What it Neanderthals did not die out due to competition with humans, or lack of resources, or change of climate? What if they died out because of a disease they couldn’t cope with? A virus that just happened to crop up at the right time, and that humans had immunity to – or at least relative resistance – and Neanderthals did not.
I suggest this thought only for the love of irony, as a molecular geneticist named Professor George Church at Harvard seeks to find a woman willing to give birth to a Neanderthal. No, this isn’t a joke. Yes, he can probably do it – to an extent. I’m not sure if we have all the pieces of the Neanderthal genome, but the Professor thinks we do, and it’s his technology. He developed MAGE – Multiplex automated genomic engineering – a method for using broken DNA as a template for reconstructing a complete genome from pieces. See the link above for a description of the process if you’re interested.
If he finds a willing woman – which seems quite likely given the number of individuals on the planet and the diversity of personalities should statistically give rise to one willing to take this risk – then it’s quite possible he shall succeed in his attempt. And, as he points out, if Neanderthals are healthy, strong and smart, then many people may want to have them. Who knows, it could start a trend.
But what if they’re smarter and stronger than us, and they’re also far more aggressive? How ironic would it be that a quirk of nature at the wrong time wiped them out, only to have them reconstituted by their weaker counterparts – humans – and then they supplant us, coming to dominate the world once more? It is a delicious irony, worthy of a science fiction novel similar to Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, it would be Neanderthals. And there would be no park. Too bad Michael Crichton isn’t still alive. This would be a perfect project for him.
Given the bioethical ramifications of what Professor Church is proposing, I’m surprised there isn’t more push-back in regards to this concept. I would think germ-line genetic modifications of this nature would be illegal, and fall under human experimentation. But, perhaps there is no law restricting him from attempting this. Or perhaps he has chosen to ignore it. I can’t say. Moreover, I doubt such a project would lead to Neanderthals dominating humanity. It is highly unlikely given the number of us that currently exist on the planet. But I can’t help but think of the irony, simply because it makes such a wonderful story. Destroyed by nature and reborn by their successors, how would Neanderthals perceive themselves in our world? Could they compete with us? Would they come to dominate the world of sports? Would the NFL restrict them from football? Would the military seek to recruit them for use as infantry? Would religious organizations label them abominations? Would they seek to band together in racial segregation, or integrate happily with their fellow sapiens?
And if we could do this, would we stop at Neanderthals? What about other hominids? What about other creatures? The Professor has proposed bringing back mammoths, and is ready to do so using elephant DNA as a template in the MAGE process. Any extinct critter we’ve got at least some DNA remnants for is a suitable subject. How about the Quagga, a half zebra half horse extinct since 1883? How about the Tasmanian Tiger, extinct since 1936? How about Stellar’s Sea Cow, extinct since 1768? How about the largest deer, the Irish Deer, that vanished 7,700 years ago? How about the Caspian Tiger, extinct since 1970? Or Aurochs, a type of large cattle extinct since 1627? The Dodo, the Cave Lion, the Great Auk, all of which vanished while humans walked the earth. If we can reconstitute Neanderthals via humans, then why not these? We have zebras, horses, tigers, manatees, deer, all of which could be used to gestate the modified germ cells, so why even start with humans?