Religion & Philosophy

The ethics of cloning a caveman

Errrmmm, we can do that?

The full genome of the Neanderthal, an ancient human species probably driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.

In fact, Wade points out, there are good reasons to re-create a Neanderthal: “No one knows if Neanderthals could speak. A living one would answer that question and many others.”

Whoa there, says Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Catholic teaching opposes all human cloning, and all production of human beings in the laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically acceptable in humans.” Wade concedes that “there would be several ethical issues in modifying modern human DNA to that of another human species.”

I vote no.

Not that I give a liger’s ass what the Catholic Church thinks, of course – in many cases condemnation by the Conference of Catholic Bishops would be enough to make me pro-whatever was under discussion. But there are profound ethical issues here, and I see no evidence that we’re ready to face them at this point in human (that’d be of the homo sapiens variety) history.

Not that I’m worried that said Neanderthal would necessarily unravel the fabric of polite society, but can we at least acknowledge the looming presence of Dr. Frankenstein’s ghost in the discussion? Let me turn to a man who’s a lot brighter than most Americans realize for some comment.

A few years ago England’s Prince Charles delivered the commemoration address at Harvard University’s 350th Anniversary celebration. In that speech he lamented that humanity’s intellect had advanced so tremendously while its ethical capacities had evolved so little. “In the headlong rush of mankind to conquer space,” he said, we must teach our children “that to live on this world is no easy matter without standards to live by.” In a 1996 speech devoted to the wisdom of genetic engineering, Charles invoked Mary Shelley’s monster in opposing human intrusion into areas properly left to the divine.

I believe that we have now reached a moral and ethical watershed beyond which we venture into realms that belong to God, and to God alone. Apart from certain medical applications, what actual right do we have to experiment, Frankenstein-like, with the very stuff of life? We live in an age of rights – it seems to me that it is about time our Creator had some rights, too.

No, I don’t much care for this kind of deference to literal divinity, but there’s much to be learned from an appeal to divinity as actualized ethical framework. In that sense, as well as the more overtly spiritual sense intended, Prince Charles is describing a yawning gulf between our minds and our souls, and it is the magnitude of this gulf which feeds, if not defines, what I have termed the “Frankenstein Complex” – our deep-seated fear of the product of our own intellects.

Apparently some good folks aren’t nearly afraid enough.

What if we clone a Neanderthal – let’s call him Charles after both Darwin and His Majesty – and he proves to be very, very human? What if he can speak, reason, laugh? What if he can sing and appreciates a good story? Do we keep him in a lab his whole life? A cage? Wouldn’t Charles deserve, in this instance, the same rights as any other human? An education, job training, an opportunity to earn a living? Would we clone him a mate? What if they didn’t get along? What if they had children? Would those children be allowed to play little league sports?

Would he be allowed to vote? If not, why not? We already assure the franchise to people barely brighter than apes, so on what grounds would he be denied full citizenship?

See the girl in the picture above? She’s the Devil’s Tower Neanderthal child, reconstructed from fragments found at the Gibraltar site. Scientists believe these may have been among the last Neanderthals who survived the homo sapien onslaught. For fun, let’s pretend this is what Charles’s daughter – let’s call her Edna – looks like as she prepares for her first day at PS107. Now, you know how tough kids can be. The fat kid, the ugly kid, the clumsy kid, the dumb kid, the shy kid – maybe you were one of these, or maybe you were the golden child who performed the daily rituals of torment and public humiliation. In any case, imagine being the Neanderthal kid. Try and envision the pain in those eyes each morning as she desperately tries to find some excuse to stay home today.

And try these words on for size: “First-grade spelling – so easy even a caveman can do it.”

I’m sure there are better questions even than these few, which I came up with off the top of my head. And until we have rock-solid answers for them, answers that align with the major moral and ethical codes that guide our lives in a modern world, how dare we even consider something so appalling?

No, I’m not coming down against genetic engineering or other forms of scientific research – on the contrary. But I am saying that we should never conduct a program of science for which we do not have an appropriate ethics. We should not allow our minds to evolve in a moral vacuum, nor should we risk subjecting an innocent to the full, daming force of our arrogance.

31 replies »

  1. One day cloning/creating something ‘human’ will happen. Whether we will hear about it…who knows?

    I wish Brian would cover the scientific debate on Neanderthals and whether we do owe more to them than is thought…

  2. I say clone away. And if you can get one cheap off the black market, it would be great for those who can’t afford a Roomba.

  3. Ian: you really think “a few friends” is sufficient? Are you ready to expand anti-discrimination codes to include Neanderthals?

    If not, are you comfortable keeping humans – yes, humans – in a zoo?

    I’m sorry, but the willingness to toss of a one-liner like this actually proves the point I’m making about why we shouldn’t even consider doing this.

  4. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Elaine, but I’m much less versed in genetics than I am in other sciences (physics is a hobby, and my electrical engineering day job is mostly physics-based, so that’s what I know the best). I may take a whack at it at some point, but not anytime soon.

    That said, however, there have been a couple of studies that suggest that there’s Neanderthal DNA in humans, but it’s a subject of debate.

  5. Nothing in the scenario played out above gives me much cause for concern. Our humans have a large capacity for adapting and making room for those who are different. If I were an extinct N would I prefer to have no existence or an existence that would be a struggle with irrational discrimination? I would prefer existence to no existence. Is the globe better off with more or less genetic diversity, even in the human sector? Better with more diversity. What gives me pause is not knowing why they died off. But, since it does not appear to have been a contagious disease, I say why not vote yes? Catholics and Prince C look too parochial and pessimistic in this context.

  6. cFw: I admire your optimism, but seriously, is this your first trip to earth? We just elected a president amidst one of the filthiest, most racist campaigns anybody has ever seen. And that hatred was aimed at people who are genetically nearly indistinguishable from those doing the hating.

  7. I don’t know…don’t we have enough neanderthals attaching “truck nuts” to their vehicles already?

    What if the clone turns out to be smarter than us? We like to think that modern humans evolved beyond Neanderthals, but we don’t really have any evidence of that. Evolution does not suggest that things get better, only more particularly suited to a a particular environment.

    While i think that it would be interesting, i always hesitate when it comes to unleashing things we don’t understand very well.

  8. “Are you comfortable keeping humans – yes, humans – in a zoo?” But it can be argued that we already do. Children with genetic and chromosomal exceptions (not to say abnormality or deficiency) could be routinely screened and aborted, but are often not. Let’s look at the other side of the issue. Here is a cousin (literally) of ours who has, quite possibly, been hounded to the extinction of his line by our own ancestors, and now we may have the technology to bring to term one (or more) of his children. What are the moral implications of saying “no, we must never do such a thing?” Is it the case that, once we have destroyed another tribe, we must never consider adopting their children? Were the Biblical stories of complete destruction of outsiders, including women and children, on the right moral track? Is the adoption and rearing of a child, with no possibility of contact with its original culture, clearly morally wrong? Is a commitment to complete genocide the better moral choice? When it becomes impossible (as it surely will) for gorillas to survive in the wild, should we continue to keep them in zoos, or allow them to go extinct? Or should we exterminate them?

    I don’t know. Which is why I would say, No, don’t do it — yet. If we do clone a Neanderthal, it had better be for reasons that go beyond mere intellectual curiosity about how smart our cousins really were. If and when we can honestly say we are doing it for THEIR sake, or for the sake of all humanoids, then maybe it might be the right thing to do. I would suggest that a moral watershed might be when our moral zeitgeist evolves to the stage where, if it is biologically possible for a Neanderthal to interbreed with the rest of us, the question of whether that would be morally acceptable would be inconsequential. And, I am afraid, that means “not soon.”

  9. If Neanderthals were ever cloned en-masse, they’d be immediately used as slaves, and they’d have no way to blend into the population. This isn’t really a path we want to step down, I think.

  10. “I admire your optimism, but seriously, is this your first trip to earth? We just elected a president amidst one of the filthiest, most racist campaigns anybody has ever seen. And that hatred was aimed at people who are genetically nearly indistinguishable from those doing the hating.”

    We have no crystal ball. For every dystopia imaginable, a utopia is equally imaginable. Likely scenario is somewhere in between, yes? That is life on Earth in places like Somalia, but we do not ban reproduction there, or even condemn it.

    If Earth had the choice of colonizing other planets, with the certainty it would be tough, and the alternative of extinction, would we hesitate? Not likely. There would need to be reasonable steps taken to make the process as fair and reasonable to all concerned as is possible, but the answer is not a categorical “no”, in my view.

    Here, we are not talking about a different planet, or extinction around the corner for our humans (though there is always that risk), but the justification for controlled colonization of Earth by extinct tribes or animal species is similar – in the long run, on balance,we end up with a stronger and more interesting Earth. That thesis my conflict with Darwin’s theory of evolution, but who here thinks Darwin would be opposed to reviving N’s if it was possible in his time? Read the Voyage of the Beagle (very readable on Librivox.org by MP3 player for free) and then decide. Darwin was a fabulous explorer, interested in all aspects of nature, from spiders to geology. He would visit all over, kill (or collect) everything he could find (in the way of animal specimens, or indigenous types), and then move on. Now, we are talking about a sort of time travel to find specimens. The Darwin approach, updated, would be to make the efforts, but then make sure the collected N’s are treated humanely, as we would want to be treated (if they are like humans) or as favored chimps are treated (if they turn out to be essentially chimps).

    Who knows, the N’s may turn out to be a race of great intellects that lead us to great achievements. Not long ago there were large numbers of whites who thought those of color could never be great leaders – things change and people learn to think differently.

  11. Good God, I thought truck nuts were a localized aberration.

    As far as cloning a Neanderthal goes, I have a strong feeling that Vince is on the right track… a small group would be curiosities, kept for novelty or experimentation; if a large enough population developed, we’d have a new source of cheap gardeners and cooks, without even the marginal restraints imposed by common “humanity.”

    By the way, Isaac Asimov addressed a very similar situation in 1958 with The Ugly Little Boy… one of his best, although I’d stick to the original novella, not the expanded version.

  12. It seems odd to clone a Neanderthal to find out if it can talk. I suppose they’d look for preliminary hints towards a linguistic faculty, but it’s not like one can talk without being taught in some way. Just having to teach the Neanderthal to talk in order to find out if it can kinda ruins the methodology, since it seems like it would fail to replicate the social conditions Neanderthals lived in.

    Then again, I guess they’re not looking for “Could Neanderthals talk?” but “Can Neanderthals talk?” It doesn’t seem like a question worth asking.

  13. The problem with cloning in general is the incredibly high error rate. Something like 80-90% of the attempts end in failure. And many of the ones that do survive gestation die quickly after birth.

    Then you have to add another level of complexity over that when you are dealing with cross-species cloning where the error rates jump right up. Then add another layer when you can’t get a complete/uncorrupted DNA sample.

    I figure we’ll see a Neanderthal walk among us in our lifetime, but for now, let’s let guinea pigs be guinea pigs and keep Neanderthals in the biology text books a little while longer.

  14. Presumably if Cambridge (Darwin’s big supporter, as I recall, if not Oxford), Harvard and Oxford got to together and said this “clone some N’s” is a top priority, we will spend $10 billion to get this done and have cradle to grave top quality care for our community of N’s (plus their offspring), the ethical questions tied to the golden rule (treat others as we would want to be treated) could be fully mitigated. Then we have the practical utilitarian concern – why do it? The precedents – Darwin bringing Fuegians to England, Pocahantos to England – suggest the project is not worth the candle. And it should not be done “on the cheap” since that would be unethical under the “golden rule” type analysis.

    Wikipedia:

    Four native Fuegians, including “Jemmy Button” (Orundellico), were brought from Tierra del Fuego by Robert Fitzroy on his first voyage with the Beagle in 1830. They were taken to meet the King and Queen in London and were to an extent celebrities. The surviving three returned to Tierra del Fuego with the Beagle with Charles Darwin, who made extensive notes about his visit to the islands.

    Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford,Middlesex for some time. As well as Rolfes family home at Heacham Hall, Heacham, Norfolk. In early 1617, Smith visited them at a social gathering. According to Smith, when Pocahontas saw him “without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented” and was left alone for two or three hours. Later, they spoke more; Smith’s record of what she said to him is fragmentary and enigmatic.

  15. And we have a winner…. CFW! .oO(crowd goes wild…!)

    Now let’s clone some… it’s not like we can’t get rid of them again.. (LOL!) or was that not funny?

    No seriously, I don’t see the big problem here… maybe it’s because I live in a Scandinavian country with very little racism.

  16. Wouldn’t it be something if the Neanderthal was found to be ” primitively savagely attractive” by the womenfolk? And subsequently left a whole lotta offspring????? How do my short earth — no evolution friends challenge this?

  17. Wouldn’t it be something if the Neanderthal was found to be “primitively savagely attractive” by the womenfolk?

    Let’s see: bad posture, low brow ridge, lots and lots of body hair, questionable communication skills… hmm. Unless cloning reveals that Neanderthal man’s dick was located on his chin, I don’t think modern guys have much to worry about.

  18. That’d be Lester, cousin on Mom’s side.

    Upon re-reading your description, though, maybe I have the question wrong. Instead of “should we clone a Neanderthal?” maybe it ought to be “should we HAVE cloned a Neanderthal?”

  19. The problem with that line of reasoning is that we’ve been “playing god” since the dawn of human history. What we call genetic engineering is simply a faster means of accomplishing the same things we’ve always done with selective breeding.

    Ate some cereal this morning? Those grains were genetically engineered over thousands of years by your ancestors. Own a dog or a cat? Genetically engineered. The horses and cows that used to help us grow our genetically engineered food are also genetically engineered.

    All “genetic engineering” is, is a means of accomplishing this much faster and with greater control over the outcome. To think “playing god” is something new, something unique to modern science is just ignorance.

    That said, cloning our extinct relatives might not be ethical. What we have to consider is not whether or not we have the ‘right’ to do it, we have the right to do anything we want. But if we are to be responsible we need to consider whether what we’re doing will be destructive or cruel. We need to consider what kind of life this person would have. Would they feel alone? An outcast in a society that will forever view them as an outsider?

    I think it is entirely ethical as long as the Neanderthal is happy. We’re not talking about creating an animal in a lab, an animal that is incapable of considering the implications of it’s life, an animal that is perfectly happy as long as it has plenty of food and a nice place to sleep. We’re talking about a person. If we’re going to bring Neanderthals back, which I think we ultimately should, we’ll have to put a lot of thought into how we’re going to arrange for them to grow up, and how they’re going to integrate into our society.

    Even though they’re artificially created, you’re going to want to give them as normal a life as you can. It should be similar to knowing you’re adopted. They should grow up in a normal home, with normal parents that are enthusiastic about raising an unusual child.

    The challenge, of course, is that we really don’t know how Neanderthals thought. Considering Gorillas appear to think and feel in a way very similar to us, I think it’s a safe bet to assume a Neanderthal, which is almost identical to us genetically, would be little different mentally and emotionally.

    Ultimately I believe this is something we should do. We’re probably the reason Neanderthals aren’t around today in the first place. It would make the world a more interesting place, and certainly answer a lot of questions. Obviously this is not a project you just jump into. Something like this if (when, really) we decide to undertake it, will take many years of careful planning and thought.

  20. While I don’t think it may be a good idea to resurrect the Neanderthals, (integration issues, as humans are xenophobic, unfortunately), genetic experimentation (but not on humans [this includes other varieties of humans]) is the future.

    sent from: fav.or.it [FID5395236]

  21. No because there’s profound ethical questions? Lazy. Why not work through those questions first and then do it?

    The question of rights. Based on what we know Neanderthals were as intelligent as us, so that solves the problem. We have human rights because of our intelligence so Neanderthals, space aliens, or what ever has the same intelligence should have rights. They should be legal persons, able to vote, and yes there should be legislation against discrimination.

    They’re not sure about speech but we think they have it due to the FOX2P gene but that’s really irrelevant to the question of rights. Some humans are born unable to speak but have normal intelligence, and not just deaf humans. We teach them sign language and they live mostly normal lives with all the same rights as everybody else. If Neanderthals are mutes we can teach them sign language too.

    As for school I think who ever becomes their legal guardian would probably want to have them home-schooled but if not schools can deal with any bullying or harrassment like they normally do. And even then I think things would get a lot easier in high school since then kids are more mature.

    Also there’d have to be more than just one if we’re going to learn anything for 3 reasons. 1. Since they’d have human rights (or sentient rights?) some might eventually opt out of scientific studies in spite of the financial benefits. 2. Make it easier to find love. Nothing wrong with sentient interspecies love but we don’t know how different their personalities will be from ours so having other Neanderthals will make things easier. 3. In order to study Neanderthal behavior and psychology well enough we’ll need more than one Neanderthal, and preferably Neanderthals of both sexes and from specimens found in different locations. Otherwise the behavior could be particular to the gender, a certain genetic lineage, or even the individual him/herself.

    I think the biggest problem would be renaming humanism and humanitarianism, since both those words would sound supremacist but we’d run into that sooner or later when we meet aliens. Maybe sapientism or sentientism would work?

    I know some people might not agree that ethically we’d have to give them rights so I think until there’s a definite consensus on that they shouldn’t proceed.

  22. @Isayyes: Your answer is noble, to be sure, but contains a LOT of if, should and basic charity where human nature is concerned. We SHOULD treat blacks like whites. Women SHOULD have the same rights and opportunities as men. We SHOULD ignore class boundaries. And so on.

    We SHOULD, but we DON’T. And since we live in reality instead of Shouldland, I can’t help thinking that it would be a lot tougher on a Neanderthal than it would on a black woman.

    These are things we SHOULD consider thoroughly before doing anything stupid.

  23. I vote NO. As you said, we do not live in Shouldland, although we Should. This is not a game, and life is not something to take lightly. And reading some comments made here actually prove me that most people do not take this matter with the seriousness they should. “…they will make cheaper gardeners and cooks…”? How arrogant, they could even turn out smarter than the person that made that comment.

    Who are we to artificially “create” other humans (if we can call them that, but you know what I mean) and deny them of parents, love, a normal life, and stick them in a lab all their life? They will be born in a world completely unknown thousands of years in to the future, to a world they do NOT belong. A world which we do not know if they are suited and ready for. Maybe they do not want to live here, why are we forcing them? They became extinct for a reason. And we do not know that reason. We did not create ourselves, why should we even think or trying now?

    Also, we do not know if they are violent, if they become “troublesome” then what? we just kill them? and say, “oops, well that turned out bad, but luckily we have guns and got rid of them”? How irresponsible.

    I think we humans are not even close of being ready for such a big responsibility, nor we ever should be. And I do not want to carry that burden, to know that my generation committed such an irresponsible, unethical act.

    So, I vote NO.

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