The "Medical" Justification for Re-creating Neanderthals

Posted by Pete Shanks on February 16th, 2010

A Neanderthal skull

Zach Zorich has written a comprehensive article in Archaeology with the provocative title "Should We Clone Neanderthals?" He also discusses the interesting question, why would we want to? The answer develops in the course of the article. First he summarizes why the Neanderthal genome is of interest:

In addition to giving scientists the ability to answer questions about Neanderthals' relationship to our own species--did we interbreed, are we separate species, who was smarter--the Neanderthal genome may be useful in researching medical treatments.

Certainly that's the view of George Church, an important source for the article. Church is a Harvard Professor who is also an entrepreneur (Knome, LS9, Genomatica, the failed Codon Devices, etc), co-founder of the Personal Genome Project, and advocate of publishing the DNA of presidential candidates. He points out, however, that the genome sequence by itself may not tell us all that much:

"You can't really tell anything from just looking at the gene sequence. It's hard to predict physical traits; you have to test them in living cells."

Therefore, he proposes creating Neanderthal stem cells and directing their differentiation into, for example, heart, brain or liver cells. But wait, there's more:

"We could learn a lot more from a living adult Neanderthal than we could from cell cultures," says Church.

Even Church admits that the created being would be a "neo-Neanderthal," if only because of environmental and cultural factors. He has previously proposed achieving this by modifying a chimpanzee genome and using chimpanzee surrogates, to avoid working directly on humans. But everyone agrees that the resulting creature, if any, would be close to human. That raises some very tricky issues.

The Archaeology article is subtitled "The scientific, legal, and ethical obstacles," and Lori Andrews is quoted at some length on the legal issues. She cites the Patent Office ruling that a human-chimpanzee hybrid cannot be patented because that would be a violation of the 13th Amendment (which prohibits slavery) and / or the right to privacy. A neo-Neanderthal would, therefore, presumably have at least some human rights. Andrews considers the obvious question: What's going to happen to that individual?

"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."

Yale geneticist James Noonan puts it another way:

"If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have, and if your experiment fails...well. It's a lose-lose."

But Church, writes Zorich, has high hopes:

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.

So, if we can overcome the technical, legal and especially the ethical difficulties in the way of re-creating a creature close, though likely not identical, to a Neanderthal; and if that creature has definable specific differences from and similarities to a modern human; and if we can exploit those differences and similarities to develop treatments ... the procedure might point the way to some cure for something.

This may be the most egregious use of the medical justification for research in recent memory.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Animal Technologies, Bioethics, Human Rights, Hybrids & Chimeras, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Sequencing & Genomics


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