The internet has been abuzz over a Daily Mail article, "Wanted: 'Adventurous woman' to give birth to Neanderthal man — Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby." The Havard professor is geneticist George Church who denies that he is currently pursuing any such research. Church is the mastermind behind the Personal Genome Project* that is aiming to sign up 100,000 people willing to provide their genomes and medical histories to researchers.
Church believes that the rumor got started through a bad translation/misinterpretation of an interview that he gave the German magazine Der Spiegel. Church insists:
"I'm certainly not advocating it," Church said. "I'm saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today."
In my 2009 column, "Neanderthal Rights" I explore the morality of genetically resurrecting our closest evolutionary cousins. I concluded:
So what if we bring back Neanderthals and it turns out that their intellectual capacities are so dissimilar from ours that they cannot cope successfully with modern life? Should we control their fertility so that they go extinct again? This comes uncomfortably close to the eugenic arguments used to justify sterilizing people who were deemed mentally defective in the 20th century. Or perhaps Neanderthals could be placed in reservations where they would be allowed to develop without further interference from modern humans. Would this be akin to confining them to a zoo?
One science fiction trope says that it is impossible for two intelligent species to evolve simultaneously on the same planet since one would inevitably out-compete the other. This may have happened on our planet. Neanderthals disappeared around the same time that modern humans began to move into their territory. New research suggests that our ancestors killed them off. Perhaps we should use modern science to resurrect Neanderthals in order to right an ancestral wrong.
Just because these moral conundrums cannot be answered in advance is not a good enough reason to preclude future efforts to clone Neanderthals. The only way to find out what rights Neanderthals should have is to bring them back into our world.
For what it's worth, 23andMe tells me that about 2.7 percent of my genes are likely derived from a Neanderthal ancestor.
Disclosure: I am a participant in the Personal Genome Project.