Politics, Science and the Cloning of Neanderthals

As some of you will know,  I posted yesterday on the ethics of cloning a Neanderthal,  a subject I have been thinking about 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 reply.

But first let me briefly summarize  Zach’s remarks. He notes that all the researchers he interviewed for the piece are well aware of the ethical dilemmas of such cloning and that each had given serious thought to these matters–even though such clones are clearly somewhere off in the future.

Then Zach took exception to the comparison I made between the science of creating a Neanderthal clone and Stalin’s desire to fabricate an army of “humanzees”,  human-chimpanzee hybrids.   As Zach points out, “this isn’t some mad scientist’s scenario for world domination.”  Cloning research, he points out, is part and parcel of a larger picture of legitimate medical research,  and any heavy-handed legislation to prevent Neanderthal cloning could wreak havoc with projects designed to extend and protect human life.

I see Zach’s points here, and I share his concerns about heavy-handed legislation.  I’d hate to see a law block an entire line of desperately needed medical research.  But having said that,  I still can’t shake off my anxiety about what could happen further down the road if and when science is indeed capable of cloning a Neanderthal.

Even well-meaning scientists, after all,  are unable to foresee all the consequences of their research,  as some have discovered to their rue.   In the 1960s,  for example, Norwegian researchers developed a new and very lucrative technology for ocean net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon.  So great were the profit margins that a bedazzled Canadian government agreed to permit the same technology–with the same fish–on the British Columbia coast.  Large corporations began farming Atlantic salmon in pens off the British Columbia coast in 1984, leading to the escape of tens of thousands of these alien fish into the  Pacific Ocean.  Today Atlantic salmon gobble up wild food and threaten native salmon species.

So even when guided by the best of all possible intentions,  scientists can create futures they never envisioned.  And it seems to me that when the stakes include the creation of another of our close human relatives that we need to exercise extra special care.  I think that means taking  into account worse -case scenarios, even one as dire as the intentional creation of Neanderthal clones by a malevolent political regime for the purpose of slave labor.

As Zach notes in his comments (and  I should mention in the interests of full disclosure that I know Zach and that he is my editor at Archaeology), my worst-case scenarios do indeed draw on the research I did for my book on Hitler’s archaeologists.  In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly during my four years of research and writing on the book was how terribly susceptible science is to political influence.

Most scientists need laboratories,  expensive research equipment,  and academic appointments  in order to pursue their research.  Corrupt regimes know this and they reward pliable scientists with prestigious jobs and ample research funds.  Conversely, they weed out their opponents from universities and cut off their research funding.  In Nazi Germany,  these simple strategies convinced many scientists to pursue lines of state-approved racial research that they would probably have never considered otherwise.   It could certainly happen again.

All this is to say I’m very uneasy with where this cloning research might lead us in the years to come.  I’d like to see legislators at the UN draw a line in the sand.  Cloning research for medical purposes is an important pursuit.  I’m all in favor of it.   But we should never allow cloning experiments to create Neanderthals.


  1. 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.

    1. Yes, that certainly seems like a reasonable place to draw the line.

  2. Dan Hilborn

    Cloning is not the only concern. The Nazis also toyed with eugenics – the science of selective breeding to ‘improve’ the human race.

    And eugenics has a long history in Canada. Here’s an interesting article on the subject from the Canadian Encyclopedia.


    1. Dan, are you suggesting that some researchers could conceivably begin to selectively breed viable Neanderthals for particular traits? I.e. stronger and more muscular Neanderthals for a slave labor force? That kind of thing?

  3. Heather, you are exactly right about the subtle ways in which institutions are shaped by the flow of money and research funding. The Nazis are a vivid example of course, but even here in Canada the government recently redirected a portion of graduate student funding to student projects which had a theme or focus on business, leaving less for the rest. It is a true slippery slope and with all respect to Zach, it is those on the slippery slopes who are least able to see where they are going. It is not a case of mad scientists at all, but an all too human story of ambition, and passion, and the magnificent obsessions which drive great intellects, sometimes to the exclusion of social perspective.

    This is why declaring Neanderthals (and, I would hope, Great Apes) to be “human beings” or even “sapient beings” would help: cloning research could continue under exactly those constraints that pertain to research on human beings, rather than those which might pertain to sheep, or rats, or fruit flies.

  4. Dan Hilborn

    Anything is (and must be) possible in theoretical science.

    I was just trying to point out the fact that cloning is not the only type of genetic research that deserves scrutiny and guidelines.

  5. Yes, I see your point. It’s a good one.

  6. Have any of you read some of David Brin’s fiction? His “Uplift” series, particularly the first two novels, explore many of the issues suggested by these posts. Of course, it’s science fiction set in the far distant future, but then often one must step back (or forwards, as the case may be) to get a good look at what’s going on right around us.

  7. […] 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 it’s […]

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