Skip to main content

Neanderthals in Our Future?

International Science Times reports that a Harvard Medical School professor, George Church, has reconstructed Neanderthal DNA and is looking for "an adventurous female human" to be the surrogate mother for a hybrid human-Neanderthal embryo.

The project has triggered doubts and concerns. Some worry that a human-Neanderthal will lack immune responses necessary to life today. Others are concerned about the risk of deformities associated with stem cell reproduction: What happens if the project creates a deformed being without immunity to diseases?

The professor is quoted as saying, "Neanderthals might think differently than we do. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial."

Speculations about Neanderthal characteristics add fuel to the controversy about the Harvard professor's project. Is he really trying to re-create a Neanderthal to help humans figure out how to survive today?

Neanderthals, named for the German valley where their fossils were first found, lived until at least 33,000 years ago. One facet that stirs special interest is their brain size, confirmed by 3D computer modeling: At birth, human and Neanderthal brain size is the same; at adulthood, the Neanderthal brain is larger.

Archaeological evidence shows Neanderthals made tools and lived in complex social groups. Their diet included cooked foods. Various theories have been proposed for their extinction, including the possibility that humans violently displaced them. It has also been suggested that extreme fluctuations in climate created conditions inhospitable to Neanderthal survival because of their different body-type.

Professor Church responded to media reports about a surrogate Neanderthal birth by saying they are based on "misunderstandings" of an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel. He told Reuters news that the hoopla was a sign of "scientific illiteracy": "We really should get the public of the entire world to be able to detect the difference between a fact and a complete fantasy that has been created by the Internet,"

All well and good: The public doesn't understand science and the media boosts sales by exaggerating and hyping.

Or is it all so simple? Maybe Professor Church is not looking for an adventurous female (at least not for his genetic project) and is only interested in advancing discussion of climate change, disease, and space exploration. What I'm curious about is the way he characterized the last topic, space exploration, as "getting off the planet."

What is this thinking about how to leave the planet rather than making it a beneficial place to live? Is it a tendency in science to join science fiction? Is it hopelessness about the ecologically destructive patterns of behavior that characterize human society and "progress"?

These questions remain even after we drop the sensation about the adventurous female.

The overlapping agendas of science seem paradoxical: one agenda, funded massively by governments and corporations, defines research devoted to blowing things up and killing people; another agenda, also well-funded, defines research devoted to making people live forever, by eradicating causes of death or by insertion of bionic elements into humans.

A third agenda of science is ecological, funded sporadically and in far smaller amounts than the previous two. It defines research devoted to sustainable life on earth, including modes of economy, society, and politics. Of the various agendas of science, it is the ecological that excludes the possibility of "getting off the planet."

The ecological agenda of science mirrors an indigenous approach to science, concerned with being human on the planet where we are born, as we are born. It is not obsessed with trying to create life differently from Creation or with trying to escape Creation.

Mary Shelley's famous novel, Frankenstein, tells a story of a scientist who is obsessed with creating life. He succeeds, and his creation becomes a hunted creature, regarded as a monster. In the novel, as opposed to the popular film take-offs, the "monster" is actually the one with a conscience. The monster sees the injustices of human society:

"I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere and wept ... over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.... For a long time I could not conceive ... why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.... the strange system of human society was explained to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood."

The moral seems to be: With or without adventurous females and Neanderthal babies, we are faced with the questions that beset the Frankenstein monster: "Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them."

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues