Monday, September 26, 2011
Like homo sapiens, the Neanderthals were smart, made tools, and had a complex social system that involved the respectful burial of the dead. And yet, it was our ancestors who survived and not this seemingly equally viable sister species. Sequencing the Neanderthal DNA has allowed scientists to pinpoint their evolutionary relationship to us, answer fascinating questions about their intelligence in relation to ours and whether or not we interbred, and allowed scientists to hazard guesses as to the cause of their downfall, which will inevitably shine light onto our own vulnerabilities. However, along with this insight from a complete genome sequencing of Neanderthal DNA comes the moral question of cloning. Cloning is a complicated process involving the replacement of a nucleus of a stem cell with a nucleus containing the genome of the desired parent. Sequencing the DNA of a deceased organism is already complicated, but that would only be the start (the really tricky part is synthesizing the nucleus, which scientists believe could be accomplished by individually altering the genetic material of a human nucleus, nucleotide by nucleotide). Thus, we are definitely quite a ways away from a cloned Neanderthal, but the idea definitely represents yet another interesting moral dilemma that genome sequencing brings to light. Cloning in general raises moral issues, in the creation of life as "playing God" and in the use of fetal stem cells. However, there is also the issue of bringing back a species whose natural ecosystem has long-since been destroyed, a world in which it can exist only under study in a laboratory. This issue is even more controversial as it is no ordinary extinct species (like the wooly mammoth that scientists at Kyoto University in Japan intend to reserect), but our own sister species, a species that science indicates to have potentially been as sentient and conscious as we are. To clone a Neanderthal would inevitably bring into discussion cloning of one of our own.