, Ph.D., about cloning a Neanderthal. 

I recently talked to George Church, Ph.D., a geneticist from Harvard Medical School, about cloning a Neanderthal in the not-too-distant future. You can listen to our conversation on GEN’s Video Channel. This type of discussion has become increasingly popular ever since last year’s announcement by Dr. Svante Paabo, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany that they had sequenced the Neanderthal genome.

Assuming that the technical issues involving Neanderthal cloning will eventually be overcome (Dr. Church thinks this might be possible in about ten years), he explained the advantages of carrying out such an undertaking. He said that by comparing the genome of a living Neanderthal to that of Homo sapiens, scientists might be able to learn something about potential resistance to human-specific pathogens.

In other words, the study of the Neanderthal genome might highlight the cracks in our own genetic makeup that make us susceptible to a host of diseases. This suggestion by Dr. Church is both insightful and important.

Yet, further discussion with him revealed an even more interesting benefit. Dr. Church thinks the cloning of a Neanderthal would encourage us to have a greater appreciation for and sensitivity to what he terms “neural diversity.” He believes that by listening to the thoughts of a cloned Neanderthal, who might seem foreign and unusual to us, greater anti-discrimination and de-stigmatization efforts on behalf of those people whose actions are usually considered outside the range of “normal” human behavior might result. These would include individuals diagnosed with dyslexia, narcolepsy, autism, and bipolar disorders.

I second Dr. Church’s point of view. However, I am not particularly sanguine about the automatic acceptance of a cloned Neanderthal in modern society, no matter how novel and amazing such an event would be. Despite the fact that 2–4% of the DNA of every living human of European or Asian ancestry comes from Neanderthals and that Neanderthals are members of our own genus (Homo neanderthalensis), the last time one of our evolutionary cousins walked the earth was 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals looked different from us. They actually had larger brains and were much more robust than modern humans. Nevertheless, some scientists maintain that Neanderthals were close enough to us that one could be brought up by a modern family and wind up functioning well.

I am of the opinion that if we are able to one day clone a Neanderthal, extraordinary, and I mean extraordinary, care will be required to ensure that this individual be treated with respect. Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Lori Andrews has stated unequivocally that Neanderthals should be accorded all forms of human rights.

Yet, who knows how the genetic wiring of a being from another time will respond to the demands of modern society. More significantly, how will 21st Century human beings react to this time traveler?

It seems that humans are tribal by nature, as so eloquently pointed out in 2005 by science writer David Berreby in his book, “Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind.” We are often uncomfortable with those who in some way(s) are just not like us. This uneasiness can be expressed in our uttering derogatory remarks about “their” looks or ways of behaving. Or, taken to the extreme, it can manifest itself in brutal ethnic cleansing, long a behavioral hallmark of humanity.

I would hope that a cloned Neanderthal would not suffer the fate of Ota Benga, a Congolese Mbuti pygmy born in the late 19th Century. Benga was brought to the United States by American businessman Samuel Verner and put on exhibit in a cage at New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1906. Two years earlier he had been part of an anthropology display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (aka St. Louis World’s Fair).

The St. Louis Republic, a local newspaper, noted that Benga “represented the lowest form of human development.” I like to think that we ourselves have evolved from adhering to such blatant forms of racism.

History has clearly demonstrated how badly we can treat members of our own species. That’s why my excitement about cloning one of our Paleolithic relatives is tempered with a good dose of concern.

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