Neanderthal Ethics

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:

Is it eth­ical to cre­ate a human child with genetic nov­el­ties for the pur­pose of experimentation?

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

7 Responses

  1. Jean Kazez says:

    Alun, This is all won­der­fully inter­est­ing stuff. I hadn’t read the Saletan essay (Saletan’s always good). I was think­ing about this issue from a very lim­ited perspective–the key ques­tion being whether there a dif­fer­ence between start­ing with a chimp cell and start­ing with a human cell? The idea that there is a dif­fer­ence gets into issues about humans vs. anim­als that I’m inter­ested in. (I’m just fin­ish­ing a book on these things, so I’m very focused on them).

    You take it for gran­ted that human­ity is very important–so if Neanderthals are human, then we need to think about the eth­ics of cre­at­ing them very ser­i­ously. Conversely, I take it, if they’re not human, there are no big issues? Philosophically, it’s this idea of human­ity as being pivotal that I find inter­est­ing. Is it really pivotal?

    But Neanderthals are inter­est­ing apart from that. I have no real opin­ion about whether they were human. I just took for gran­ted what the NYT said. As to the whole issue, eth­ical and fac­tual, I’ll have to think about it more, espe­cially because it scares me to think I’ve some­how fallen in with John Tierney, who I con­sider an idiot 90% of the time.

    I’m glad I dis­covered your blog. In another life I want to study this kind of stuff.

  2. gaston umlaut says:

    I think there’s a con­fu­sion here due to the poly­semy of ‘human’. It has one sense (let’s call it sense 1) as a tech­nical word (lim­ited to anthro­po­logy, archae­ology, and allied dis­cip­lines) where it refers to mem­bers of the genus homo. In its more wide­spread sense (sense 2) it refers to creatures just like us, ie homo sapi­ens. Saying some­thing is ‘human’ in sense 1 is very dif­fer­ent from say­ing it’s ‘human’ in sense 2. You seem to be con­flat­ing the ideas, say­ing that because Neanderthals are in genus ‘homo’, and are ‘human’ in sense 1, there­fore they’re ‘human’ in sense 2 as well. It’s easy to ima­gine that there could be mem­bers of genus ‘homo’ that have no sen­tience or ‘human­ity’ and in fact I think this is a cru­cial issue.

    A sim­ilar thing has happened with dis­cus­sion about Homo Floresiensis. ‘Human’ in sense 1, but not neces­sar­ily ‘human’ sense 2.

    If we sus­pect that Neanderthals had enough sen­tience (for want of a bet­ter word) that we would think of them as being human (sense 2) like ourselves, then I sus­pect a lot of people would feel it was wrong to re-create them for our own exper­i­ment­a­tion. If how­ever it could be shown that their level of sen­tience is akin to that of the great apes then maybe it would be okay (or at least more okay), but there would still have to be a debate about the eth­ics and we might decide it would be wrong. But then if a spe­cies of gor­illa became extinct and we could recre­ate them from DNA (and per­haps install a viable num­ber in a nice park in Africa some­where), would we hesitate?

    Re the idea of an uncon­tac­ted tribe of neander­thals and your sug­ges­tion that con­tact by an anthro­po­lo­gist would be unavoid­able, remem­ber that the Sentinelese are still uncon­tac­ted (though who knows how long it’ll stay that way).

    Thanks for an inter­est­ing posting.

    In reply to Jean Kazez: ‘Philosophically, it’s this idea of human­ity as being pivotal that I find inter­est­ing. Is it really pivotal?’

    Yes, human­ity is pivotal, to humans, but not neces­sar­ily to anyone/anything else. Surely that’s reasonable?

  3. gaston umlaut says:

    BTW, FoxP2 is not really rel­ev­ant, see LanguageLog here and here. This gene is con­tinu­ally mis­rep­res­en­ted in the media.

  4. Joe says:

    Throughput his­tory our record of deal­ing with the ori­ginal inhab­it­ants of ‘dis­covered’ lands has not been par­tic­u­larly cred­it­able. Considering the dis­grace­ful way we treat our second cous­ins the apes, I rather hope that repro­duc­tion of our first cous­ins will never be possible.

  5. samarkeolog says:

    I didn’t real­ise Neanderthals’ human­ity (in both senses of the word), their sen­tience and intel­li­gence were in doubt. Apart from everything else Alan says, Neanderthals bur­ied their dead. Okay, Ian Tattersall did com­ment that, ‘I don’t think you could ever really know if Neanderthals were reli­gious, but my guess would be no.… To have some­thing abstract in your head, you need to be cap­able of play­ing with sym­bols. Neanderthals did busi­ness very dif­fer­ently from Homo sapi­ens.’ But even if they were not reli­gious, that wouldn’t affect their human­ity. (As an athe­ist, I cer­tainly hope not, any­way!) And I find it dif­fi­cult to ima­gine that they could pro­duce art and per­form buri­als without any capa­city for abstract thought (reli­gious or oth­er­wise). (Perhaps his com­ment was made before evid­ence of Neanderthal arts emerged?)

    I don’t know, but I don’t think Alan is say­ing that eth­ics of treat­ment of and exper­i­ment­a­tion with non-human anim­als is simple or easy (that there would be ‘no big issues’). I thought Alan was say­ing that, since Neanderthals were humans, human sub­ject eth­ics were the rel­ev­ant ones, rather than fruit­fly sub­ject eth­ics. (As for the Great Apes, I must admit I sym­path­ise with the Great Ape Project.)

  6. Tileman says:

    One use­ful take on the eth­ics of bring­ing back Neanderthals is in Jasper ffordes ‘Tursday Next’ series

  7. samarkeolog says:

    Is there a win­cing emoticon on word­press? Alun, Al-un, A-l-u-n…