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An Apology for Harvard’s George Church (of Neanderthal Baby Fame)?

In a word: No. After he told the Boston Herald he had been misunderstood and mistranslated, and he was not in fact seeking an “adventurous female human” to help clone a Neanderthal baby, I went back and looked at the original interview in Der Spiegel and at the passages in his recent book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, on which the German interviewer questioned him.
It seems evident now that he’s not actively seeking a likely lady for this purpose. Still, he’s very positive, even gung-ho, about the idea of resurrecting Homo neanderthalensis. There appears to be little reason to doubt that if given a green light, and funding, he would happily take up the challenge. This, as I said earlier, is evidence of moral stupidity.
Here are relevant passages from the book.

A later technique under development in my Harvard lab will allow us to resurrect practically any extinct animal whose genome is known or can be reconstructed from fossil remains, up to and including the wooly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, and even Neanderthal man. One of the obstacles to resurrecting those and other long-extinct species is that intact cell nuclei of these animals no longer exist, which means that there is no nucleus available for nuclear transfer cloning. Nevertheless, the genome sequences of both the wooly mammoth and Neanderthal man have been substantially reconstructed; the genetic information that defines those animals exists, is known, and is stored in computer databases.

The same technique would work for the Neanderthal, except that you’d start with a stem cell genome from a human adult and gradually reverse-engineer it into the Neanderthal genome or a reasonably close equivalent. These stem cells can produce tissues and organs. If society becomes comfortable with cloning and sees value in true human diversity, then the whole Neanderthal creature itself could be cloned by a surrogate mother chimp — or by an extremely adventurous female human.
Any technology that can accomplish such feats — taking us back into a primeval era when mammoths and Neanderthals roamed the earth — is one of unprecedented power. Genomic technologies will permit us to replay scenes from our evolutionary past and take evolution to places where it has never gone, and where it would probably never go if left to its own devices.

So instead of regarding with horror the idea of “replay[ing] scenes from our evolutionary past,” with Neanderthals and wooly mammoths playing appropriate roles, Church sees this in at worst morally neutral terms. In fact, in his view, it would give evidence of our own evolution as a culture, positive evolution showing a society that “sees value in true human diversity.”
Who can object to “diversity”? In the Der Spiegel interview, he elaborates on the point.

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.

So, on evolutionary grounds, resurrecting Neanderthals is actually the prudential course of action! Just playing it safe, don’t you know. And yes, it’s not just one baby we’re talking about, but lots — a “cohort.”

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.

Church is a geneticist at Harvard so you assume, in his area of technical expertise, he’s a very smart man. But as Forrest Gump’s momma told him, “Stupid is as stupid does.” The more you dig into Church’s views, the more inane they get. So in the course of trying to secure biological diversity, we should also anticipate the rise of a whole society of Neanderthals advocating for unknown political values, perhaps forming their own Pleistocene Party with a view, as Church notes in the interview, to dealing with future planetary catastrophes: “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.”
The German magazine naturally bristles at Church’s allegation that he was mistranslated, pointing out that he was in fact allowed to review a transcript of the interview before publication. Der Spiegel blames “tabloid journalism,” as practiced not least by the Daily Mail, for the subsequent blowup.
That may be. It’s true that you can’t trust British newspapers. And it certainly appears to be true that Church is not placing any personal ads on Craigslist seeking a willing mom for prospective Neanderthals. But the gross foolishness of his reflections seems indisputable, and hardly lessened by clarification, as does the bottom line of my original post on the subject. This is what you get when science is unmoored from a picture of the world that sees life as reflecting design, purpose, a plan informed by moral intention.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.