Here’s an oddity I started thinking about following a tweet by Dr Kiki who pointed to this article Return of the Neanderthals: If we can resurrect them through fossil DNA, should we?. The strange thing was my reaction to this. The answer seems obvious. I thought I’d missed the boat on this when The Philosophers’ Magazine blog covered it. Again the author, Jean Kazez, missed the obvious objection, so I left it in a comment, and it was easily dismissed – or rather ignored. Seeing as two people see no problem with what I see as an insurmountable problem I have to be open to the idea I’m being dogmatic.
So here’s the question: if we could use the DNA of the recently discovered Neanderthal genome (Jo Badge has given me good reasons why we couldn’t) would it be ethical to resurrect the species? Exactly how is a problem, but seeing as we’re inventing science for the sake of a thought experiment let’s pretend a chimpanzee could carry the Neanderthal foetus to term, so there’s no Hom.Sap material involved.
Now the discussion seems to be focussed on what ecological niche it could fit into. As Jean Kazez asks should it be in a zoo or Harvard? At this point my mental processes derail, because there doesn’t seem to be much grasp of what you’re creating or why.
First of all you’re creating a human. The species name for Neanderthals is Homo neanderthalensis (or even Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). That homo prefix marks them as human. Jean Kazez in a reply comment doesn’t seem to accept referring to Neanderthals as human as they split from modern humans, well the figure Kazez uses is 300 kyr. It could be as early as 600 kyr with Neanderthals evolving from Homo heidelbergensis. There is room to argue how human they were compared to Homo sapiens.
There’s certainly evidence of complex hunting patterns. Neanderthals worked as a team. They practiced butchery. Rather than drag a whole carcass home, they chopped it up and took back the best bits. Using fire might seem archetypal stone age technology, but when you think about what means in terms of planning, carrying and conserving fire that’s clearly a complex mental task. You could argue that they show little evidence of symbolic thought with a lack of art, but there does seem to be some evidence of art. No as much as Homo sapiens would produce in the Upper Palaeolithic, but if you look at what Homo sapiens was doing as art in Europe at the same time as the Neanderthals, their record is pretty lousy too. Africa seems to be the place for early art. I’m not claiming that Neanderthals were all potential Einsteins, but they’re clearly closer to modern humans than chimps in terms of cognitive power. How close? Well that’s the why question.
Did Neanderthals have language? The genetic data shows they had a FoxP2 gene which is a gene connected to the development of language in modern humans. Steve Mithen recently made an interesting case for Neanderthals having language. There’s the matter of how complex their social behaviour could be. How many orders of intentionality could they cope with? That’s thinking along the lines where I think that you know that I believe the FBI are watching me (3 orders, we struggle at 5 or 6). There’s a lot that experimentation on a Neanderthal could tell us about humanity, and that’s where my objection lies. The precise biological substrate doesn’t matter, the feature we’re interested in is their humanity. It’s their humanity we value, So I see the question as:
Put like that, there’s no way you’d get it past an ethics committee. Ironically the creation of a breathing being from human material, even if (or especially if?) it’s fully human material it way beyond the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos. We’re talking about the creation of a being which we expect to be self-aware and demonstrably intelligent. John Hawks has pointed to an interesting post by by John Tierney, who also sees this as a no-brainer, but in the opposite direction. He makes a couple of serious points, one good and one moronic.
If we discovered a small band of Neanderthals hidden somewhere, we’d do everything to keep them alive, just as we try to keep alive so many other endangered populations of humans and animals — including man-biting mosquitoes and man-eating polar bears.
This is interesting, because at first blush we would. On the other hand I don’t know a single anthropologist that would recommend picking up an uncontacted tribe from the Amazon and dropping them in a secure holding facility for study. If we did find a small band of Neanderthals somewhere I think we’d be looking a secure nature reserve, not a lab. Further, the Neanderthals would – after an amazingly bitter and acrimonious argument – be contacted by an anthropologist on their very best behaviour.
The other line is cringeworthy.
If our species disappeared and a smarter species took over the planet, I’d take the offer to be resurrected just on the theory that being alive beats being dead.
Human clones already exist. They’re called twins. Your clone if it was created in the future would not be not be you, it would be an artificial twin. So would you want a twin sister created, so she could live out her life as a lab specimen?
I don’t know if the ethics of resurrecting Neanderthals is the modern equivalent of counting angels dancing on the head of a pin or not. I’m really not convinced that a Neanderthal could be created using a chimp egg with current technology for $30 million as George Church at Harvard claims, but appears to a rapidly expanding field. Even if one could be created you wouldn’t learn much about Neanderthals, because all the Neanderthal culture, heritage and extelligence has been lost. In some ways it would be like adopting an Arab baby bringing it to the Vatican, having Nuns raise it and then expecting to learn about Islam. What the ethical question does do I think is tell us something about how we think about humanity. From what I can tell Kazez and Tierney have a narrow and parochial view of what it means to be human. Alternatively it could be that I have a rigid and inflexible view of ethics which doesn’t account for grey areas. If you think so, feel free to tell me where I’m wrong in the comment box below.