Sunday, November 30, 2008

But it doesn't have quite the same ring as "Everett Dirksen"

For those to whom it matters, it seems that Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz named their newborn son Bronx Mowgli; by one account, they hoped for a name that would be suitable for either a rock star or a United States Senator, and I certainly agree that we should strive for versatility. Contemplating the question of what kind of adult would give a child such a name should at least add to the baby's eventual happiness, since neurologists have found that increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex is an important contributor to a sense of well-being.

What sensation of personal happiness may have been enjoyed by Neanderthal man is an open question, which, among other reasons, makes the question of cloning them an ethical issue. Mapping their genome is one thing, but inserting them into 21st-century life is another. Though they vocalized in some manner, it is not certain that they had what we would call speech, so at least they would not add to the growing public chatter on cell phones, and since they required over 3,000 calories per day, the fast food chains would gain a new and eager addition to their customer base. The October issue of National Geographic provides informative text and artistic recreations of these hardy folk.

Nicholas Wade examined the topic in The New York Times, along with the question of reviving the Wooly Mammoth. Since cloning a Neanderthal would presumably be done by altering modern human DNA, it raises a human dignity objection from Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. An alternate approach, Wade notes, would be to alter the genome of a chimpanzee.

Slate's William Saletan, usually a very acute reasoner who writes with clarity and incisiveness on questions of bioethics and is always eager to show how science must not be waylaid by religion, takes Doerflinger and his bishops to task and, thus, strangely misses the point. The issue of whether a Neanderthal should be cloned from modern human or chimp DNA is made moot by the question of whether we should clone a Neanderthal at all: we shouldn't. Whether or not it would be an offense against modern human dignity, it would compromise the recreated Neanderthal's own dignity.

Primitive or not, a living Neanderthal would be a conscious creature, vaguely aware of his inability to understand or cope with our world and with no immunity to the crowd diseases that have been a major factor in selecting human genes for the past several centuries. Used to being a member of small hunter-gatherer bands that almost never saw other humans for long, he would be placed in a world that was, to him, intolerably overcrowded. Never having developed devices so simple as projectile weapons or the concept of division of labor, he would have little to contribute to his own sense of efficacy except brute strength, endurance, and the pursuit of the very simple life his fellows once knew, little valued in our own day. If his cognitive functions were not of as high an order as ours, it would become really necessary, for the first time in human history, to evolve two tiers of civil rights for two different types of Homo Sapiens, based on their respective capabilities. The Neanderthal would become a sort of living zoo exhibit, to be observed by tourists in safari parks, if not exploited for his strength. Study them as topics in biology and paleoanthropology, by all means, but as for the rest, let them rest in peace.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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