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.


ResearchBlogging.orgReferences
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

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Is eugenics really dead?

My advisor passed along a USA Today story about the eugenics origins of the journal Annals of Human Genetics. Eugenics was a popular movement in the early 20th century, in which people thought it wise to take the onus of natural selection upon themselves, to encourage smart wealthy people to breed and ‘dullard’ poor folk to be sterilized. The movement was based on a misunderstanding of evolution, heredity and the genetic basis for complex traits like ‘intelligence’ (whatever the hell that term really means). Not to mention a sense of intellectual and moral superiority among moneyed white people. Eugenic thinking is what underlay the reprehensibly regrettable misgivings of the Holocaust.

I think it’s great that the Annals of Human Genetics is public about the journal’s off-color origins. Anthropology itself (and not just the biological subfield, don’t let any cultural anthropologist let you think otherwise [yes I have a specific person in mind here]) was borne of Western countries going off to figure out why the lands they were colonizing and exploiting contained humans that differed from themselves (as well as how to deal with ‘inferior races’). It’s important to know of your field’s past mistakes, lest history repeat itself.
Is it repeating itself? Nowadays, people can get ‘genetic counseling’ if they’re contemplating pregnancy, to learn their purportedly genetically predisposed risks for having a child with certain conditions like Down Syndrome. With such knowledge, people can elect not to have kids together. Is this a blessing from medical genetics, or are we seeing a resurgence of biological determinism and old school eugenics?

Apes prefer cooked foods, and many children don’t get to eat

A while ago I commented on a paper by V. Wobber and others (2008), in which the team ran some tests to see whether great apes prefer cooked foods. In fact, that was the title of the paper: “Great apes prefer cooked foods,” like something ripped from the headlines on the Planet of the Apes. Or perhaps in the movie Dunston Checks In, which of course nobody remembers (and rightfully so). The paper comes to mind again because John Hawks recently blogged about it.

The motive behind the paper is the question of how long it took early hominins to adopt food-cookery after the control of fire–an interesting question, as this new dietary niche probably is responsible for myriad changes that occurred in human evolution. Nevertheless, I lamented then that the paper was a bit silly. Hawks’s post made me think of another qualm with this paper–a problem that arises often for me. Specifically, ‘how important are some aspects of biological anthropology in light of the current state of the world, how is what we study relevant?’ I’ve battled with this as I am working toward a degree in this field–will anything I do make a difference (hopefully a positive one) for anyone or anything?

The relvance here comes from the paper’s Methods sections: apes were variously given carrots, apples, potatos, and beef prepared in different ways, cooked and raw. For the research question, the methods more or less make sense. But one has to wonder that since there are starving people all over the world, children (even in developed nations like the USA) who go to bed hungry at night, have anxieties because they don’t know when and where their next meal will come from–in light of all this, does it really matter whether apes prefer cooked foods? You’re going to let an ape choose between mashed or diced carrots, when there are people–probably right outside the zoos and facilities where these experiments were run–who don’t get a choice on whether they’ll eat, let alone what they’ll eat? This, in a world where great apes themselves are hunted because the people living around them don’t have adequate alternate protein sources . . .

I know that the food from these experiments would not have solved the problem of global hunger, or even satisfied a single person for maybe more than a day or two. And I do my fair share of throwing foodstuffs away (it’s the American way). But it raises a great question about priorities, about what’s ultimately important. I can only hope that my future research will be so important and beneficial to justify the carbon footprint I’ll make traveling for research, the resources I’ll consume in the name of science.

Reference
Wobber V, Hare B, Wrangham R. 2008. Great apes prefer cooked foods. J Hum Evol 55: 340-348.