I was trolling the Internet last week, looking for articles about Neanderthal cloning, and came across a rather bizarre claim about ethics and science. Why was I looking for material about Neanderthal cloning? Ed Green, who ran the bioinformatics portion of the Neanderthal Genome Project, was hired by UCSC last year and is visiting my bioethics class next week.
The argument, proposed by Harvard genomicist George Church, goes something like this: the morally problematic aspect of cloning a Neanderthal is that the easiest way to achieve it would be insert the cloned Neanderthal DNA into a human oocyte and bring the Neanderthal baby to term in a human body. It is highly problematic (or at least guaranteed to create a firestorm of controversy) to tinker with a human genome in such a way. So, in order to clone a Neanderthal ethically, we could use genetic engineering to make tens of thousands of minor changes to a chimpanzee genome to make a chimpanzee cell identical to a Neanderthal genome, denucleate that cell, and insert the cell into a denucleated chimpanzee egg cell. Then we could use a female chimpanzee body to bring the Neanderthal baby to term, and study the Neanderthal in a lab as it grows up. This is an incredibly challenging technical solution to this “problem” and would involve impressive feats of bioengineering.
This could be done, he said, by splitting the human genome into 30,000 chunks about 100,000 DNA units in length. Each chunk would be inserted into bacteria and converted to the Neanderthal equivalent by changing the few DNA units in which the two species differ. The changed lengths of DNA would then be reassembled into a full Neanderthal genome. To avoid ethical problems, this genome would be inserted not into a human cell but into a chimpanzee cell.
The chimp cell would be reprogrammed to embryonic state and used to generate, in a chimpanzee’s womb, a mutant chimp embryo that was a Neanderthal in many or most of its features.
Dr. Church acknowledged that ethical views on such an experiment would vary widely. But bringing a Neanderthal to birth, he said, would satisfy the human desire to communicate with other intelligences.
In other words, scientific ethics consists entirely of the regulation of what we can do to human bodies. Everything else is just a technical problem. To make an experiment “ethical,” all you need to do is not mess with “the human.”
Neanderthals were likely nearly as intelligent as modern humans, used complex tools, are members of the Homo genus (Homo neanderthalis) lived in small societies, had spoken language, and interbred with early humans in Europe (a core insight from Green’s research). In other words, a Neanderthal would be a “person” according to most classifications of “personhood” in moral philosophy. The idea of creating a fragile, error-ridden genome for a single member of an extinct, highly social and intelligent species just for the edification of our research itch ought to be repellent. Not to mention the sorts of traumas inflected on the research chimpanzees in such a scenario. Yet the philosophical tools available to folks like Church are so constrained that they do not see this.
Why is this little interlude from research a few years old so important? Church runs the Personal Genome Project, one of the human genomics projects that is rapidly altering the ways we think about human biosociality. Church explicitly proposes treating humans as model organisms — only by changing our outmoded models of privacy can we achieve progress in human genomics. Thus the PGP asks participants (they aim to recruit 10,000 volunteers) to put their entire genome sequence and their medical and genealogical records in open databases. Thus, Church is involved in a massive experiment in research ethics. How can we expect this experiment to turn out if these are the limited tools available to him?
On a side note, the New York Times science columnist John Tierney asks an award-winningly ridiculous question:
Granted, it would be disorienting and lonely for the first few Neanderthals, but it would be pretty interesting for them as well as us. (What would a Neanderthal make of Disneyland, or of World of Warcraft?)
Sigh. A Neanderthal is unlikely to have any feelings about Disneyland that we don’t have (as if ‘we’ humans think about Disneyland in only one way). Does he think cloned Neanderthal genomes will have memories of cave paintings and wooly mammoths?