The ethics of cloning a caveman
Errrmmm, we can do that?
The full genome of the Neanderthal, an ancient human species probably driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.
In fact, Wade points out, there are good reasons to re-create a Neanderthal: “No one knows if Neanderthals could speak. A living one would answer that question and many others.”
Whoa there, says Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Catholic teaching opposes all human cloning, and all production of human beings in the laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically acceptable in humans.” Wade concedes that “there would be several ethical issues in modifying modern human DNA to that of another human species.”
I vote no.
Not that I give a liger’s ass what the Catholic Church thinks, of course – in many cases condemnation by the Conference of Catholic Bishops would be enough to make me pro-whatever was under discussion. But there are profound ethical issues here, and I see no evidence that we’re ready to face them at this point in human (that’d be of the homo sapiens variety) history.
Not that I’m worried that said Neanderthal would necessarily unravel the fabric of polite society, but can we at least acknowledge the looming presence of Dr. Frankenstein’s ghost in the discussion? Let me turn to a man who’s a lot brighter than most Americans realize for some comment.
A few years ago England’s Prince Charles delivered the commemoration address at Harvard University’s 350th Anniversary celebration. In that speech he lamented that humanity’s intellect had advanced so tremendously while its ethical capacities had evolved so little. “In the headlong rush of mankind to conquer space,” he said, we must teach our children “that to live on this world is no easy matter without standards to live by.” In a 1996 speech devoted to the wisdom of genetic engineering, Charles invoked Mary Shelley’s monster in opposing human intrusion into areas properly left to the divine.
I believe that we have now reached a moral and ethical watershed beyond which we venture into realms that belong to God, and to God alone. Apart from certain medical applications, what actual right do we have to experiment, Frankenstein-like, with the very stuff of life? We live in an age of rights – it seems to me that it is about time our Creator had some rights, too.
No, I don’t much care for this kind of deference to literal divinity, but there’s much to be learned from an appeal to divinity as actualized ethical framework. In that sense, as well as the more overtly spiritual sense intended, Prince Charles is describing a yawning gulf between our minds and our souls, and it is the magnitude of this gulf which feeds, if not defines, what I have termed the “Frankenstein Complex” – our deep-seated fear of the product of our own intellects.
Apparently some good folks aren’t nearly afraid enough.
What if we clone a Neanderthal – let’s call him Charles after both Darwin and His Majesty – and he proves to be very, very human? What if he can speak, reason, laugh? What if he can sing and appreciates a good story? Do we keep him in a lab his whole life? A cage? Wouldn’t Charles deserve, in this instance, the same rights as any other human? An education, job training, an opportunity to earn a living? Would we clone him a mate? What if they didn’t get along? What if they had children? Would those children be allowed to play little league sports?
Would he be allowed to vote? If not, why not? We already assure the franchise to people barely brighter than apes, so on what grounds would he be denied full citizenship?
See the girl in the picture above? She’s the Devil’s Tower Neanderthal child, reconstructed from fragments found at the Gibraltar site. Scientists believe these may have been among the last Neanderthals who survived the homo sapien onslaught. For fun, let’s pretend this is what Charles’s daughter – let’s call her Edna – looks like as she prepares for her first day at PS107. Now, you know how tough kids can be. The fat kid, the ugly kid, the clumsy kid, the dumb kid, the shy kid – maybe you were one of these, or maybe you were the golden child who performed the daily rituals of torment and public humiliation. In any case, imagine being the Neanderthal kid. Try and envision the pain in those eyes each morning as she desperately tries to find some excuse to stay home today.
And try these words on for size: “First-grade spelling – so easy even a caveman can do it.”
I’m sure there are better questions even than these few, which I came up with off the top of my head. And until we have rock-solid answers for them, answers that align with the major moral and ethical codes that guide our lives in a modern world, how dare we even consider something so appalling?
No, I’m not coming down against genetic engineering or other forms of scientific research – on the contrary. But I am saying that we should never conduct a program of science for which we do not have an appropriate ethics. We should not allow our minds to evolve in a moral vacuum, nor should we risk subjecting an innocent to the full, daming force of our arrogance.