Skip to main content

Don't clone a Neanderthal baby

By Arthur Caplan, Special to CNN
January 24, 2013 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
A display of a reconstruction of a Neanderthal man and boy at the Museum for Prehistory in Eyzies-de-Tayac, France.
A display of a reconstruction of a Neanderthal man and boy at the Museum for Prehistory in Eyzies-de-Tayac, France.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arthur Caplan: It would be unethical to try and clone a Neanderthal baby
  • Caplan: Downsides include a good chance of producing a baby that is seriously deformed
  • He says the future belongs to what we can do to genetically engineer and control microbes
  • Caplan: Microbes can make clean fuel, suck up carbon dioxide, clean fat out of arteries

Editor's note: Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty professor and director of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center.

(CNN) -- So now we know -- there won't be a Neanderthal moving into your neighborhood.

Despite a lot of frenzied attention to the intentionally provocative suggestion by a renowned Harvard scientist that new genetic technology makes it possible to splice together a complete set of Neanderthal genes, find an adventurous surrogate mother and use cloning to gin up a Neanderthal baby -- it ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

Nor should it. But there are plenty of other things in the works involving genetic engineering that do merit serious ethical discussion at the national and international levels.

Arthur Caplan
Arthur Caplan

Some thought that the Harvard scientist, George Church, was getting ready to put out an ad seeking volunteer surrogate moms to bear a 35,000-year-old, long-extinct Neanderthal baby. Church had to walk his comments back and note that he was just speculating, not incubating.

Still cloning carries so much mystery and Hollywood glamour thanks to movies such as "Jurassic Park," "The Boys From Brazil" and "Never Let Me Go" that a two-day eruption of the pros and cons of making Neanderthals ensued. That was not necessary. It would be unethical to try and clone a Neanderthal baby.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Why? Because there is no obvious reason to do so. There is no pressing need or remarkable benefit to undertaking such a project. At best it might shed some light on the biology and behavior of a distant ancestor. At worst it would be nothing more than the ultimate reality television show exploitation: An "Octomom"-like surrogate raises a caveman child -- tune in next week to see what her new boyfriend thinks when she tells him that there is a tiny addition in her life and he carries a small club and a tiny piece of flint to sleep with him.

The downsides of trying to clone a Neanderthal include a good chance of killing it, producing a baby that is seriously deformed, producing a baby that lacks immunity to infectious diseases and foods that we have gotten used to, an inability to know what environment to create to permit the child to flourish and a complete lack of understanding of what sort of behavior is "normal" or "appropriate" for such a long-extinct cousin hominid of ours.

When weighed against the risks and the harm that most likely would be done, it would take a mighty big guarantee of benefit to justify this cloning experiment. I am willing to venture that the possible benefit will never, ever reach the point where this list of horrible likely downsides could be overcome.

Woman pays $50K to clone dog

Even justifying trying to resurrect a woolly mammoth, or a mastodon, or the dodo bird or any other extinct animal gets ethically thorny. How many failures would be acceptable to get one viable mastodon? Where would the animal live? What would we feed it? Who would protect it from poachers, gawkers and treasure hunters? It is not so simple to take a long dead species, make enough of them so they don't die of isolation and lack of social stimulation and then find an environment that is close enough and safe enough compared with that which they once roamed.

In any event the most interesting aspects of genetic engineering do not involve making humans or Neanderthals or mammoths. They involve ginning up microbes to do things that we really need doing such as making clean fuel, sucking up carbon dioxide, cleaning fat out of our arteries, giving us a lot more immunity to nasty bacteria and viruses and helping us make plastics and chemicals more efficiently and cheaply.

In trying to make these kinds of microbes, you can kill all you want without fear of ethical condemnation. And if the new bug does not like the environment in which it has to exist to live well, that will be just too darn bad.

The ethical challenge of this kind of synthetic biology is that it can be used by bad guys for bad purposes. Biological weapons can be ginned up and microbes created that only infect people with certain genes that commonly associate with racial or ethnic groups.

Rather than worry about what will happen to real estate values should a new crop of "Flintstones" move in down the street, our public officials, religious groups and ethicists need to get serious about how much regulation the genetic engineering of microbes needs, how can we detect what terrorists might try to use, what sort of controls do we need to prevent accidents and who is going to pay if a bug turns out to cause more harm than good.

We love to think that the key to tomorrow lies in what humanity can be designed or empowered to do. Thus, the fascination with human cloning. In reality, at least for a long time to come, the future belongs to what we can do to design and control microbes. That is admittedly duller, but it is far better to follow a story that is true than one such as Neanderthal cloning that is pure, speculative fantasy.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arthur Caplan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT