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 Online. 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?