Several years ago, a group of people from the now-defunct company Genetic Savings & Clone paid a visit to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. They were in the early days of trying to clone pets, and the purpose of their visit turned out to be a request to purchase the “bits” from our spay/neuter clinic.
Their leader arrived late, had a rather supercilious air about him, and seemed to think that the major virtue of a sanctuary that was taking in homeless dogs and cats was to be a supplier of “bits” for their version of high-minded science.
They left empty-handed, but must have gotten their “bits” elsewhere because they soon came up with CC (short for “Copy Cat”), the first cloned cat. The fact that CC, a gray-and-white kitten, bore little resemblance to her mother, Rainbow, a calico, didn’t get in the way of promising gullible people that they could sort of get their dead pets back, and although Genetic Savings & Clone went out of business a few years later, the cloning pets business is still alive and well, especially among people who are prepared to pay six-figure sums to achieve the illusion of resurrecting their dead dog or cat.
(The real price, as paid by the animals involved in the cloning business, is much higher. The survival rate of the babies is low, many of them come out deformed, and the mothers, too, suffer. But all this is kept hidden from a gullible public.)
The cloning-cum-genetic-modification industry has come a long way over the last few years. Old-style cows have been repurposed to produce “human” milk. There’s talk of cloning extinct, prehistoric animals – and of cloning soon-to-be-extinct animals like elephants.
And lately, there’s growing discussion of cloning Neanderthals.
This came to a head, last week, when Germany’s Spiegel magazine published an interview with George Church, a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, who suggested that the best reason for cloning Neanderthals would be to increase human genetic diversity:
“The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.”
In other words, Prof. Church is going to save the human race from extinction by cloning Neanderthals and having us mate with them. He also thinks that the technology to accomplish this will be available in the reasonably near future.
While the the world of bioethicists is generally AWOL when it comes to ruling on what’s ethically acceptable for vivisectionists to do to unconsenting nonhumans, many of the supposed watchdogs (mostly intellectual clones of each other) have at least emerged over the last week to voice their concern over cloning Neanderthals. Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, argues that “there is no pressing need or remarkable benefit to undertaking such a project.”
At best it might shed some light on the biology and behavior of a distant ancestor. At worst it would be nothing more than the ultimate reality television show exploitation: An “Octomom”-like surrogate raises a caveman child — tune in next week to see what her new boyfriend thinks when she tells him that there is a tiny addition in her life and he carries a small club and a tiny piece of flint to sleep with him.
The downsides of trying to clone a Neanderthal include a good chance of killing it, producing a baby that is seriously deformed, producing a baby that lacks immunity to infectious diseases and foods that we have gotten used to, an inability to know what environment to create to permit the child to flourish and a complete lack of understanding of what sort of behavior is “normal” or “appropriate” for such a long-extinct cousin hominid of ours.
… It would take a mighty big guarantee of benefit to justify this cloning experiment.
But that little exit door – that it would take “a mighty big guarantee of benefit” – is precisely what justifies the fact that at Dr. Caplan’s medical center there are, at any given time, thousands of animals being used in vivisection experiments. And all over the country, animals like these live their entire lives for the sole purpose of being subjected to painful, invasive experimentation – including cloning. (Most the animals at NYU’s Langone Medical Center drowned when Hurricane Sandy flooded the building and other laboratories, and the scientists lamented the terrible loss of “valuable resources.” But you can be sure they’re being replaced as quickly as possible.)
Still, it’s good that Dr. Caplan and other bioethicists at least draw the line somewhere:
… Even justifying trying to resurrect a woolly mammoth, or a mastodon, or the dodo bird or any other extinct animal gets ethically thorny. How many failures would be acceptable to get one viable mastodon? Where would the animal live? What would we feed it? Who would protect it from poachers, gawkers and treasure hunters?
And in a separate column in Science, Dr. Caplan continues:
What would life be for a cloned Neanderthal baby? Created not out of love but only as a science experiment, the child would be subject to endless inquiry and observation by doctors and scientists eager to know the past through the baby, but not especially interested in the baby for the baby’s sake.
Making Neanderthals — or, for that matter, dinosaurs or mastodons or any other ancient creature — sounds cool. But it is actually far more likely to be cruel. Cloning cannot bring back the dead or the extinct. It is neither safe enough nor ethical enough to be worth trying.
(The same, of course, is true for all the animals – especially chimpanzees, monkeys, pigs, dogs, cats, mice, chickens … well, all of them.)
Prof. Church, meanwhile, has noted that when he had his own genome sequenced, he learned that he is already 3.8 percent Neanderthal. Most of us modern humans have Neanderthal genes in us – the result of interbreeding among our ancestors thousands of years ago. Humans with the least, if any, Neanderthal genes are Africans, whose ancestors never migrated out of Africa at the time of the Neanderthals. Almost all the rest of us have varying amounts of Neanderthal within us.
Church managed to inflame public opinion when he explained how the cloning process would work. In his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, he wrote that he’d be looking for “an extremely adventurous female human” to serve as a surrogate mother.
He gets some backing for this in a column by Kyle Munkittrick in Discover magazine two years ago, which argues that we should go right ahead and clone Neanderthals. After posing various ethical questions, like “If human rights are based on being human, what rights would a cloned Neanderthal have?” Munkittrick writes:
The problem is, of course, that we don’t have a cloned Neanderthal. Which is why we need to make one.
Admitting that “[this] argument may seem absurd and offensive at first,” Munkittrick ploughs on regardless:
We know we are capable of studying chimps and apes outside of their natural habitat without causing them harm or reducing their quality of life flagrantly … The very purpose of cloning a Neanderthal would be to see where it fits in our mental development.
Before any “real” Neanderthal clone were born, hundreds would have been aborted, born hideously deformed, and would have caused medical harm to the surrogate mother.But of course, chimpanzees are horribly harmed by the experiments being conducted on them in laboratories around the country. Indeed the only countries in the world that are still using them in experiments are the United States and Gabon. Our own National Institutes of Health is now pushing forward to bring an end to some (not all) of the use of chimpanzees in vivisection.
In any case, before any “real” Neanderthal clone were to be born, dozens, possibly hundreds, would have been aborted, born hideously deformed, and caused medical harm to the surrogate mother. Such has been the history of all cloning endeavors. And such is the daily routine in all vivisection – of mice, of chimpanzees, and of the humans who have also been subjected to involuntary experimentation.
Even setting aside the ethical concerns, there’s no real possibility that cloning a Neanderthal from her ancestral genetic material would produce a true Neanderthal today – any more than cloning a cat produces the same cat.
Cat behaviorist Sophia Yin, DVM. MS, writes that so much of a cat’s nature and personality is the result not of its genetic makeup, but of all the many influences that come to bear on her, beginning in the womb:
Personality is where one might expect the largest gaps to emerge, since a myriad of factors dramatically alter behavioral development. These influences start in the womb with factors as simple as nutrition.
… Even within the same maternal environment, kittens can develop differently. Females born nestled between two males within the womb experience a testosterone bath which leads to masculinization of their brains. In dogs, where this effect has been studied, such females turn tomboy. Some lift their legs to urinate and develop a strong desire to sniff everything in their environment. Once the youngsters are born, their environment becomes even more diverse and differences can quickly be amplified.
… The take home message with CC is that cloning will not resurrect your pet. Instead, you would be more likely to get something that looked similar to your beloved pet but that acted quite differently, or your clone could even end up looking like a complete stranger. Now that would be a dream, turned nightmare!
Similarly, what influences would come to bear on a genetic Neanderthal coming to term in a modern human mother, and with absolutely no relationship to a family of her own kind once she were born? We don’t know, and we don’t need to know.
They cannot accept that every individual life ends, and that this is a natural, indeed a central fact of existence.
People who pay big bucks to get a beloved pet cloned have a fundamentally unhealthy relationship to life and death. They cannot accept that every individual life ends, and that this is a natural, indeed a central fact of existence. All that lives dies, and in dying we all give life to new life. Humans overall have enormous difficulty accepting this. We live in constant anxiety about our own mortality, and we project this anxiety into almost all human activity.
When Prof. Church and others offer, as a reason for cloning Neanderthals, that this may help save the human race from extinction, they simply betray their deeper anxieties about their own mortality.
The best way – probably the only way – we have of mitigating the danger of bringing on our own extinction is to protect and to value the lives of all the other animals with whom we share this planet, rather than ever more desperately looking to them as laboratory specimens that can somehow save us from our own nature.