Neanderthal seeks mother-figure: a case of Humanity -1.0?

George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard, wants to use DNA cloning technologies to bring back our nearest extinct ancestor, Neanderthal Man. Wh

The recent snowbound 'apocalypse' that's hit the UK has given me an opportunity to think around the Jekyll 2.0 project a little more over the past few days.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man and woman from the Neanderthal Museum.

Thanks to the wonders of social media, I came across an interview in Spiegel Online with Professor George Church, a pioneer in synthetic biology and one of the dynamos behind the Human Genome Project. Church has recently published a book entitled Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, a very appropriate work given the nature of our project. What's even more intriguing is that the book has also been encoded as strands of DNA that are distributed on DNA chips. 

A slightly more ambiguous project is Church's desire to resurrect our nearest ancestor, Homo neanderthalensis, who roamed the Earth up to 33,000 years ago, and for a short while cohabited with 'modern' humans, Homo sapiens (i.e. us). It's now pretty well known that most human DNA outside of Africa consists of at least 2% Neanderthal genomes, which clearly indicates cross-species or cross-sub-species (whichever way you want to see it) reproduction between modern humans and Neanderthals at some point in the distant past. But what Church is looking for, according to his book, is an 'extremely adventurous female human' who would serve as a surrogate for his Neanderthal clone. While Church's contribution to the advancement of our understanding of human identity is laudable and his premise is fascinating, there might be something of the Henry Jekyll about such lofty scientific aspirations. If Neanderthals became extinct, it was for a reason governed by natural law.

We don't need to reach back to the nineteenth century and Stevenson novella to marvel at the ethical implications of such a project: cinemagoers will easily remember what happens to poor John Hammond in Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Okay, so that might be a bit over the top: no hordes of marauding Neanderthals, but still the issue remains about how high science can and should reach in its aspirations to reshape and recondition humanity.

And, this is of course where our Jekyll-inspired project is attempting to focus its lens: upon those troubling, indeterminate intersections between human identity and science.

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