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If you’ve been keeping up with science news, you probably heard about how Harvard professor Dr. George Church recently discussed the feasibility of cloning a Neanderthal baby, and mentioned that an “extremely adventurous” woman could act as a surrogate mother. Not surprisingly, media sources conflated these remarks into a full-fledged advertisement for a Neanderthal baby momma.
Dr. Church later clarified that he was not advocating such an experiment, merely pointing out how modern cloning techniques might make such a venture possible in the near future. Scientists sequenced the Neanderthal genome in 2010. Traces of their DNA is present in the genomes of modern Eurasians, suggesting that our human ancestors occasionally interbred with Neanderthals. If we can realistically discuss cloning extinct mammoths using bits of elephant DNA, it’s plausible to consider a similar undertaking for Neanderthals.
This story gives me Heinlein flashbacks: instead of the “Stranger in a Strange Land” bringing us the wisdom of a Martian race, this stranger would be a face from our own evolutionary past. Despite the media outcry at the notion, I think a cloned Neanderthal baby would likely prove anticlimactic.
How different are we, really? We share some DNA, and the basic physical characteristics are the same as our own. The recreated Neanderthal man shown here is no worse than some of the guys I’ve met on match.com. He might even be a better conversationalist, as Neanderthals are believed to have possessed larger brains than their human successors.
If anything, Dr. Church’s scenario might be the ultimate test of the nature/nurture debate. Although the child would be genetically a Neanderthal, he or she would not be growing up in an authentic Neanderthal community. Even under laboratory conditions, we couldn’t accurately recreate an ice age tribe to raise a “true” Neanderthal baby. He or she would be raised in the same society as every other kid today.
There’s no evidence that Neanderthals were inherently less intelligent than ourselves, so we can assume the child would be capable of learning modern languages and customs. Our little scientific marvel would probably spend his days glued to an Xbox, rocking to Justin Beiber on an iPod. A little hairier than his classmates, perhaps, but indistinguishable in behavior. The Geico “caveman” character might be a surprisingly accurate portrayal of a Neanderthal in our midst: hip and sensitive. If he turned up in my eHarmony results, I probably wouldn’t notice any difference.