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23Jan 2013

Weird Science: The Attack of the Neanderthal Clone Baby Stories

Neanderthal reconsturction: a face only a surrogate mother could love?

What reader could resist clicking on a headline about a mad scientist trying to find women to carry Neanderthal clones? It sounds like something from the old supermarket tabloid the Weekly World News, but this latest whopper is loosely based on a real statement by a real scientist.

In his book, Regenesis, written with Ed Regis, Harvard researcher George Church really did say that it might be possible to clone Neanderthal babies using the Neanderthal genome sequence reconstructed with synthetic biology. And the kicker: A cloned embryo of our extinct cousin could be gestated by an “adventurous” woman. (On the plus side, the first volunteer would be shoe-in to get her own reality show.)

There wasn’t much reaction at first. The statement was buried pretty deep in the book, which was something of a slog to read.

But then the German magazine Der Spiegel published an in-depth interview with Church. There, the interviewer attempted to get Church to explain why he thought bringing back a Neanderthal would be a good idea.   

Here’s a key passage from high in the Q and A style story:   

SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?

Church: Well, that's another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what's technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.

SPIEGEL: So let's talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.

Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.

SPIEGEL: How do we have to imagine this: You raise Neanderthals in a lab, ask them to solve problems and thereby study how they think?

Church: No, you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.

The part about Neanderthals possibly being were more intelligent than we are seemed particularly plausible following the first wave of press coverage banking off the Der Spiegel interview. The Daily Mail tweaked Church’s statement so that he came across as ready to implant that Neanderthal clone. The headline was an attention-getter: "Wanted: Adventurous Woman to Give Birth to Neanderthal Man. Harvard Professor seeks Mother for Cloned Cave Baby." 

Fox News followed in the same spirit, with a quote that I could not find in the English version of the Der Spiegel interview. Something must have been lost in translation:  

"I can create a Neanderthal baby, if I can find a willing woman," George Church told German newspaper Spiegel Onlinehttp://global.fncstatic.com/static/v/all/img/external-link.png. The DNA of the Neanderthal, a long extinct relative of man, has been more or less rebuilt, a process called genetic sequencing.

Where did this quote come from? What followed was a typical progression, with more middle-of-the road stories catching people up on the controversy, such as this one in LiveScience, followed by a wave of straight-faced debunking as by AP, the Boston Herald, USA Today and others.

And ABC News realized that you can always count on medical ethicist Art Caplan to weigh in on weird science. Caplan was a great source of sanity in the late 1990s, when the press went bonkers over the cloning of a sheep, speculating that we would soon give up sex as a form of reproduction and then armies of clones would take over the world. Congress even held a hearing featuring members of a UFO cult rumored to have been trying to clone a child.

Who is at fault for the Neanderthal baby hype? It might be tempting to blame the scientist, George Church, for not being appropriately circumspect in his interview, or to blame the Der Spiegel writer for focusing on a sexy tangent. But there really wasn’t a bottom line point to Church’s book – It was a laundry list of technological achievements and possibilities that George Church finds interesting. I admired the Der Spiegel interview for bringing out some of the more salient features of Church’s thinking. Everything in the interview was in the book, but expressed with a more pedantic prose style and a disorganized structure.

The Daily Mail, Fox News and others share some blame for taking Church’s statement about what might be plausible and distorting it into something he wants to do now. But, then, should we expect better of them? Is there harm in this story or should we just laugh it off knowing tabloids will be tabloids?

 

Comments

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It is hard to know where to begin with the ethical and safety concerns.Neanderthals already walk amongst us.

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I have also read this book. I really like it, but I think people shouldn`t clone humans because they wouldn`t be friendly and could start the 3`s war. http://ultrasoundtechniciannews.com

Taking genetic information and making it into a working chromosome is a very substantial technical challenge, and ensuring that the genetic information is free of errors and capable of yielding a viable embryo will be massively difficult. 

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Not that anyone's really considering it anytime soon, as your post suggests.
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If we could resurrect the Neanderthals as a species through cloning, I think that we should do it and raise the clones as members of modern human society, instead of trying to force them to be relics. If there would be limits to their ability to be part of modern human society, then special arrangements should be made and perhaps eventually a new Neanderthal culture could emerge.

Personally, I think that member of any species of the genus Homo would be legally human. The similarity with Homo sapiens would be too great to deny the status of humans to them. Australopithecines might be tricky, but not Neanderthals

Here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/07/is-resurrecting-neanderta...

Cloning a pure Neanderthal would be a great idea but perhaps to your disappointment, he or she will not need to live in a zoo. Almost 60% of Europeans have Neanderthal mtDNA and since different species do not mix, they were actually Human for all effects and purpose. Neanderthals were perhaps even smarter than Homo Sapiens from recent discoveries, especially their “science” such as the Lascaux drawings of the constellations to a margin of error of 0.366%. Chance are that if a Neanderthal baby was born today he or she would be able to take over your blog in no time. On the other hand, they are not relatives to all current human groups, only to Europe and the Middle East. Asians have a more complex mix which includes Denisovan and Homo Erectus, again showing that humans have been around a lot longer if we include other groups. We would perhaps be very surprised to see a so-called Homo Erectus wearing a suit and tie, working at a bank but that would be the case if pure H. Erectus was still around. Current research suggests Sapiens to be roughly 600,000 years old but Neanderthal goes back to almot 1 million and Erectus to over 2 million. And this may still be wrong by a longer stretch into the past. Read more: http://www.themuslimtimes.org/2013/01/science-and-technology/biology/clo...

C'mon, I realize the Republicans are desperate to win back the White House,but this is ridiculous! Trying to rig future elections by creating more Republicans is unfair. Instead of going through all this to create modern day Neanderthals, why not just cut out the middle man and clone Akins or Murdock?

Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/neanderthal-baby-harvard-geneti...

What, if any, rights would the Neandertal have? Although we are very similar geneticly (so are wolves and dogs), Neandertals are a different species. Would strict constructionists argue that the founding fathers never intended to extend rights to other species. Would laws against beastiality apply? What if Neandertals turned out to be generally inferior to us? Generally superior?

Read update: http://science.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/22/16646498-bioethicist-heres-w...

Great post - I have a dumb question.  Did they ever figure out why the original cloned sheep were not especially hale and hearty?  And if so, that would certainly be among the many things that should give us pause before making a Neanderthal. 

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They definitely had culture, burial beliefs, stone technology and probably some kind of languages and they were able to intermingle their DNA with ours although it is a very small amount now in the common DNA pool. Their brains were slightly larger....I wonder at what such a person born into the modern world and given a bang up to date broad and indepth education would be able to do. Sadly they would have no personal life with the media frenzy...I guess it really hinges on how they actually looked. They are always drawn as really heavy and ape looking which is an exaggeration of their actual skeletal physiognomy. The result may surprise us and we may well (being a bit tongue in cheek here) see resemblances to many modern humans in their features.

Read more: http://www.livescience.com/26447-neanderthal-clone-church.html

That's a great comment, Tom. In fact, the scientific world should think twice before cloning any living creature - especially a Neanderthal. According to respected writing sources, these prehistoric humans were far from being friendly. 

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Maybe they are not as intellegent as us thats why they are gone. We have enough idiots here on earth why take a chance on creating more.This is just ridiculous and i am furious about it, there are more important things to be doing with your time. There way of thinking did not get them too far, they are extinct. You need to think about this creation and all the things that could go wrong with it. For one thing they did not look too pleasant, this creation may just have feelings. Any woman who does this is just insane and feeble minded. You could be creating a monster. Too risky!

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2265402/Adventurous-human-woman-...
 

Look at the actual history. Neanderthal was around 180,000 longer then the invaders 40,000 year ago. Neanderthal had built societies, culture, technology, and music. Neanderthal evolved for cooperation and group safety, because that’s what it takes to survive in cold country. Modern man came out of Africa 40,000 years ago and exploited the accomplishments of the Neanderthal long after the north had been tamed and civilization had been built. Neanderthal families had no defense, because were bread to be trusting. Spears were large sturdy and heavy for to defend against large animals and hunting food. Modern man’s spear was made light and thin for murdering and pillaging of other humans. Try comparing post 40,000 technological advancement to those that of the same genetic group that stayed south. After the pillaging was done, most technological and peaceful social advancement came from those that contained a portion of Neanderthal DNA. This is fact; You draw your own conclusions. Read more: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/01/24/opinion/caplan-neanderthal-baby

Neanderthal baby would be no different than that of the output of two NDP supporters. Sloped foreheads and knockle dragging arms...Yup, no different from the common NDP supporter. I would suggest the the researchers not hire someone who votes NDP as it may produce a species that is even dumber than the Neanderthals. Sort of like the INM crowd. Read here: http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/22/harvard-scientist-looking-for-su...

The Neanderthal in the photo looks friendly enough, but let's not forget that it was due to Neanderthal aggression (they were larger and more muscular than we were) that the ancestral population of H.sapiens that moved out of Africa was unable to spread upwards into Europe, and was forced to spread eastwards along the coast of Eurasia to India and beyond. If is ethical you can read more here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/23/clone-neanderthal-te...

Maybe sometimes soon this will be possible for real.

'I can create Neanderthal baby, I just need willing woman’
A scientist has said it would be possible to clone a Neanderthal baby from ancient DNA if he could find a woman willing to act as a surrogate.

Read the rest of the story here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/9814620/I-can-create-Neanderthal-baby...

What would be the point of bringing an extinct species back? Neanderthals were absorbed into our genome and we carry their DNA so why do we need to resurrect them? This is not an animal we are talking about. This is a close humanoid relative capable of complex thought and the ability to communicate verbally. It would have to live in a bubble it's entire life. We couldn't give it bone marrow transplants to cure its immune problem because that would defeat the purpose.

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The Boston Herald got in touch with Church about the Neanderthal story. “The real story here is how these stories have percolated and changed in different ways,” Church told his local tabloid. “I’m sure we’ll get it sorted out eventually.” As for Neanderthal creation, he said: “I’m certainly not advocating it. I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”  I contacted Church about the stories, asking if the Herald’s report was accurate. He wrote: “Yes the Boston Herald did a good job of cutting through many layers of viral web third-hand news.”

I’m surprised that normally sedate people ran with this “news.” The shame, to me, is that this kind of hyperventilating distracts from a lot of the really fascinating work that Church is doing. I’m in fact working on a story now (expect it soon) about genome-editing technology coming from his lab and elsewhere that could make it far easier to edit the genomes of human cells, and could, I think, revolutionize biotechnology. But talk of using these kinds of tools to make Neanderthals, or even mammoths, which present fewer ethical issues, is very, very far off. The Island of Dr. Moreau stuff really isn’t helping anybody. check http://www.weblist24.com

That's a great comment, Tom. In fact, the scientific world should think twice before cloning any living creature - especially a Neanderthal. According to respected writing sources, these prehistoric humans were far from being friendly.

 A living cell can provide functional genetic material that can be used to generate a cloned cell. Neandertal skeletal remains have DNA only in very short, nonfunctional bits. Taking genetic information and making it into a working chromosome is a very substantial technical challenge, and basenji ensuring that the genetic information is free of errors and capable of yielding a viable embryo will be massively difficult. Church is an optimist about the rate of progress on these problems, and I have correspondents who think these advances may happen in less than ten years. Personally I think it will be more than thirty.

Great post - I have a dumb question.  Did they ever figure out why the original cloned sheep were not especially hale and hearty?  And if so, that would certainly be among the many things that should give us pause before making a Neanderthal.  Not that anyone's really considering it anytime soon, as your post suggests.

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