We should not try to clone Neandertals

Interesting that right after I posted about fossils, genotypes and phenotypes, the Leakey Foundation (via Twitter) posts a link to a discussion about cloning Neandertals in order to learn about the genetic bases of human uniqueness. It begins innocently enough, stating that the genotype-phenotype comparisons between humans and the Neandertal Frankenstein could lead us to insights about our genetic predispositions to certain pathogens. Sure, why not. But then this happens (emphases mine): 

“Yet, further discussion with [Harvard geneticist Dr. George Church] 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.”

Dr. Church belies his own statements of concern for ethics and people’s rights. “Neandertal” has historically been synonymous with ideas of what is ugly, stupid and an anthropological Other (i.e. unlike and less than human), and Church seems to follow this. However, decades of archaeology show us that Neandertals were probably just as capable of complex thinking as recent humans Neandertals buried their dead. Italian Neandertals over 40 thousand years ago appear to have made symbolic use of feathers (Peresani et al. 2011). We also know that the hearing range of the Sima de los Huesos hominids was probably tuned to frequencies used in human speech (Martinez et al. 2004). In addition, the presence of the human-derived FOXP2 gene in Neandertals (Krause et al. 2007) suggests (but of course does not prove) that they could, and probably did, speak to one another with language.

Neandertals were not dumb, so there’s no a priori reason to think that reanimating Neandertal consciousness would provide us with novel insights into a ‘neural other.’ Worse, by equating people who have forms of cognitive/neural impairment with Neandertals, Church (probably inadvertently) otherizes the people he hopes we stop otherizing. Why the hell would a Neandertal clone – a being whose existence is solely an experiment to show us what makes us human based on what’s not like the clone – make us treat differently-abled people better? Worse, what to do if Neandertal shows no cognitive impairments whatsoever? Have Eegah and Encino Man taught us nothing?!

And then there’s the icing on the cake:

“Chicago-Kent College Law Professor Lori Andrews has stated unequivocally that Neanderthals should be accorded all forms of human rights.”

Good, I was very worried about that. Luckily, I don’t think any normal review board (or the FDA) would approve Neandertal cloning in the first place.

UPDATE: Obviously, “Prehistoric Ice Man” (1999), the last episode of the 2nd season of Southpark, provides further reasons not to bring cave-persons of the past into the present day.

Krause, J., Lalueza-Fox, C., Orlando, L., Enard, W., Green, R., Burbano, H., Hublin, J., Hänni, C., Fortea, J., de la Rasilla, M., Bertranpetit, J., Rosas, A., & Pääbo, S. (2007). The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals Current Biology, 17 (21), 1908-1912 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.10.008

Martinez, I. (2004). Auditory capacities in Middle Pleistocene humans from the Sierra de Atapuerca in Spain Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101 (27), 9976-9981 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0403595101

Peresani, M., Fiore, I., Gala, M., Romandini, M., & Tagliacozzo, A. (2011). Late Neandertals and the intentional removal of feathers as evidenced from bird bone taphonomy at Fumane Cave 44 ky B.P., Italy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (10), 3888-3893 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016212108

Sterling, J. “Concerns over the cloning of a Neanderthal.” GEN News. 02 November 2011. http://bit.ly/uGAnRK

6 thoughts on “We should not try to clone Neandertals

  1. Interesting proposal. I don't read Church as you do, but as suggesting that a slightly different human would mean normalizing existing individuals that seem different. He doesn't suggest that they are Other, you do.However, that is precisely why no one will take a fetus to term, we don't experiment on humans. Yet. Perhaps when gene therapy has been established, and having different traits than today is accepted. ("Why have plastic boobs when you can have flesh boobs?" Not at first, but a strong second application, as that is how surgery worked out.)That a different set of genes and likely traits wouldn't mean differences in behavior is not a robust claim. If they hadn't been different, some of their culture and populations would have survived. Alas.

  2. I agree with your understanding of Church's hypothetical, but I still further interpret him as suggesting that we'd displace our discrimination and stigmatization of living people to the Neander-clone. I think the whole situation is based on the tenuous assumption that the Neandertal mind would present symptoms beyond the range of today's 'neural diversity.' And they couldn't've been all bad because some of their unique genes remain with us today. I guess I just think that of all the reasons for or against cloning a human (or human-like) being, this is a poorly thought out one.But I guess it's better than Hollywood's reasons (like Encino Man, Eegah), right?!

  3. I completely agree that it is a terrible idea to clone Neanderthals. I suspect that humans would have a visceral hatred of them via the uncanny valley. I suspect that one of the reasons humans evolved the physiology that instantiates the uncanny valley is because of interactions with our close non-human relatives and why they are all extinct. I have blogged about how I think xenophobia occurs.http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2010/03/physiology-behind-xenophobia.htmlIt would not be a good idea to bring a sentient species back from extinction.

  4. I read something similiar a year ago in a german newspaper. My immediate thought was: "How are we going to treat this poor guy?" Do we put him in a zoo, like europeans and americans did with pygmies (is this political correct?) and other "human curiosities" at the beginning of the 20th century?I don't think that this is going to happen, at least not when it comes to cloning the whole organism. On the other hand, it's n interesting thought-expermiment if you want to answer more philosophical questions about human nature.

  5. I'm with Zach on this one – all signs point to Neanderthals as being as human as, well, humans. In terms of material culture there are many examples of supposedly modern humans using a mousterian toolkit. and furthermore there are plenty of examples of middle palaeolithic instances of bladey technologies. and then cue something like the chatelperronian and you've got a bunch of traits that were supposedly reserved for modern humans being used by neanderthals.A nice clean piece on this idea is Speth's "Newsflash" article, but I'll provide some of the details. Firstly, there are plenty of other archaeological cultures who seem relatively poor in "artistic" material culture, the Archaic is one example, but we don't question their cognitive capacities. Many Australian groups have absurdly rich and complex cultural systems, with a kinship and section system that will give you a nice headache, but archaeologically what would be left is essentially a middle palaeolithic toolkit. Would you like to suggest that Australians are less cognitively advanced?What we see here is the greater anthropological discipline's failure to understand how culture actually evolves, by focusing on certain traits (regardless of their biological or cultural origin) we are failing to actually investigate the processes that lead to the development of these traits. Some recent work by Powell, Shennan, and Henrich is starting to get the right idea by focusing on density of social learners. I feel similarly and thus think cultural evolution should be investigated through an analysis shifts in network interaction between populations. An increased density of interaction essentially increases the variation of the pool of cultural variation, like in genetic populations (though treating cultural and biological evolution analogously is a slippery slope), it would increase the rate of cultural evolution by expanding the range of possibilities for recombination and mutation of ideas as humans are depth first analogical problem solvers, i.e. can 'direct' (to an extent) cultural evolution. How to apply this well in an archaeological context, however, is a a different story.As Zach highlighted in his post, there are plenty of genetic and morphological features that indicate Neanderthals had the same capacities for language and such that us "modern" humans, so why wouldn't these cultural capacities be there as well? Having a conversation with a Neanderthal would be like having any conversation with another human, if it is cloned and enculturated in our society it would be difficult to tell if there is any cognitive difference at all.

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