Because we can—but should we? This is technological ethics in a nutshell. While we are still debating what it means to be human and the majority of people in the world address that question in religious terms, is it right to play with our own genetics? This is an unavoidable question when considering George Church’s search for a volunteer. Church, currently at the Harvard School of Medicine, would like to grow a Neanderthal baby. With DNA extracted from fossils, it is theoretically possible to clone a Neanderthal with a loving mommy. The usual argument against human cloning is, well, it’s human. Neanderthals are often considered not-quite-human, although our common ancestors hung together in the biological family tree much longer than our chimpanzee cousins. I still recall from my school days that a Neanderthal dressed in a suit and put on the streets of New York City would pass for a large, barrel-chested human. I think I may have seen him on my way to work once or twice, in fact.
Genetics are ethically frightening because they go down to the level of what used to be called essences. Some scientists today dispute that there is anything called an essence; all we have is building blocks. What you make of those blocks contains no essence—you can’t see it in a microscope or cyclotron, or spin it out of DNA. Therefore it must not exist. If there is no human essence, what is the problem with experimenting around a bit? Funnily enough, the question of natural selection enters into this equation. In the arboreal climes of Pleistocene Europe Homo sapiens sapiens bested their big-breasted cousins in the struggle for survival. Would the same be true in our technological era of easy obesity where work is considered tapping on a keyboard all day? After all, Neanderthals had bigger brain capacity—are we ready for that kind of competition? Neanderthal economics might take care of the one percenters even.
I have no insight to offer on such a thorny ethical issue. I do, however, believe in essences. I’ve never seen or measured one, but even concepts like good and evil are meaningless without their essences. What is the essence of a Neanderthal? I suppose it is such a question that leads Dr. Church to seek a volunteer to bring one back into the twenty-first century world. I have to admit I’m a little curious too. Just think of all the opportunities for cute commericals. Still, if natural selection already vetoed the race, maybe we should abide by that decision. This time around we might find ourselves on the losing end—who knows what Neanderthal ethics consist of? Secretly I think their essence might just be trickle down economics and they’ve been among us all along.