Science and Society--Human-Neanderthal Hybrid: Storms, Ethics, and a Surprise

By Denise Miller Holmes

George Church, one of the major drivers of the Human Genome Project, has also been busy studying the DNA of Neanderthals, those ancient peoples who are genetically close to modern humans but still have enough differences as to be called Homo neanderthalensis instead of Homo sapiens.

An ethical storm brewed when articles surfaced in early 2013 quoting Church as wanting an "extremely adventurous female woman" to be a surrogate mother for a Neanderthal clone baby. The Neanderthal fetus would be created from the DNA derived from a Neanderthal jaw bone with any missing DNA filled in with synthetic genetic information. The YouTube video below shows a basic explanation of synthetic DNA.

The quote about needing an "adventurous female" is from Church's book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, and you can imagine the ethical concerns that just the title evokes in whomever has any socially-responsible leanings.

The quotes from the magazine Der Spiegel show Church as having no personal thoughts of ethics. He delegates that responsibility elsewhere. "[T]he prerequisite, of course, would be that human cloning is acceptable to society."

So, as long as society turns a blind eye, anything is acceptable?


And the lack of empathy or compassion for this Neanderthal experiment alarms me. What kind of conditions would the hybrid child be raised in? Would he/she go to school? Would he/she be raised by the corporation in a lab? If the child goes to a normal school, how abusive will the other children be? How cruel is it to treat a child as if he/she is an experiment? And, what about the mother, will she ever see her child?

Of course, the child may not be born functional. Would they kill it and keep experimenting until they had a functioning Neanderthal child?

Good thing Church has retracted his call (like, within a week) for that adventurous female. In fact, he says that he never had any real plans. Taped interviews seem to contraindicate that, as does The Der Spiegel article, which took the idea from Church's book.  My belief is that he retracted his idea because there was backlash. Could it be that enough people balked that it caused him to pause? I hope so, because I want to live in a world where people are up in arms about something like this.

It worries me when scientists treat people like things. That is what ethics is about--treating people respectfully because we all have value. Doing anything less than treating people with respect is objectifying them, and people are not objects. We are WHOs, not ITs.

Not long after Church's book release with it's subsequent interviews, there was a surprise! Paleontologists found an ancient human-neanderthal hybrid bone. It appears, then, that this has been done before. Not done in a lab of course, but with a female Neanderthal and a male Homo sapiens--the natural way.

So where are the descendants of those ancient natural hybrids? They are us! Anyone of European or Asian decent has one to four percent Neanderthal DNA. The 50/50 hybrids are long gone, a failed experiment. God decided long ago that Neanderthals would die out as a species and we, modern humans, would remain.

I am not saying there isn't some good to come from synthetic DNA. But, let's hope Church's idea about recreating Neanderthals in a lab never sees reality. This kind of science (unethical) can only exist in a world filled with hardened hearts and no perspective of mankind's greater good.

See George Church's Wiki Page and his book on Amazon.