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.