Bringing Neanderthals Back


If we’re bringing back mammoths, should we let Neanderthals join the party? And what would they think of our auto insurance TV commercials?

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Last week we covered the possibility of bringing woolly mammoths back from the ice age, one angle of coverage on the mammoth genome project. Penn State University biochemist Stephen Schuster commented, “It could be done. The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?”

This week Slate’s William Saletan turns that question toward Neanderthals: should we bring them back if we could? Saletan asks, “How would you feel about rewinding human evolution to a species that’s almost like us, but not quite?”

Neanderthals, from what we know, exhibited numerous “modern” behaviors and actually had larger brains than today’s humans do. The evidence shows that they were within the range of variability for the human body; they may have suffered from rickets, which would explain some skeletal differences. The grounds for treating them as a separate “species”—and certainly as inferior—comes straight from evolutionary dogma.

Saletan quotes Nicholas Wade of the New York Times, who pointed out last week that bringing Neanderthals back might answer such questions as if they could speak. (As descendants of Adam, we believe Neanderthals could speak as well as any other human group—though it’s theoretically possible, although unlikely, that Neanderthals as a group could have had a population-specific difference in that regard.)

The problem is, bringing Neanderthals back would require a lot of laboratory play—in other words, using what we’ve learned from cloning to modify Neanderthal DNA and allow a modern human to give birth to one. So here’s the crazy idea Saletan co-opts from geneticist George Church: to appease those (e.g., us) who frown on human cloning and similar experimentation, why not just raise a Neanderthal using a chimpanzee surrogate?

Apparently Saletan thinks this idea resolves any moral concern. “No human clones or products involved,” he writes confidently, then adds, “[a]t least, no ‘modern’ humans.” Thanks for the reassurance.

It’s no wonder Saletan defends Church’s wild idea, since the former writes, “Every serious scientist knows that we and other animals evolved from the same ancestors.” His logic continues with:

I don't see how conservatives can object. They didn’t object last year when scientists announced the cloning of rhesus macaque embryos. That, too, was the creation of nonhuman primate life. Follow the human lineage three branches beyond the primate order, and the rhesus macaques are still with us. Follow the human line two more branches, and the chimps are still with us. One more branch, and you’re down to us and the Neanderthals. If it’s OK to clone a macaque and a chimp, it’s pretty hard to explain why, at that last fork in the road, you’re forbidden to clone a Neanderthal.

Based on evolutionary logic, why are we forbidden to clone “modern” humans?

Well, Mr. Saletan, please let us make it clear to you: we don’t accept that Neanderthals are just another branch in the evolutionary tree because we don’t accept the evolutionary tree in the first place!

Plus, according to Saletan’s logic, we’re just the next branch up, anyway. In fact, based on evolutionary logic, why are we forbidden to clone “modern” humans?

The Bible is extremely clear that God made animals to produce after their kind. Separately, God made the first man, Adam, in His own image. But like the animals, there is variability within the human kind, and some “variants” have died out, such as Neanderthals. This doesn’t mean Neanderthals weren’t every bit as human as we are today; it just means the genes coding for certain features have disappeared—or, more likely, have diffused and thus have a less dramatic effect on a larger population (see “Are Europeans Neandertal?”). Plus, what we know of Neanderthal behavior from archaeology confirms their intelligence and humanity.

Since at this point it seems unlikely there will ever be any morally sound way to “bring back” Neanderthals, there (hopefully) won’t be an opportunity to observe how “modern” they actually are. Though if they were to be brought back through a chimpanzee–Neanderthal “hybrid,” would it be any surprise if evolutionists claimed the hybrid confirmed ape-to-human evolution?

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