Saturday, February 20, 2010

Do You Want to Clone a Caveman?

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Most of us chuckled at GEICO's caveman ads ("so simple even a caveman can do it!") that placed a couple of Neanderthal-appearing guys in a contemporary setting where they are regularly offended by Neanderthal-acting humans. But some day in the not distant future, the joke may be on us as scientists clone Neanderthals in the lab and create, perhaps, a modern day Neanderthal community, with which we humans will need to deal ethically and legally.

BioEdge, an on-line review of issues in bioethics, quotes John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin paleoanthropologist, who says "In the end, we are going to have a cloned Neanderthal." Hawks is opposed, but others interviewed by Archeology magazine, from which BioEdge draws its review, favored cloning. George Church, genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, even believes it may be unethical not to clone: "Just saying 'no' is not necessarily the safest or most moral path. It is a very risky decision to do nothing."

According to Archeology, Neanderthals and humans co-existed for 6,000 to 7,000 years before the more adaptable humans pushed Neanderthals into extinction some 30,000 years ago. The Neanderthal, who Archeology notes, broke away from the lineage of modern humans 450,000 years ago, was physically different from the human: shorter with a protruding brow, stronger upper torso and a larger brain cavity. He lived in communities, buried his dead, made and improved on tools, and likely communicated in a language. Archeology quotes Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist at Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany: "they [had] a different way to give birth to babies, differences in life history, shape of the inner ear, genetics, the speed of development of individuals, weaning, age of puberty." But others believe Neanderthals were not different enough to be considered a separate species.

Bits of Neanderthal DNA have been found in a cave in northern Spain where 11 Neanderthals were murdered about 49,000 years ago and then cannibalized. Geneticists like Professor Church believe it may be possible to create a Neanderthal person by implanting a stem cell with Neanderthal DNA into a human blastocyst and then keeping all the non-Neanderthal cells from developing. Of course, just as does embryonic stem cell research, this requires eliminating human life and is opposed by many, like myself, for this reason.

But there are other reasons to balk at cloning a Neanderthal. Church, himself, acknowledges that anyone cloned would lack the social and environment factors that shaped the original: "They would be something new," he says, "neo-Neanderthals." "This is a species-altering event. It changes the way we are creating a new generation," says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Archeology notes that "legal precedent in the united States seems to be on the side of Neanderthal human rights" of which would certainly be the right not to be experimented on. This might make moot Professor Church's desire to use a cloned Neanderthal to further medical research.

Archeology quotes Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University who believes "the problem lies in how that individual would be treated by others." Rollin says, "I don't believe it is fair to put people...into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared, and this is equally important: it's not going to have a peer group. Given that humans are at some level social beings, it would be grossly unfair."

In the end, Archeology poses the question: "The ultimate goal of studying human evolution is to better understand the human race. The opportunity to meet a Neanderthal and see firsthand our common but separate humanity seems, on the surface, too good to pass up. But what if the thing we learned from cloning a Neanderthal is that our curiosity is greater than our compassion (remember, as Archeology states, the number of sick and dead individuals produced by nuclear transfer cloning is the reason nearly all scientists are opposed to human reproductive cloning") ?"

More likely what's learned (or relearned) would be that our technological know how is greater that our wisdom.

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