Friday, 19 February 2010

Philosophy and Human Evolution. Is it right to Clone a Neandertal ?

As it is shown in "Should we clone neandertals", we are facing a unique moment in the human history : the possibility to give a second chance to an old relative of ours, Homo neandertalensis, is within our reach. In the article, the author, Zach Zorich, analyses several issues concerning this possibility : biological, ethical and legal.

First things first. How are we (Homo sapiens) related to Homo neandertalensis ?

Our direct and common ancestor is Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct species of the genus Homo, who lived less than 1 million years ago. Sometimes in the last 450 000 years, Homo neandertalis appeared and became distinct from Homo heidelbergensis. Neandertals may have disappeared 35 000 years ago. The modern Homo sapiens may have appeared 160 000 years ago and is now the only living species of the genus Homo.

Why re-create Neandertals ?

Scientists have two reasons :

  1. Knowledge : the more we know about Homo neandertalensis, the more we know about Homo sapiens. By re-creating a Neandertal, we can have the answers of many questions concerning our species and the genus Homo : Did all the members of Homo possess language ? (The fact that Homo neandertalensis possess the genetic ability -he possess the gene FOXP2-  is not a sufficient for having a language -birds have FOXP2 too-.) Were all members of Homo able to produce highly sophisticated reasonings ? Who was the smarter ? And so on.
  2. Therapy : If Homo neandertalensis is sufficiently distinct from us, he may be immunized to Homo sapiens specific diseases, such as HIV, Polio... Neandertals cells would be use to find cure, through gene treatments.

How can we re-create Neandertals ?

If the author asks the question "Should we Clone Neandertals ?", it is because he is taking seriously the latest technical progress, which put in our hands the very possibility to do so. According to the author, there are several possibilities : altering the DNA of the Neandertals to make it compatible with a living human cell (but this would required, according to George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, "10 million changes to make a modern human genome match the Neanderthal genome") ; transfering the DNA of the Neandertal in an donor egg, from which the cell's genetic material has been removed (but most frequently, the cell dies) ; creating stem cells that have Neandertals' DNA, and, from the state of pluripotency of the cell, creating parts of a body or a living Neandertal. And it is highly probable that this last solution may work.

Are the reasons to clone Neandertals sufficient to do so ?

The author shows several arguments against the cloning of a Neandertal. For Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, it would be unfair to put a human into an environnment in which he does not belong. That is precisely why scientists considered the possibility to clone not only one, but a group of Neandertals, and the possibility to re-create their entire environnment. But is it right ?

For Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, the fact that the Neandertal has access to human rights will automatically undermined the reasons why he has been created. Well, if cloning a Neandertal is not a paradox, I am no philosopher. From a scientific, medical, and legal point of view, if a Neandertal is cloned, since he has access to every human rights, he cannot be experimented upon and studied according to the willing of the scientists. Thus the reason why scientists want the Neandertal to be cloned is the cause that he can neither be the object of scientific and medical experimentations. Even the success or the failing of the cloning is a paradox : from a legal and ethical point of view, if we succeed to clone a Neandertal, then, since he has immediate access to human rights, it is not right. But if the cloning fails, since he has immediate access to human rights, he is the victim of a murder.

This is why the alleged-reasons are not sufficient. But, since a mammoth is currently being cloned or will soon be, some scientists do not see why we should not clone a Neandertal...

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