I was reading an interview with George Church, who was discussing that very same question, and somehow I had to rethink some things.
There was the question of technical feasibility, and Church thinks it’s going to be entirely possible in the near future.
The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.
I agree entirely: no problem. It would be very hard and expensive to do right now, but not impossible. Biotechnology is advancing at such a rapid rate, though, that in 5 years it will be difficult but within the range of what a few well-funded labs could do, in ten years it will look like a straightforward, simple exercise, and in 20 years high school kids will be doing it in their garage.
The technology is not the issue, and it isn’t even a particularly interesting technological problem. The issue is one of ethics. Church takes a reasonable tack on that one: he punts.
I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.
Fair enough. We will face clear social dictates as the tech becomes more and more readily doable, and that’s ultimately going to determine whether the experiment is done or not.
But I started to think about reasons for and against, and I must confess something terrible: my first thought was that it shouldn’t be done, and to come up with arguments against it. I know, that’s weird…my mad scientist gland must be on the fritz. But my primary concern was that this is science that could create a human being, a human being with significant genetic differences from other human beings, and that should be accompanied by heavy responsibilities — a lifetime of responsibilities. It’s easy to look at it as an exercise in gene-juggling, but this is an experiment you don’t get to dump into the biological waste receptacle when the molecular biology is all done — it has an outcome that is conscious and communicating, damn it. It’s an experiment that at its end makes someone in the lab a parent, with all the obligations associated with that. And that’s a tremendous burden. There’s the cost, the time, the emotional investment…not stuff we usually take into account in the lab.
So I tried to think about what we’d have to do to morally justify Neandertal cloning. As Church also mentions, we couldn’t just do one, we’d have to create a cohort so that these people wouldn’t be alone. The budget would have to include a substantial trust fund for each — you can’t just create a person and then kick them out into the street to fend for themselves.There would have to be adults dedicated to providing for the emotional needs of these children…
Wait a minute. That’s where my brain froze up for a moment. If a scientist is expected to feel that kind of moral responsibility for his children, what about other people? We live in a culture where teenagers carry out a similar experiment every day, with no thought at all except personal need and gratification, and are then compelled to carry the experiment to term and produce a baby they are ill-equipped to care for, because their parents insist that that is what good Christians must do. Single mothers are treated like scum, and on average have the lowest income of any group — they are expected to raise children in poverty. We let children starve to death in this country all the time. Even when they’re fed, we feel no obligation to provide them with a good education — we’re in the process of dismantling the public school system and letting future generations fester in ignorance. There is a societal consensus right now, and it’s nowhere near as demanding as I expected!
And with that, my mad scientist gland was unshackled and grew two sizes larger. We can do the experiment! We should just go ahead and do the molecular biology, produce human stem cells with Neandertal sequences inserted (ooh, even partial sequences — that would be exciting!) and get them implanted and born, do a few preliminary experiments on their behavior, and then wrap them up in a blanket, put ’em in a basket, and have a grad student drop them off at the nearest orphanage. Especially if it’s a Catholic orphanage. Easy! There don’t seem to be any societal constraints against doing that with Homo sapiens sapiens infants, which we supposedly value most highly, so there shouldn’t be any ethical concerns at all in doing it with the mutant lab-born spawn of a test tube and a sequencer.
My mistake was in holding scientists to a higher ethical standard. If all we’ve got to do is match societal norms, we’re suddenly open to doing all kinds of ghastly horrible things to children.
Of course, this grand plan would be short-circuited if society did start expressing higher concerns for children and demanded better of parents. I’m thinking as a developmental biologist, I should start voting Republican, simply to keep the raw material of our work sufficiently devalued and cheap.