Over at RealClearScience, wildlife biologist Zack Vucurevich recently pointed out some practical questions around the cloning of a mammoth. While the whole article raises some interesting points, here’s the part that jumped out at me:
Why stop at mammoths? Are we going to bring back the saber-tooth cats and the short-faced bear to help manage the mammoth populations? The dire wolf? In fact, why stop at animals? The neanderthals were hunting and consuming mammoths for tens of thousands of years in northern Europe. Considering that Neanderthals and humans share 99.7% of the same genome, wouldn’t it be easy enough to bring them back, too?
There’s a nugget of fascinating speculation, eh? Now as for mammoths, or saber-tooth cats, or short-faced bears, let’s be honest, these creatures will never be present in sufficient numbers to form a free-ranging, self-sustaining population. Also, they will be some of the costliest biological experiments in history, far too valuable to be turned loose into the wild.
Also, the behavioral aspects are not to be underestimated. Mammals in general invest a lot of time with their offspring, in effect teaching them how to be bears, or mammoths, or squirrels. That won’t happen here, adding to the impossibility of forming any kind of wild population.
But what about the Neandertal?
These were people. Not us, but people. They almost certainly had a spoken language. Their brains were larger than ours, but organized somewhat differently. If we were to use the fully-sequenced Neandertal genome – which we have – to bring back one of these people, what would their status be?
My thinking is that this would be a human being, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with that. He or she would be genetically Neandertal but with a modern human’s viewpoints, experiences, and world-view. He or she would grow up in the world with modern technology and economy; so we would have this person who is, literally, a minority of one, part of modern society and yet separated from it in a way that no ethnic or religious minority today has ever been.
That’s the real ethical question. If I were forced to answer the question now, “would it be ethical to clone a Neandertal,” fascinating as that would be, I would say no. There’s a huge difference between conducting a genetic experiment on a mammoth or a bear, and conducting the same experiment on a person, whether it be a modern human or a Neandertal.