The ultimate surrogate adventure challenge: gestating a Neanderthal

Michael Cook
27 Jan 2013
Reproduced with Permission

It was the headline which flew 'round the world: Harvard prof seeks mom for cloned Neanderthal . An irresistible story, perhaps, but the Harvard prof, George Church, has repudiated it, blaming the media buzz on poor translation skills.

What's the truth? Well, in point of fact, Professor Church really wants to see a cloned Neanderthal, a process which requires an "extremely adventurous female human". It's just that the obstacle is societal opposition to cloning. Until that barrier is hurdled, Neanderthal babies are only a fantasy. So, in that sense, the media was wrong, but only about the professor's grammar; it confused a present tense with a conditional.

But Professor Church does think that he will see a Neanderthal baby in his lifetime, as he explained in an interview with Der Spiegel which sparked the media firestorm. He explains that this would be a jolly good thing, as these ancient people might have genes which would strengthen genetic diversity.

Here are some extracts from the interview:

SPIEGEL: So let's talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.

Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.

SPIEGEL: How do we have to imagine this: You raise Neanderthals in a lab, ask them to solve problems and thereby study how they think?

Church: No, you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be ethically problematic to create a Neanderthal just for the sake of scientific curiosity?

Church: Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it's not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase 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.

And what about the "extremely adventurous female human"? Well, the media didn't misquote him. In fact, he mentions her on pages 11 and 148 of his recent book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves .