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Lost in Translation: Harvard Geneticist Now Disowns Scheme to Clone Neanderthal Baby


The Boston Herald assures us that the geneticist who yesterday was advocating a project to clone a Neanderthal baby in fact never called for such a thing, nor is he seeking a likely and “adventurous female human” to bear the child. It’s all “Way too outlandish, and entirely untrue.” A big misunderstanding.
The story today is that this all stems from a mistranslation in Der Spiegel that got hyped by Britain’s Daily Mail, then went global. I commented here yesterday on the moral stupidity of the idea.

“The real story here is how these stories have percolated and changed in different ways,” George M. Church, a Harvard geneticist who helped kick off the Human Genome Project, told the Herald last night. “I’m sure we’ll get it sorted out eventually.”
Church said his phone was ringing off the hook yesterday with reporters from around the world calling to talk to what they believed, and no doubt hoped, was a modern-day Dr. Moreau — the H.G. Wells character who created weird hybrid animals.
He blames a mistake in an article he says was written off an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel, badly misinterpreting what he said — that such a cloning might theoretically be possible someday — and arriving at the conclusion that he was actively looking for a woman to bear a cave baby with DNA scavenged from ancient Neanderthal bones. He suggested poor translation skills may be part of the problem.
“I’m certainly not advocating it,” Church said. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”

That’s good. But it’s a little hard to understand how Dr. Church’s attempt to give a moral rationale for the monstrous, and now seemingly fictional, scheme was also a product of mistranslation.
He was quoted as suggesting that Neanderthals, with their potentially superior intelligence, could help us figure out ways to deal effectively with epidemics or other global catastrophes necessitating a move to “get off the planet.”
Image credit: George M. Church, Harvard University Center for the Environment.

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.