So a “willing woman” is needed to help bring back Neandertals. It all seems so simple – take some Neanderthal genetic material, science the shit out of it to create a viable embryo, implant the embryo in a willing surrogate, then wait just a short 9-10 months and blamo, you’ve got a living breathing Neandertal baby. Totes adorbs amirite?! Of course I volunteer as tribute…no wait…as surrogate (I wouldn’t last a day in the Games).
I’ve been thinking about the potential of ancient DNA studies, of cloning, and of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) quite a bit lately. I recently finished reading Svante Pääbo’s 2004 book “Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes”. In this well written and compelling autoethnography, Pääbo tells the story of the trials, successes, and failures in his journey to successfully extract ancient DNA from Neandertal remains. Read this book btw as I love that it is a personal narrative but one that also explains the science in an accessible manner. Connecting the article to this book is important not just because they both deal with Neandertals but also because while the article makes it seem so simple (okay not “simple” but at least something that is possible based on our current technologies), the book makes it very clear that nothing is simple when it comes to ancient DNA. Yes we have a Neandertal genome that we can engineer but this has some problems as well (read the book to learn from the expert). Yes we can harvest a viable egg from a modern human and we could likely find an appropriate surrogate to impregnate. But should we?
While I not-so-jokingly offer to serve as surrogate (even with gestational diabetes I loved being pregnant), I also know that carrying a Neandertal fetus to term and successfully delivering a live infant could be extremely problematic. Neandertals have massive heads – their average cranial capacity is above the human average – and they have robust cranial features that create a distinctly non-modern human head shape, both of which would likely cause problems for the narrow birth canal present in modern humans. Birth is already not easy for humans. Reconstructions of the Neandertal birth canal and pelvis suggest birth was also equally difficult for Neandertals. People die in childbirth even when doctors, nurses, doulas, midwives, and other birthing specialists use everything their western biomedicine and/or “natural” birthing traditions have to offer.
Even if we set all logistics aside, what I appreciate about the article is that it actually focuses on the ethical conundrum that cloning a human represents. Should we attempt to clone or to grow a Neandertal? Is curiosity enough to warrant trying? Honestly I don’t know, which is why this is a question of ethics not just what is/is not technologically and biologically feasible. I’m also honestly more interested in what this debate would mean in terms of arguments for/against cloning humans because that’s the subtext of Church’s final statement: that Neandertals are humans.
I will argue that because we are currently entrenched over so many debates regarding ARTs, reproductive rights, adoption, cloning, stem cell research, ape rights, primate research, and parenthood etc. that while we can and should have an academic discussion regarding Neandertal cloning, we must do so fully recognizing it is unlikely to ever happen.
Say I successfully carried a Neandertal fetus to term and delivered it healthy and screaming into our world, would I be its mother? Who would raise it? I could argue that as an anthropological archaeologist who studies human evolution that I am qualified to raise a Neandertal as I am aware of their cultural traditions…but I’m still a modern human aren’t I? I’m not a Neandertal. Could I even be a mother to this child or is the relationship more like that of a researcher who forms a parent-like bonds with their non-human primate subject (think Patterson and Koko)? Is it right or fair or moral to raise a Neandertal in modern human culture? What would it be like to be the only Neandertal in a modern human world AND one that would be subject to extensive and intensive research for their lifespan. And this is not the time traveler’s dilemma of not being able to process life in “the future” because we aren’t creating a Neandertal from the past. What we would be doing is introducing a new hominin species into a contemporary setting. In this case maybe considering Neandertals as humans IS problematic because I feel like we’d be granting this individual human status without granting them agency and human rights.
To conclude then I’ll stand by volunteering my womb but I won’t actually allow it to be occupied by a Neandertal clone anytime soon. See I see human rights, including my own, questioned and challenged every single day. I don’t think it’s fair to bring another species into this world who will have tenuous status as human until I know that my own rights are secured. I don’t care how simple the technology may seem because the ethical quandaries are anything but simple.