Last month, Science Daily reported the successful sequencing of a complete mitochondrial genome from a Neanderthal bone.
Photo: alexdecarvalho, Creative Commons, Flickr
For those who have forgotten their high-school science, Neanderthal man was a sidebar in the evolution of man from Homo sapiens to present-day humans. I use the term sidebar loosely, since Neanderthal (Home sapiens neanderthalensis) actually had a larger brain and greater physical strength. In spite of these advantages, it was pushed into extinction by early man’s tendency to “breed like rabbits.”
Scientists are hailing the discovery as a millennial leap in understanding human evolution. Geico (a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. – BRK-A - $118,000.00), whose advertising campaign features a Neanderthal-like caveman, is no doubt speculating about the possibility of cloning the real thing.
The idea – once so far-fetched but now within the realm of possibility – might make some people grin. Cloning itself is the stuff of nightmares; not the nightmares we’re currently having (global warming, global starvation, plagues, the demise of America), but the nightmares of tomorrow. The science is so new the real monsters haven’t even come out of the closet yet.
The Neanderthal genomic sequence has reportedly led to three or more breakthrough discoveries by Max Green and colleagues at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. The first, that the two species split about 660,000 years ago, is fairly clear-cut and requires no more than genetic matching.
The second discovery, that ancient humans and Neanderthal did not mate after the split, has been challenged so strenuously that researchers have since amended their remarks. The third – that the human genome exploded with possibilities after the split – is a real revelation whose implications have yet to be understood.
Any sensible person would conclude that Neanderthal was an evolutionary failure best left in the distant past. Scientists don’t seem to have that kind of common sense, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did try to clone a Neanderthal. After all, they’re blithely talking about bringing back extinct species, engineering genetically-modified plants for food, and trees for biofuel, even though the ultimate consequences remain unknown. In fact, with trees – which live hundreds of years – the effects can’t be known until so far in the future it becomes too late to undo the damage.
An example of how creative the cloning frenzy has gotten is the 2003 creation of a human-pig clone. These mini-pigs, with their human DNA, reportedly have smaller organs more suitable for transplanting, and an absence of certain pig DNA that makes transplant rejection less likely.
The United Nations (UN) has been trying to ban human cloning for some time, but negotiations collapsed in 2005 when the assembled representatives were unable to hammer out an agreement about what constituted research cloning, as opposed to cloning for profit (business cloning). In the U.S., H.R 534 prohibits human cloning, and 50 other countries have similar legislation.
This hasn’t stopped the scientists. In 2001, Advanced Cell Technology Inc., (OTCBB: ACTC - $0.037) of Worcester, Mass., created the first human embryo (supposedly for stem cell research). Human clones are creepy enough, but human-animal hybrids, called chimeras or cybrids, are the stuff of sci-fi and nightmares. My nightmares, at least, which vividly recall the man-headed dog from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
There are also mice with human brain cells out there, and sheep with human liver cells, and these are just the examples I know of. I shudder to think what might be living in some lab that few humans have ever seen (or what has been mercifully euthanized and will never be seen).
Scientists’ arguments – that these genetically modified stem cells and organs may someday be used to save the life of your ailing mother, wife, husband, son, daughter, father, etc. - are an attempt to simultaneously pluck both consumer's heartstrings and pocketbooks. Trust me, even if they can make it, you probably won’t be able to afford it. The government is already curtailing medicine for the elderly under new Medicare provisions. In the brave new world of human hybrids and inhuman politics, only the wealthy will survive.
For most of us, the idea of chimeras is morally and physically repugnant. For a few of us, the ethical dilemma is deciding how human a chimera can be before common sense, compassion and H.R. 534 kick in to prevent its creation. The ultimate question is: what makes a human, human? With research into both cloning and artificial intelligence (AI) proceeding at an accelerated pace, the answer, if it exists, must come quickly.
Green and his team are now preparing to sequence the complete Neanderthal nuclear genome, the final step to cloning. Next year, a lab in Korea or China may contain a living embryo from a species of humanoid never destined for survival.
I think I could live with a real caveman, even one break dancing in an Armani suit, but the idea of a mouse with my son’s eyes, or a pig with my daughter’s blood is simply too much. The mind cringes in horror, as from videos of beheading. As for cloning dead pets (or, worse yet, dead people), I believe that endings are as essential to the process as beginnings. What would spring be without winter? What can grandchildren mean if one lives virtually forever?
Disclosure: I don't own stock in any genetic engineering company.