21st Century Neanderthals

Should we bring back our extinct relatives?

A few months ago, I pondered what it would have been like if other species within the genus Homo had survived into contemporary times. Over the past 100,000 years, several members within our genus became evolutionary dead ends as a result of our global conquest. I proposed that we should view these past events as “fortunate extinctions.”

Why?

Well, our species has a long and disturbing history of cultural, ethnic, and racial conflict. Throughout history we were barely able to tolerate different groups within our species. What would modern era war mongers like Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao have thought of sharing this planet with another species?

My guess is that they wouldn’t have thought very highly of them.

That is why a part of me cringed when I heard that Harvard geneticist and synthetic biology pioneer George Church said he was close to bringing a Neanderthal into the 21st century (cue the redundant media coverage). Here is Church’s explanation of how it could be done:

The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.

After the media’s reaction to these statements, Church was quick to emphasize that he is not looking for an “adventurous female” to carry a Neanderthal:

I’m certainly not advocating it. I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.

There has been little insightful analysis and discussion about what bringing a Neanderthal into the modern world would mean for our species. Until now, Neanderthals have been the object of evolutionary anthropological inquiry and the creations of science fiction writers. Can they actually be members of our human-machine civilization?

According to Church, Neanderthals would be welcomed and would be good for society because they would increase diversity. I’m all for diversity, and I believe we can prevent people from ‘othering’ through education, but I really don’t think we are ready to live in a multi-intelligent species world.

I am open-minded enough to admit that I could be wrong on this one. I may even be in the minority. I’m sure lots of people love the idea of sharing this world with Neanderthals. And maybe Church is right and Neanderthals would offer us a new perspective and a new way to see the world that will benefit our species. But if history is any indication, there is a good chance that conflict would win the day. Of course, tolerance of difference is measurably increasing throughout the world. Stephen Pinker eloquently explained this in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. However, religious bigotry, homophobia, and racial and ethnic tension are still major issues throughout the world. How would most people treat another species? And would Neanderthals struggle to find an identity in a world dominated by Homo sapiens?

These are important questions to ponder.

For the record, this perspective is not coming from a luddite. I believe technology is going to dramatically change what it means to be human this century. Synthetic biology will be a part of this revolution (I have Church’s new book and I am ready to learn more about what role it will play in my life this century). I don’t think we should fear or prevent technological progress (I did request to join Svbtle after all!). I just think we should learn from history and make a prudent, well-informed decision before we bring the Palaeolithic into the Anthropocene. If Dr. Church is looking for thoughtful discussion regarding this issue, this is my two cents.

 
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