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London - The phrase ‘Frankenstein science’ has never been so apt.
An American professor says that by injecting Stone Age genes into a human embryo - and then implanting the embryo into a human surrogate mother - it will soon be possible to create a living Neanderthal.
George Church is no crank. A genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, he was behind the Human Genome project that enabled researchers to map out and identify genes associated with dozens of genetic illnesses - a development which is already having a profound impact on our ability to treat disease.
He has now switched his attention to the new field of ‘synthetic biology’, which aims to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory.
In that capacity, he believes that very soon he will be able to reconstruct Neanderthal DNA from fossil bones. He says the technology is available to make possible the entire process of bringing that DNA back to life.
But that is not all. Interviewed in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, he was asked: ‘Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?’ He answered: ‘That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so.’
This sounds so preposterous that it is hard to take his assertion seriously. Yet he is in earnest.
To clone his Neanderthal, Professor Church, 58, says he would begin by artificially creating Neanderthal DNA, based on a genetic code found in fossil remains. He would then put the DNA into stem cells taken from a human embryo in the first stages of life, before injecting the cells back into the embryo.
The thinking is that the stem cells would make the embryo develop on Neanderthal lines, rather than human ones.
This ‘neo-Neanderthal’ embryo would be implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother.
Professor Church jokes that you would need to find an ‘adventurous woman’ to give birth to his cloned Neanderthal baby - creating some kind of a hybrid Neander-human who might resurrect humankind’s close-cousin species, which died out around 33,000 years ago.
But he continues to insist that it could happen. ‘The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,’ he says. ‘In particular, reading and writing (synthesising) DNA is about a million times faster now than seven or eight years ago.’
And, he says, we already possess the cloning ability.
Human cloning is against the law in Britain and most Western countries. But Professor Church points out that it is not banned all over the world - ‘and laws change, by the way’.
But why on earth should we ever create such a freakish genetic cross-breed?
The reason, the professor says, is that we might benefit as a society from the reintroduction of Neanderthals. ‘They might think differently than we do,’ he says. ‘They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic, or getting off the planet, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.’
Professor Church suggests that society would have to decide whether it would be desirable to clone a Neanderthal.
‘I tend to decide what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what is feasible.’
Perhaps we are in the realms of fantasy. It may be that Professor Church is being deliberately provocative, or even light-hearted. But there is a real danger here that science could lead us into a terrifying minefield.
Scientists inevitably want to push their research as far as possible. They are often contemptuous of the anxieties of the public - as in the case of GM food for example.
But just because scientists have the ability to enact their fantasies, it does not mean that they should. The wild frontiers of scientific endeavour must always be tamed by careful ethical consideration.
Nowhere can this be more true than with Professor Church’s area of expertise, where scientists are playing with the very building bricks of life.
The perilous flaw in his ideas lies in the roots of his argument. Professor Church says that Neanderthals are worth reviving because they were not the lumbering, brainless brutes that we still popularly believe them to be. He says that, instead, they may have been civilised and bright enough to have powers of intelligence that we can still use.
Recently uncovered archaeological evidence does, indeed, indicate that Neanderthals were more civilised than previously thought. Much of this evidence comes from an area in northern Spain called El Sidron - the site of a Neanderthal cave settlement that is providing a trove of clues about the Neanderthal lifestyle.
Teams of British, Spanish, Australian and American scientists have discovered, for example, that Neanderthals developed sophisticated culinary skills, rather than just being meat-bingeing scavenger killers.
And far from using their brute strength to kill rivals and overpower Stone Age prey, it seems Neanderthals’ powerful arms came from domestic work.
Researchers at Cambridge University have found from fossil evidence that they may have spent most of their time on domestic chores. Analysis last year showed that the powerful bone structure in their right arms is most likely to be the result of hours spent scraping animals hides to make clothes.
All that making and mending also seems to have helped turn Neanderthals into sociable and even artistic creatures. One fossil find seems to be a musical instrument: a basic flute made out of a bear’s leg bone.
The Neanderthals were even dedicated followers of fashion. Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have located sea shells in Spain containing bright pigments that appear to have been used as Neanderthal make-up holders.
Clearly, they were not dumb animals. But if they were as clever and capable of introspection as we now believe (and genetically, we know they are our cousins), then we might as well be experimenting on ourselves.
This is what makes Professor Church’s proposal so fundamentally inhuman. It would be just like breeding a human baby for use as a lifelong experiment.
We have a famous literary fable to warn us of the perils of such experiments - Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the original Victorian novel, Frankenstein’s monster is not a lumbering brainless human, as depicted in the horror films. Instead it is a sensitive - albeit brutal-looking - creature, with thoughts and feelings.
The monster is distraught at being created by a feckless scientist who subsequently abandons him, friendless, mateless and desolate. In the end, monster and scientist pursue each other in a murderous chase to the ends of the Earth.
In like manner, the creation of semi-human creatures in the interests of scientific study would surely haunt us as a society for ever.
There is another compelling reason why the professor’s proposed experiment should never be allowed to take place. It has already been done by Mother Nature. The evidence is all around us, and inside us.
Two years ago, scientists discovered that most of us have a little bit of Neanderthal in us. A major DNA study suggests that our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals at least twice, tens of thousands of years ago. We have carried their genes down the millennia ever since.
Up to 4 percent of the DNA of every living person of non-African descent can be traced back to them, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, who analysed the genes of nearly 2,000 people worldwide.
So, if the Neanderthals did have any useful genes for intelligence, we most likely picked them up and honed them over generations, incorporating them into the brains we have today. Professor Church’s experiment looks obsolete before it even starts.
What’s more, the recent findings about our interbreeding show how we have a moral duty to honour our Neanderthal ancestors. They are not a plaything, to be revived and experimented upon.
At stake here is our very sense of humanity - what it is to be human and humane. If we want to live up to the belief that we are the most civilised of the primates who climbed down from the trees to become hominids, we must not behave with all the brutal selfishness that we have traditionally pinned upon Neanderthals.
Scientific voyeurism, inhuman experimentation and exploitation should be left for horror stories such as Frankenstein - not turned into living abominations. - Daily Mail