Hanging out with cavemen

    Remember Jurassic Park? One of the genuinely futuristic things about that book was how the park was populated. The dinosaurs were cloned using DNA extracted from amber-encased mosquitoes, which presumably fed on dinosaur hosts. When necessary, the scientists in the book could also combine dinosaur DNA with amphibian DNA, which apparently serves as a good kind of genetic spackle. The aim was an island-park populated by a dozen or two species of dinosaurs. The result was that the first visitors to the park were all nearly killed when the dinosaurs got out.

    The moral of the story, if such a thing exists anymore, is probably that dead dinosaurs are best left that way. That’s to say nothing of mice, sheep, cats, dogs, horses, deer, endangered cows, consumable plants, and now, perhaps, extinct hominids.

    German scientists are in the planning stages of a project to map the genome of one of our close, dearly departed relatives: Homo neanderthalensis, or just plain Neanderthals for non-anthropology majors. Depending on whom you ask, it may not even really be too close a relative, or, at the other extreme, there may be no significant difference between it and us except for chronology. It is generally accepted that it at least belongs to the same genus as our present species, Homo sapiens, and some consider the species to be indistinguishable from modern humans aside from the short, stout build and pronounced brow-ridge. Put Johannes Neanderthal in a comfortable pair of jeans and a T-shirt, with a fashionable haircut, and some scientists imagine he would blend in perfectly on a crowded New York street corner – smell and all.

    The immediate goal of the project is to detail where modern human DNA intersects and diverges from ancient Neanderthal and chimpanzee DNA. This sort of comparison could tell us everything from Neanderthals’ capacity for things like abstract thought or articulate language to the evolutionary origins of cognitive structures in modern humans. In a simpler way, it will allow us to better define what makes humans human, genetically speaking. The research potentials hold promise for scientists concerned with ancient hominids and scientists still dealing with the troublesome ones we have today. And that’s not even the neatest part.

    Scientists working on the project, such as its leader Svante Paabo, acknowledge that, using a complete Neanderthal genome, it may be possible to clone one of the extinct humans. The method would be very similar to other cloning techniques, where genetic material is injected into a (human) egg, except that the DNA used would be tens of thousands of years old. At this point it remains an unproven hypothesis. Yet it’s not as far-fetched as it would have seemed 16 years ago, when Michael Crichton envisioned a project to resurrect extinct species much like this one. Svante Paabo and other scientists are not concerned with the technical procedure of cloning a Neanderthal, but with the many ramifications of re-introducing this species into existence.

    It obviously poses an interesting ethical problem for geneticists, as the ethical debate over cloned organisms is narcissistically reserved for people; and since time immemorial, people have only been associated with one species. The successful cloning of a Neanderthal would mean that there would be, in the eyes of many, another species of like creatures similar to humans running around with us, and perhaps breeding with us. They would probably eat our food, work our jobs, consume our goods, and learn our culture. Most importantly, they would dislodge humans from their self-imposed position as the center of the universe.

    Our status as the center of the universe has made it quite easy for us to convince ourselves why it is wrong, or at least a bad idea, to tamper with our genes. Being so important, we don’t want to screw anything up. Neanderthals don’t quite fit into that position like we do. The debate of the genetic proximity Neanderthals have to humans aside, we have to recognize that this sort of event could blur lines we never thought existed. It could mean the creation of an equally advanced and competitive species that refuses to mingle with our own, or it could create a planet-wide panic about just such a competition, even if the Neanderthals would gladly integrate with us. Neanderthals may go unnoticed in society, or they may be branded inferiors for one short-sighted reason or another. Ideally, re-introducing Neanderthals would give humans (and Neanderthals) a perspective they desperately need.

    The question of whether we are alone in the universe can be answered for some people by looking at the diversity of life on our planet right now. Others are sure life exists elsewhere. For the rest, it might take an incredible event like the re-creation of a species much like, but still different from, our own to generate this kind of appreciation. If this were the only thing driving such a project, it would be devastating if it failed both the present and would-be species. Our selfish curiosity cannot serve as collateral.

    What we should hope for now is that the project is a success in the first sense; that the billions of necessary DNA sequences get encoded; that we have a detailed genetic picture of Neanderthals. That is the first and only step anyone should feel obliged to take. If it leads to the opportunity to clone a Neanderthal, we should hope that by that time we are ready to assess the social and psychological ramifications for not just us, but for it, a thinking and feeling creature born in a universe with no one else quite like it. All the terrible extremes notwithstanding, humans won’t live billions of years to see the planet and its inhabitants irreverently swallowed up by the sun when it dies, and could use the shock of their own particularity and insignificance. Whether it will be right to make use of another species to do this, a species that may very well be plagued with the same existential dilemmas, remains to be seen.