Cro-Magnon Park

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by Jeff Fecke February 17, 2009 • Remember John Tierney? Sure you do! He was the glibertarian columnist for the New York Times who got bumped down to the science beat, where he could expound on why global warming isn’t real. Because that’s science!

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

Anyhoo, Tierney noted the news that we’re closing in on completing the Neanderthal genome, which will give us more insight into our closest relatives, and help answer some longstanding questions, like why the Neanderthals died out, and whether they interbred with modern humans before they did. But Tierney isn’t content merely to see this as an interesting bit of science; he wants to know something a little bit dumber:

Now that the Neanderthal genome has been reconstructed, my colleague Nicholas Wade reports, a leading genome researcher at Harvard says that a Neanderthal could be brought to life with present technology for about $30 million.

So why not do it? Why not give Harvard’s George Church the money he says could be used to resurrect a Neanderthal from DNA?

Um…because they’re human? And we don’t do cloning on humans?

If we discovered a small band of Neanderthals hidden somewhere, we’d do everything to keep them alive, just as we try to keep alive so many other endangered populations of humans and animals — including man-biting mosquitoes and man-eating polar bears. We’ve also spent lots of money reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished. Shouldn’t be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?

Well, you see, John, there’s a difference between preserving a hypothetical existing band of H. s. Neanderthalensis and creating some in a lab. The former is basic decency, the latter is performing genetic experiments on humans.

Granted, it would be disorienting and lonely for the first few Neanderthals, but it would be pretty interesting for them as well as us. (What would a Neanderthal make of Disneyland, or of World of Warcraft?)

Wait, what?

Granted, it would be disorienting and lonely for the first few Neanderthals, but it would be pretty interesting for them as well as us. (What would a Neanderthal make of Disneyland, or of World of Warcraft?)

I’m sorry. Did he just say…

Granted, it would be disorienting and lonely for the first few Neanderthals, but it would be pretty interesting for them as well as us. (What would a Neanderthal make of Disneyland, or of World of Warcraft?)

Excuse me a minute.

John, you do understand that a cloned Neanderthal wouldn’t be a person magically transported from 45,000 BCE, right? You do know that a cloned Neanderthal would be raised, you know, now, right?

Neanderthals were on the same order of intelligence as modern humans. They had larger brains than we do; while that doesn’t mean they were smarter, we do know that they were using stone tools, had control of fire, and buried their dead, sometimes with grave goods, something that suggests the same capacity for abstract thought that is the hallmark of H. sapiens sapiens. We don’t know why they died off; it’s possible they interbred with modern humans until they disappeared, it’s possible that as omnivores, we were better adapted than the apex hunters that were our cousins. It’s possible that our progenitors practiced genocide against the Neanderthals — indeed, it’s possible that a little of all of these contributed to the demise of the species.

The Neanderthals are so similar to modern humans that many scientists don’t classify them as a different species; the biggest differences are things we can’t recreate — their culture. Their worldview. What they thought of the world, and what they thought of us.

We can certainly create a Neanderthal clone, of course, but he or she will be raised by humans. He or she will be suffused in our culture, based in our world. World of Warcraft and Disney World will be no stranger to them than it is to you or I — after all, they’ll grow up with it just like us. Assuming — as most scientists do — that Neanderthals were close to our cognitive equals, a Neanderthal clone would engage with our world somewhere on the continuum between the way a mentally challenged human does and the way a gifted human does.

Except, of course, for the fact that they’ll be raised as freaks, as sideshow attractions for us to poke and prod, to examine and gawk at. They’ll be around not for their own purpose, but for ours. And that, of course, is a barbaric and horrific thing. Would our society give a cloned Neanderthal full rights, if he or she proved to be as capable as your average H. s. sapien, or would we view them always as something other? Would their children be free to chart their own destinies, or would they be the property of the lab that made them?

We generally prohibit genetic manipulation of humans for a reason — humans are intelligent, self-aware creatures, and it is inhuman to experiment on them. This can be taken too far, of course (a stem cell line is not self-aware or intelligent) or not far enough (it’s hard to argue that chimpanzees aren’t self-aware and intelligent), but as a general rule, it’s the right thing.

Neanderthals were humans, as human as you or I. They may be our ancestors — and at the least, they are our closest cousins, the most similar species to ours ever to walk on this world. They lived and died out, as most species do; let us not bring back one of their number, alone and apart from ourselves, simply because we can.

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