Better think twice about cloning the Neanderthal
By Andy Ho Senior Writer
HUMAN cloning is outlawed in Singapore, as it is in Britain, the United States and elsewhere.
But what about cloning Neanderthals?
The whole Neanderthal genome, which is 99.7 per cent identical to that of humans, was mapped in 2010.
Recently, Harvard professor of genetics George Church caused a furore when he was mistranslated in a German interview as looking for a woman willing to carry the pregnancy of a Neanderthal clone to term. He later insisted: "I'm saying, if it is technically possible some day, we need to start talking about (its ethical implications) today."
The Neanderthals lived in Ice Age Europe and western Asia, across to southern Siberia and down to the Middle East. They died out some 28,000 years ago.
So how can a Neanderthal be cloned? Prof Church proposed to assemble a Neanderthal genome inside a human stem cell. This is technologically not feasible at present. Perhaps one day, scientists may be able to instead just edit the human genome in a human stem cell to change it into a Neanderthal genome. Perhaps such an edited human stem cell with a Neanderthal genome could be implanted into an early human embryo called the blastocyst, which would then grow with Neanderthal cells instead of human ones. Next the embryo would be implanted into a willing woman's womb as in any in-vitro fertilisation procedure.
But there will be epigenetic differences between Neanderthals and humans. These are changes induced by the environment that decide, without making any changes to the genome itself, which parts of the genome are read or not read.
Potentially, then, how a cell acts can be changed by tweaking its epigenetics instead of its genome. But we cannot replicate its original environment, so the child that is born will not bear Neanderthal epigenetics, only human ones. Therefore it will be only a neo-Neanderthal, not a born-and-bred one.
And for the sake of ethics, the question has to be asked: Will it then have human rights?
People take their humanity for granted, but no law defines what a human is. The question is whether editing the human genome by 0.3 per cent so it becomes a Neanderthal genome would cross some abstract threshold that renders it no longer human.
US precedent suggests it would not.
In 1997, New York Medical College cell biology professor Stuart Newman was denied a patent for the genome of a human-chimpanzee hybrid he created on paper as it would violate the constitutional prohibition against slavery.
Now if US law recognises a "humanzee" as being endowed with human rights, it seems likely that a neo-Neanderthal would be too. (Both Neanderthal and human genomes are 98.8 per cent identical to the chimpanzee genome.)
However, the neo-Neanderthal child would not grow up in a true-blue Neanderthal culture. You would need to clone a whole tribe of them if they are to have a peer group of sorts and put them in some secluded colony of forest or cave dwellers. Would they then be monitored remotely by scientists like animals in a zoo?
Trying to create a Neanderthal culture for them is the chief ethical concern. Unlike cloned sheep or dogs, Neanderthals were intelligent beings who made tools and likely had some language. This suggests that neo-Neanderthals are likely to understand how humans treat them. And we might treat them badly as it is possible that they might evoke in us what is called "the uncanny valley".
This is the creepiness we feel around those very lifelike robots Japan is fascinated with and fast producing these days. When androids look somewhat human, but are obviously not, like C-3PO in Star Wars, say, we find them adorable. But when they get too human-like and yet are not fully human, they evoke revulsion in most people.
The "valley" refers to the dip in a graph that maps how comfortable we might be against an android's human likeness, a term suggested by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s.
It is likely that neo-Neanderthals may evoke the uncanny valley in us, as Indiana University's Android Science Centre has found it is not so much the overall degree of human likeness but mismatches that matter. A mismatch like fully human skin texture with very protuberant eyes, say, would freak us out. The Neanderthal genome suggests they had brown hair and brown skin but how their eyes looked is unknown.
Presumably, at some point, neo-Neanderthals will be taught human language, spoken or signed. The consequences of this will far outweigh any biological consideration.
According to Significant Others: The Ape- Human Continuum And The Quest For Human Nature (2001) by Mr Craig Stanford, once gorillas and chimpanzees are taught some sign language, they can improvise somewhat without further human instruction.
Such improvisations enable these animals to communicate with their human teachers even better over time. So acquiring even rudimentary language ability can lead to further cross-species communication.
Some great apes and chimps that have learnt to use sign language constitute a class of non-humans that can communicate with us more than their species have been able to do, historically speaking: They have not been known to develop, on their own initiative, any form of sign language that may be used to communicate with humans. Yet these animals are kept away under lock and key in laboratories. Would treating neo-Neanderthals that way be acceptable?
By blurring the category called "human", this cloning poses the question of what makes us human, the answer to which is not biological but cultural. And culture flows from kinship ties, which suggests that we will make neo-Neanderthals human if we treat them as such or, alternatively, sub-human if we treat them accordingly.
Yet difficulties remain: Who will raise the first cohort? How and what will they teach them? What environment will this be carried out in? And who is qualified to answer such questions? All in all, recreating Neanderthals in a world that is no longer theirs would seem to be quite unwise.