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.