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Neanderthals are as Unprepared for Modernity as We Are
Kyle Munkittrick   Feb 13, 2012   PopBioethics  

Lauren Davis reopens the debate started by Zach Zorich at Archeology and continued by yours truly over whether or not we should clone a Neanderthal. She does a nice job compiling a list of yays and nays, including this gem I hadn’t much considered:

Neanderthals might not be built for modern life. The last recognizably Neanderthal human died out tens of thousands of years ago. Since then, modern humans have moved into cities and proven, to varying degrees, our ability to live in modern society. It’s entirely possible that a Neanderthal would adjust to modern life as easily as any other child. But we won’t know for sure until we clone one.

What caught me here is that as I read it I said aloud, “humans aren’t built for modern life!” I think of all the diets and exercise routines and explanations for ailments that stem from the idea that humans have changed our world faster than our body can evolve. As a result, an animal that evolved to live in small social groups (less than150) on savannah and to eat mostly vegetables with occasional meat acquired by long-distance running, now spends most of its time socializing with thousands of different individuals in overwhelmingly urban environments with a meat, dairy, and grain-based diet spending large amounts of time sitting.

We, Homo sapiens sapiens, are not built for the world we’ve built ourselves.

So we’ll have to change the world some more, to bring things back into balance. Or maybe we’ll turn inward and change ourselves. Both seem to be in order. Either way, the Neanderthal stands as much a fighting chance as we do. I still think cloning a Neanderthal and raising her while allowing her to be observed and studied can be done ethically.

The other two “cons” Davis points out, “You would be creating a person just for them to be studied,” and “She would have no peers” are both non-starters.

The former is an appeal to a Kantian “mere means” critique of cloning. The Neanderthal clone would not be created just for study any more than a parent has a second child to give the first a playmate. You can create a person with a goal without dehumanizing that person. To want to give a Neanderthal the chance to walk this Earth again is reason enough for her to be. She would be as valuable as any other person. That she would be studied is secondary to her reason for being.

The latter, that she would have no peers, is without impact. There have always been firsts, originals, and peerless individuals among human beings. That she might be mocked or ridiculed is why it would be critical to ensure she had a supportive and nurturing family environment. Beyond that, there is no reason anyone else should know she is a Neanderthal. Like adoption, it should be something the family shares together, but needn’t broadcast to the world.

Without the label, I doubt anyone would be able to differentiate her from us. I suspect the differences would be so minimal as to upset human exceptionalists everywhere. Given safe methods, a proper foster family, strict guidelines for study, adequate privacy, and full human rights, I can see no reason cloning a Neanderthal would be unethical.


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


“Given safe methods, a proper foster family, strict guidelines for study, adequate privacy, and full human rights, I can see no reason cloning a Neanderthal would be unethical.”

Given a perfect world we wouldn’t need prisons or ethicists.  And given our track record of human experimentation… even within our own society… and even within living memory, I have grave doubts that the above can be carried out.

If nothing else we lack the legal infrastructure to deal with a cloned hominid.  Human rights? Not to be pedantic, but by definition they wouldn’t seem to apply. Who would have parental rights? How far would they extend? At what point would she be considered of sound enough mind to attain adulthood? 18, 21? Maybe never?

Would we subject a human child to this kind of experiment? The clone stands a good chance of emerging physically unequipped to survive the modern worlds diseases and environmental realities. Would we intentionally breed a human with questionable immunities? I guess my point is if you claim we would treat the clone as we would any other human, but would we even consider cloning a human from antiquity? And if not isn’t that instant hypocrisy? This is the danger I foresee- you claim a Neanderthal would be treated as an equal to humans but your first act is something we would not ethically do with a human. How many more compromises for the bigger picture and the greater good are in store?

If a Neanderthal, why not a Mohican?

Actually, humans did interbreed with Neanderthals. Genetic evidence suggests interbreeding took place with anatomically modern humans between roughly 80,000 and 50,000 years ago in the Middle East, resulting in 1–4% of the genome of people from Eurasia having been contributed by Neanderthals. See “Neanderthal genes ‘survive in us’”. BBC News (BBC)

I agree with Mark Buehner. Our track record for human experimentation suggests that we’d deal badly with this Mr. N, to give him a name. That’d be particularly true after all the interesting papers had been published.

Let’s look at the conditions Kyle Munkittrick finds sufficient: “Given safe methods, a proper foster family, strict guidelines for study, adequate privacy, and full human rights, I can see no reason cloning a Neanderthal would be unethical.”

Only the first makes much sense. The risks would be similar to those of IVF, although the purpose is different. We’d not be giving an infertile couple a child. We’re giving scientists an experimental subject.

A foster family? And how do you propose to keep Mr. N a child? He’s going to grow up, look around, and see no one that resembles him. And he is likely to do as many of us would do in that situation, insist that he provided with a Mrs. N. What will be done then? And if one choice for Mrs. N. isn’t enough—it certainly wouldn’t be enough for you or I—then what will happen? Will we clone a dozen or so N’s of both sexes to provide choices? Even then it seems an unhappy situation. It’d be like being a member of a vanishing tribe.

What if this couple of dozen begins to complain about a lack of community? That’d mean creating hundreds of Ns. After all, we’d certain want that for ourselves and the object is to give our original Mr. N full human rights. And will we ensure a sufficiently large population to prevent problems with interbreeding? That’d mean thousands with genes from multiple sources. Who’s going to guarantee a grant that large?

No, this won’t work. To provide Mr. N with “full human rights,” he’d have to be provided with what we regard as a matter of course, the right to die in his old age, surrounded by fellow Ns, living in a viable Nish culture, and holding his little Nish-looking grandchild in his arms.

Unless we can guarantee that, we’re not really treating him as one of us. We’re treat Mr. N little better than a chimp in a cage.

Ye gods and little fishes. What an excellent example of why scientists should never be allowed to dictate policy.

I’ve often been amused at the concept of ethicists in science, since, whatever their self-description or “mission statement”, etc., the evidence is their goal is to break down remaining legal, social and ethical walls which separate humans from lesser forms of life - there’s nothing inherently special about humans as far as research goes it seems. And so it also seems bioethicists (“paleo-biothicists” here?) usually seek to expand the authority of researchers at the expense of traditional ideas of and about humanity, and basic human rights and autonomy. History I think shows us that by and large the ethicists usually seem to come down on the side of de-humanization, and an expansion of the ability of researchers to essentially do what they want with human subjects in ever more intrusive projects. The justification for such assaults on the idea of human exceptionalism and human dignity? Why, increased knowledge, of course! It’s the ace of trumps…in the mind of so many researchers…and ethicists. 

Which is essentially the justification for what you’re proposing here: making the life of a human a living lab project - the “Truman Show” come to fruition.

I am troubled particularly by your apparent willful ignorance about the terrible problems inherent in your proposal. There are so many huge hurdles, practical as well as legal, as to be virtually imponderable, but you should make the attempt at least to recognize and identify them, not just treat them as nonexistent.

Let’s take just one: your “foster family” and legal rights of the cloned Neanderthal. The law will consider a Neanderthal a human being, with all the rights and protections any modern human being has. It is NOT a lab project, and certainly not the intellectual or personal property of the project leader or the corporation funding the project, regardless of whether the method used for “creation” is in vitro or cloning. The result is a human being, which has a full panoply of rights and protections the instant it is born (and just when “born” might be for a cloned being is an entirely different and huge question).

Because the natural parents of the Neanderthal apparently have been dead for 100,000 years, the court will appoint both foster parents AND a legal guardian. These serve different purposes: the foster parents are responsible for the nurturing and day-to-day care and feeding of the minor; while the legal guardian sees that the minor’s rights are fully protected until it reaches the age of majority. It’s possible that the guardian could be the foster parents, but it’s unlikely because judges traditionally like a lot of independent protection for minors, so that the “watchers are being watched”. 

But the key issue for researchers is that there will be NO CONNECTION between the foster parents and the research team or funding sponsors of the project. And there certainly will be no connection between the legal guardian and anyone associated with the research project. This is the biggest immediate problem. At the very birth it’s quite possible the guardian will file motions to severely limit the intrusion of the research project on the life of the Neanderthal. Forget any kind of control, maybe even access, except the very merest occasional contact. The guardian will be looking out for the child, saying that such intrusions could interfere with or harm its mental, emotional, social or psychological development, even its health. It would be completely irrelevant to such motions that BioClone Corp spent eleventy zillion dollars getting Ook the Neanderthal Boy cloned to life - they don’t, as a matter of law, own the child. And the court will treat it as any modern human born in the traditional way.

Here’s another goodie. Say that things are fine because BioClone spent half a quadrillion dollars in bribing the entire legal system, so that Ook has essentially been a slave of BioClone since it was a zygote. (Hmm, as a clone would it miss that stage?). But say Ook has his 18th birthday and announces he’s going to become a professional surfer… or maybe he wants to move into an animal-hide-covered hut in the Alaskan wilderness and follow the caribou herds with his trusty ash-wood spear. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want to see anyone from BioClone ever again, and gets a restraining order against everyone there to give his desires some teeth.

Well, you’re just screwed. Or in the finest tradition of corporate extra-judicial solutions, BioClone tries to bribe the hell out of Ook. It wouldn’t even really be a bribe - more like a consulting fee, employment contract, etc. But I’m thinking even if he’s striking out on his own, Ook will have had 18 years of seeing BioClone as an outfit to be feared, and he will probably seek legal advice and protection.

So I’m betting BioClone just dispenses with any attempt to abide by legal requirements for raising a cloned Neanderthal, and just raises it as a slave, or a research chimp, in secret, completely closed off from all human contact except a handful of company researchers who sign confidentiality agreements that call for the sacrifice of their firstborn if they violate. Just as the ethicists will find a convenient device by which to confidently file a paper with BioClone stating that they are certain Ook will be raised “ethically” as a ward of the benign BioClone Corp. Heck, he’ll have plenty of food, clothing and medical care, none of which Ook’s parents had, so he’s coming up in the world.

Yep, my money is on any funding corp to determine it’s too damn difficult and risky to do it the legal way. And the ethcists will fall in line. Because, after all, knowledge will be gained!

I portray this happening in my new novel EXISTENCE.

The issues are complex.  Indeed, I believe homo sapiens has evolved quite a lot since we started clustering in towns, growing grains to eat and to drink as beer. In CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS, Chris Wills discusses how much we may be evolving in our cities.

Robert Sawyer’s NEANDERTHAL CYCLE including “Hominids” is worth a look.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

Well there are interesting ideas here. While there are certain ethical questions that would arise but I would imagine that a cloned individual would be the least ethically complicated.

With a single neanderthal, it could be integrated into human society. There are lots of humans with developmental deformities or diseases that makes them “different” than literally all other people they see. As long as they have been loved, supported and taught with an honest open mind, they can adapt just fine to human society. The same conditions should allow a neanderthal to adapt too.

In terms of legal issues, the project would probably have to government sanctioned and funded. Also would have to have new laws created specifically for them. I see no problem with them voting(we all know one vote doesn’t matter)or marrying providing that religious zealots don’t bust a nut. Humans have interbred with neanderthal before so it would be nothing new. Also humans can love anything so I wouldn’t be surprised if the neanderthal could find a mate.

Aside from the fact that they wouldn’t be 100% neanderthal. They would probably be a cut and paste job on a human genome to make the neanderthal. Also various genetic information, like epigenetics/gene expression and immune system are taken from the mother which would be human. So we wouldn’t get a snap shot of ancient neanderthal. Let alone that there is no neanderthal memes(culture) so they would have to use ours as best they could.

I also think that a rural environment would be a better fit to a neanderthal than an urban environment. It would not only be closer to hunter/gatherer life style than a city. They would be closer to nature as well and have more opportunity for physical challenges rather than intellectual challenges. Plus there are some stupid/hateful people in cites that you can’t be protected from compared to a rural one. The neanderthal could be integrated to a small community but not an urban one.

For scientific testing the neanderthal would be raised with regular testing, mental and physical. Humans can adapt to literally any lifestyle. Neanderthals may not be as adaptable but I see no reason why they should reject testing, especially if they could understand why we are curious. They would have specialists that they know and grew up with, a family. There are human children that are sick and undergo many tests for their own health and scientific curiosity, to understand them better. Even a reward system could work, the neanderthal could get paid for each test.

As a scientist I think meeting a neanderthal would be awesome! As cool as meeting a android or alien. There are people who would hate or denigrate them just for being different. We know from racism that humans have no qualms hating slightly different other humans, so a neanderthal would be easy picking for the hateful and ignorant. But life is a gift and if we treated the neanderthal like a fellow hominid and not a thing they should have as good a life as any other human on the planet, maybe even better than most humans. The only thing I would be weary of would be a ‘Truman Show’ scenario..

A community of neanderthals is just wrong…! An individual is can be integrated but making tens or hundred of neanderthals serves no purpose. Not only is there no room on the planet to set up a isolated population of neanderthals, but humans would never leave them alone. With a community of neanderthals human politics would come up and the neanderthals would be manipulated by whoever had the most power. Plus it would require a small town of surrogate mothers to breed the neanderthals which is expensive and impractical. Let alone, the neanderthal spices is not only dead but their culture is dead too. What ever culture we gave to the neanderthal community would be a complete human facsimile. Burying their dead for example, neanderthal may have had the capacity to understand the concept but never adopted it them selves in ancient times. So what ever we taught them would be a moot point if trying to look at neanderthal culture.

But just like dinosaurs, neanderthal are not actually dead. Dinosaurs live on in modern day birds, neanderthal live on in non-African human descendants. The idea of trying to bring them back is a waste of time, but giving a single neanderthal, our ancestor, the experience a future they never could have seen. In an attempt to learn more about ourselves is not wrong or a waste of time and I for one would love to shake his/her hand.

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