Why We Should Worry about Neanderthal Clones

Should we clone Neanderthals?  That’s the provocative question that science writer and editor Zach Zorich poses in the forthcoming issue of Archaeology,  hitting the news stand on February 15th.  I received an advance copy late last week and read Zorich’s article this weekend. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since, and already I have arrived at my own  answer.  No.  No.  NO.

First of all,  I should point out that this is not a pie-in-the-sky question.  Zorich interviewed an impressive A-list of researchers–including geneticists who are sequencing the Neanderthal genome and leading paleoanthropologists who study ancient hominins–and some clearly believe that a cloned Neanderthal awaits us somewhere down the line.

So it’s not too early to begin thinking and debating about the ethics of cloning one of our hominin kin.  While some researchers champion the idea out of pure scientific curiosity and the desire to learn more about an extinct hominin,  I think it’s a terrible idea.  I simply don’t trust my fellow Homo sapiens sapiens to treat another hominin with kindness and respect.  Our track record with other primates, for example,  is appalling–using chimpanzees for circus shows and laboratory experimentation, hunting gorillas for meat,  and killing orangutan mothers  in order to sell their babies as pets.

And here’s something else that worries me about a Neanderthal clone.  In the 1920s, the Soviet leader  Josef  Stalin ordered the researcher who perfected the technique of artificial insemination,  Ilya Ivanov,  to create a “living war machine. ”  Ivanov’s brief, as American writer Charles Siebert reports  in his remarkable book, The Wachula Woods Accord,  was to artificially inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm to create a new hybrid.

Stalin dreamed of a large,  invincible Red Army and a vast slave workforce to carry out his Five Year Plans.  He thought a chimp-human hybrid would serve admirably. According to Russian newspapers,  Stalin told Ivanov “I want a new invincible human being insensitive to pain,  resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

Ivanov failed miserably to produce such chimp-human hybrid, though he certainly tried.   In 1930s,  the biologist fell from political grace and was exiled to Kazakhstan in one of the many purges of the time.

All this strikes me as an important cautionary tale.   What if one of the world’s dictators  got it into his head to clone Neanderthals as slave laborers or a new kind of soldier, one physically stronger than modern humans?   It sounds far fetched,  I know.  But I don’t think we can blithely ignore the lessons of history.


  1. I think you are right. Cloning a Neanderthal would be even less ethical than cloning a human, because there would be less empathy for the clone so a far higher probability of ill treatment.

    But I’m sure someone burning of curiosity (or something) will do it, so we should also ponder the question “What do we do if we find out someone has?” I’d suggest requiring the Neanderthal be put up for adoption and legally treated as a human orphan. I’d also say that the researchers who did the work should be sanctioned as the Nazi scientists were.

  2. Joanna:

    Yes, I think it’s a good idea to start talking about the what-if scenario now. I really like your idea of sanctioning the researchers– barring them from academic positions and publishing on their cloning project. Am not quite so sure about the legal adoption procedure. How could we ensure that a family treats its Neanderthal child like one of its own, and doesn’t go out later and, say, sign a deal for their own reality television program or some other form of circus display?

  3. Hi Heather,

    Adoption has historically, occassionally lead to all kinds of abuse, but modern adoption techniques exist for very, very careful screening of potential parents. I’m sure parents could be found that convinced everyone concerned that they considered it their ethical duty to raise the child to the best of their ability. Personally, I also suspect that the child could “pass” as human — well, a healthy “average” Neanderthal would be likely to fall broadly within the range of existing human variation. I think clones are still susceptible to a low probability of health though?

    If we could get the scientific and/or legal community to stipulate the sanctions now though, we might head off the problem. Maybe something for the UN or ICC. Who set the sanctions after WWII?

  4. Here’s the answer to your WW II question. Immediately after war, the new military governments (American, British etc.) in Germany set up denazification tribunals to identify and punish the most dangerous Nazis. Every person who held public office or aspired to hold a public office was required to fill out a detailed questionnaire concerning his or her involvement with Nazi politics. The tribunals hired 22,000 people to assess the questionnaires and classify individuals into one of five categories, ranging from “exonorated” to “major offender.” The tribunals could then impose a wide range of penalties on those in the three most serious categories. These punishments included being barred from an academic position for at least five years or hard time — up to ten years’ imprisonment in a work camp.

    I’d welcome an international convention on cloning humans and hominins, with real teeth for enforcement.

  5. There is a non-trivial movement to have the Great Apes defined under law as “persons” with attendant “human” rights. I believe the jury is still out on whether neanderthals are Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, or Homo neanderthalensis: species vs. subspecies.

    Either way, it would seem possible to be proactively inclusive and that any member of genus Homo, or even member of a subspecies of Homo sapiens, to be defined as a “human being”.

    That is, a Neanderthals are Persons and Have Rights movement comparable to http://www.greatapeproject.org/

  6. Lisa

    Interesting post, but how likely is this, really? I would be more worried about the possibility of cloning modern humans first, before extinct species. It seems as if we are pretty far away from doing this.

    However, in the event that this happens, I doubt Neanderthals or cloned non-human apes and other beings will be counted as “human” and not patented genes or other property. Currently, scientists are patenting genes and lab creations right and left. No one has yet to challenge this process successfully. If someone popped up tomorrow with a cloned Neanderthal, then it would likely not be considered (a) human, or (b) a thing with civil or human rights. It would probably be considered property of some corporation.

  7. Zach Zorich

    I had a lot of the same questions that you all have raised when I started researching my article, which will be posted at http://www.archaeology.org around noon tomorrow (2/10/10). I think I touched on most of the points you have raised, but it is a magazine article and therefore I had a limited amount of space to explore these issues.

    Regarding Joanna’s question about clone health, yes, clones do tend to have health problems. The clone’s lungs are often underdeveloped and the newborns are usually very large, which can lead to complications with the delivery as well as physical problems for the clone. In the article, I cover a new and relatively untested method for creating clones that may prevent these health problems.

    One of the problems with legislating against cloning is that many of the technologies that could be used for cloning were actually developed for medical research. It is very difficult to draw a line between the research that is creating cures for diseases and the research that would allow someone to create a Neanderthal clone. Many nations are not willing to enact a total ban on cloning technologies because it would mean losing out on important medical advances. The United Nations has already failed to enact a legal ban on cloning for this reason. It is worth pointing out, however, that scientists have succeeded where governments have failed. Geneticists around the world recognize the ethical problems with human cloning and have enacted what amounts to a ban on the practice. Every scientist I spoke with for the article understands and respects the ethical dilemmas associated with cloning a Neanderthal, which surprised me because I didn’t think it was a thing many people were thinking about.

    To some extent I disagree with Heather’s comparison that creating a Neanderthal clone is similar to Stalin’s desire to create an army of “humanzees.” This isn’t some mad scientist’s scenario for world domination. There is some important and potentially life-saving research to be done that will involve developing technologies that could be used to make a human or Neanderthal clone. The discussion that needs to take place is how far should that research go.

    I know Heather’s discussion of the “denazification” tribunals probably comes from the research she did for her book on Hitler’s archaeologists, but I don’t think it is a fair comparison. People who work with technologies that can be used for cloning are doing legitimate medical research. This issue is more nuanced than it may seem, and it is going to take careful deliberation to figure out a way forward that doesn’t involve letting people die from preventable diseases or devaluing human life. I don’t think limiting academic freedom through heavy handed legal measures is going to do the trick.

  8. […] after reading an article Zach Zorich wrote for Archaeology magazine. Today Zach left a thoughtful response in the comments section of that post,  raising a number of key points.  I’d like to […]

  9. I don’t think that the problem Zach mentions about blocking medical research by banning the birth of a Neanderthal would be a problem in any country sufficiently secular to sensibly discriminate whether a cloned entity is sufficiently developed to be cognizant. I think the ethical problems kick in only when a hominid clone is brought to full term.

  10. Marc

    I would agree with Lisa’s point: it’s much more likely that someone would clone a human and tweak the much-better-known genes there to get a “superhuman” than to have someone fiddling with Neanderthal genes.

    I must say I am very intrigued by the possibilities. If rights could be protected (as qmackie suggests) then I think we could learn a lot from such experimentation.

  11. Marc: I think it’s far easier to draw up legislation to protect human or sapient rights than it is to enforce these rights. Even the word Neanderthal has come to mean “brutish”: I can’t imagine the discrimination and rejection that a Neanderthal might face in our society.

  12. […] regular readers will know, I take an interest in Neandertal research,  and I have written here and here on the ethical debate now stirring over possible future cloning of Neandertals.   And […]

  13. Eléonore

    I want to add that more than the cloning health issues, the biggest problem would be if neandertal really hasnt got the brains to handle all the actual education he would receive. Any way if he gets to see the light of of day, it means we were compatible. If he’s able to be left alone with a family of his own he could fit, but imagine him in his 20s finding out he’s a disappeared species !! How could he handle modern competitivity that already brings a sapiens down. I mean the modern world is already too much for most of us to take. I guess that means I don’t agree, although I ‘d really like to know.

Comments are closed.