I was aghast to read yesterday that a professor at Harvard’s Medical School is seeking a woman to carry the embryo of a Neanderthal baby. George Church believes he can reconstruct the DNA of the Neanderthals, and is seeking a surrogate mother for our extinct human relative.
I am not aghast for religious reasons. I am aghast because I think this reflects a terrifying lack of sensitivity and respect for life. This is a human child Church wants to bring into life. It is not a member of Homo Sapiens, but our cousin Homo Neanderthalis. Folklore represents Neanderthal man rather like a club-wielding thug with limited intelligence.
But archaeology is rendering this characterization as a chauvinist assumption of Homo sapiens rather than the reality. Neanderthalis was a species that buried its dead, made musical instruments, and we are now know interbred in some places with our own species. Either they copied our tools or we copied theirs- probably both. We were cousins. Although we like to point out that the brain of Homo sapiens is bigger than any body else’s, Neanderthal’s brain was larger. There isn’t a lot of evidence that he died out because he wasn’t intelligent enough.
So as a scientific experiment, geneticists are going to try to bring a child of this species to live on our planet. Are there any plans for rearing this human child? Any concerns about its potential isolation? Will it be treated like a laboratory animal subject to experiments and tests all its life? Will it be granted human rights? And what about the “mother”? Having born the child in her womb for presumably nine months, will she then pass it over to – to whom? its presumed owners?
And what might be the benefits if such an experiment were to succeed? Presumably Church believes he will earn a place in history, if not in infamy. But apart from personal gain, are there great scientific benefits that might arise from this endeavour? My own imagination fails to identify potential gains sufficient to justify the attempt.
I hope George Church fails comprehensively and utterly.
Unfortunately, if Church doesn’t do it, that doesn’t mean somebody else won’t.