I nearly dropped my breakfast burrito when …

… I saw this NYT article. Apparently, for the low low price of $10 mil, scientists think they could gradually introduce woolly mammoth DNA into an elephant fetus, and eventually give rise to a critter a whole lot like a woolly mammoth. (I don’t know whether the critter would ACTUALLY BE a woolly mammoth, vs. a weird woolly elephant, vs. something-we-have-yet-to-name. Actually, I think the example pretty much obliterates rigid species-bound thinking. But I digress.)

That’s nuthin’, however, compared to what these scientists also think they could do: give rise to a critter a whole lot like Neanderthal. The article says that ethical considerations would keep that experiment from taking place. Here I am torn. Yes, I feel that it is wrong to ‘monkey’ with human DNA (har, har), unless there are compelling medical reasons to do so. I think the threat of a slippery slope is very real. On the other hand, would it not be exceedingly interesting — nay, totally friggin’ awesome — to have a Neanderthal around? to see what cognitive skills they possessed? to be able possibly to talk to (some version of) a non-human?

Actually, the article raises another possibility. Perhaps the Neanderthal DNA could be spliced into a chimp’s DNA, and the fetus could be brought to term in a chimp mother. Does that satisfy the ethical qualms, or introduce new ones?

Let’s vote. How do you feel about the possibility of manufacturing a quasi-Neanderthal?


7 thoughts on “I nearly dropped my breakfast burrito when …

  1. Kleiner

    I’m willing to grant the ‘it would be pretty awesome’ point. But I am concerned about how ‘technological’ (in the Heideggerian sense) the whole enterprise is here. It presumes that nature is at our beck and call, that our place is ‘above’ nature in the sense that we can make demands on nature and call her to satisfy our curiosities (what Heidegger calls ‘challenging-forth’ in Question Concerning Technology). Heidegger’s concern, I speculate, would not be with the chimp or the neanderthal and their ‘rights’. His concern is that this mode of technological disclosure and challenging-forth ultimately hides man from himself. Technological man is as far from himself as he could possibly be.


  2. John

    “would it not be exceedingly interesting — nay, totally friggin’ awesome — to have a Neanderthal around? to see what cognitive skills they possessed? to be able possibly to talk to (some version of) a non-human?”

    Neanderthals were as human as we are.

    Homo Sapiens are the only extant version of Humanity left, but Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Neanderthal Man were as equally Human.

    Just as both Tigers and Lions are Cats and a Lion is not more of a Cat than a Tiger.


  3. Kleiner

    Though lions and tigers are both cats, I think there is a real difference between them (even though I admit I would have a hell of a time specifying what that specific difference is). I think ‘big cat’ is used as a genus, not a species (a lion is a species under the genus ‘Panthera’, under the family ‘cat’, etc etc).
    I think ordinary usage of the term ‘human’ is in a specific sense, as Huenemann thought. But John has used it in a generic sense. I’m not saying John is wrong, it is just different from our everyday usage. While the others might have been ‘equally human’ in the generic sense (same genera), it is unknown whether or not they had the same cognitive abilities since they are taken to be different species. If they did not have the same cognitive capacities, then there is an ordinary usage sense in which they are not ‘human’.
    I know the whole notion of a species is problematic – it seems a useful if imprecise concept. Here I am just trying to save what seemed to be Huenemann’s initial interest – whatever genera and species Neanderthals belong to, they seemed to have been a lot like us and so we rightly wonder what were their cognitive capacities? And how could we ever figure that out unless we ‘grew one’? And would it be ethical to ‘grow one’ to satisfy our curiosity?


  4. Huenemann Post author

    John’s point seems to be a relatively uncontroversial taxonomical one. I understand what he means, though it appears that, technically, he’s wrong: the consensus is that neanderthals and modern humans don’t fall under the same species. I’m gathering this from the Wikipedia article on “Human”:

    The scientific study of human evolution encompasses the development of the genus Homo, but usually involves studying other hominids and hominines as well, such as Australopithecus. “Modern humans” are defined as the Homo sapiens species, of which the only extant subspecies is known as Homo sapiens sapiens. Homo sapiens idaltu (roughly translated as “elder wise human”), the other known subspecies, is now extinct. Homo neanderthalensis, which became extinct 30,000 years ago, has sometimes been classified as a subspecies, “Homo sapiens neanderthalensis”, but genetic studies now suggest a divergence of the Neanderthal species from Homo sapiens at least 400,000 years ago, and its description is not included here. Similarly, the few specimens of Homo rhodesiensis have also occasionally been classified as a subspecies, but this is not widely accepted. Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 130,000 years ago, although studies of molecular biology give evidence that the approximate time of divergence from the common ancestor of all modern human populations was 200,000 years ago.



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