Neanderthals have been extinct for less than 33,000 years, and one Harvard scientist (Professor George Church) thinks it’s about time to bring them back. George Church is a geneticist and professor of synthetic biology, and his idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might believe.
Neanderthals are extremely closely related to modern Homo sapiens – in fact, there is actually a debate about whether they are a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis) or simply a subspecies (Homo sapiens neaderthalensis). There is also genetic evidence that there may have been interbreeding between Neanderthals and our own Cro-Magnon ancestors. Although Neanderthals were born with a similar brain size to ours, by adulthood it was larger. They were also stronger and slightly shorter — although current average heights make the assumption of proper diet, and that was not necessarily the case thousands of years ago. The brain size to body size ratio seems to be important in determining intelligence among mammals, so there is a significant possibility that they could be smarter than we are — or have a very different way of looking at things.
Professor Church’s methodology is certainly feasible. The plan would be to use fossil samples (samples aren’t even that comparatively old, so DNA is present) to recreate the DNA structure of the species, and the DNA would then be placed into stem cells which would go on to be placed into a human embryo. The embryo would be put into a human female — hence the need for an “adventurous” one.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel as reported by The Raw Story, he stated:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?
Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?
I strongly suggest you read the Spiegel article; it is in English and is extremely interesting.
There are, of course, many ethical considerations before such a thing is even attempted; it’s also illegal to attempt to clone a human in most countries. But is a Neanderthal human? That’s one question.Another is whether you can attempt it with the almost certain knowledge that it will probably take multiple attempts, which translates to deaths. Clones don’t have the same disease resistances and immunities, and have historically been plagued (no pun intended) with health issues. Success rates are very low when it comes to cloning mammals.
Another problem is the situation for the Neanderthal child (and future adult) should the experiment be successful. What sort of life would he live? Being the only one of your kind, not to mention a scientific experiment, would be a very lonely experience. Knowing that you exist as an object of curiosity could be very painful. Or, as Church said:
“They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.”
Whatever the debates will be on this topic later, the fact remains that the technology is there — or at least extremely close.
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