KSJ Tracker January 28, 2013

On Science Blogs: Cloning a Neanderthal? It's not for everyone.

Much has been said recently about the possibility of cloning a Neanderthal, now that the Neanderthal's genome has been sequenced. Mistaken reports in recent days claimed that a Harvard researcher, George Church, was searching for an adventurous woman to become the surrogate mother of a Neanderthal baby. Those stories were debunked by a number of science reporters, including Faye Flam here on the Tracker.

Tabitha M. Powledge, who likes to find a theme for each weekly edition of her On Science Blogs, wrapped last Friday's post around Neanderthals and Denisovans, the more recently discovered relatives of Homo sapiens. While praising science bloggers generally for correcting the misleading stories about George Church, she expresses some amazement that some bloggers thought cloning a Neanderthal might be, uh, what's the word? Cool!

Powledge isn't impressed. After reviewing what some of them wrote, she concluded that "there are no good reasons to clone a Neandertal. Except maybe to try to prove how clever H. sap has gotten with tools. It's not just wrong ethically, as Art Caplan declared. It's absurd."

I'm afraid I'm in the camp that thinks cloning a Neanderthal would be fascinating--and, I hurry to add, ethically indefensible and utterly wrong. I would like to meet one. And I suspect there is a lot we could learn from a few Neanderthals.

Even as I'm typing, however, I find the idea repugnant. How could a contemporary human, in order to satisfy his or her curiosity, justify bringing into the world one or a handful of human beings who would be unlike any others and therefore so strikingly, disturbingly alone? 

But isn't there an unresolved scientific question here? Yes, scientists have decoded the Neanderthal genome. But for my book on fathers, rapidly nearing completion, I've been reading and writing about genetic imprinting, which deals with what might be called a second genetic code that is stamped on human genes. These imprints are supplied by parents; fathers and mothers each have a characteristic imprint that they stamp on the genes they bestow to their offspring. If there is an error in the imprinting, as sometimes happens, children can be born with severe ailments, such as Angelman or Prader-Willi syndromes. If researchers attempted to clone a Neanderthal without adding the appropriate imprinting, could we see the birth of Neanderthals who are all afflicted with severe disorders of imprinting?

Perhaps a better way to meet a Neanderthal would be to find a band of survivors in some remote mountainous region, as imagined by former New York Times correspondent John Darnton in his 1997 novel "Neanderthal." Or perhaps reseachers would do better to bring back the dodo, or a mammoth, or to create an amusement park where Jurassic dinosaurs roam. Those projects should have ethical and scientific challenges enough to keep clone jockeys busy for a long, long time.

In the end, I come around to Powledge's position: Let the Neanderthals rest.

-Paul Raeburn

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