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Published: Thursday, 1/24/2013

Blast from the past

The last Neanderthal died 33,000 years ago, as far as science can tell. Although the species was bigger, stronger, and possibly smarter than Homo sapiens, Neanderthals drew the short straw in the evolutionary sweepstakes and failed in a world in which their rivals thrived.

Last weekend, foreign media quoted geneticist George Church of Harvard’s medical school advocating re-creation of a Neanderthal based on the genetic code found in Paleolithic bone fragments. Reports in European newspapers said Mr. Church wanted to inject artificial Neanderthal DNA into human stem cells. After a brief gestation period, those cells would be inserted into a human embryo and eventually transplanted into a human surrogate.

Prof. Church now insists he is the victim of a bad translation by English-speaking journalists who read an interview with him in a German magazine. Although he was compared briefly to Dr. Frankenstein, Mr. Church says he’s not interested in creating a Neanderthal.

His point was that doing so is technically possible, but that a detailed discussion of its ethics must occur. Mr. Church’s specialty is artificial DNA, so he has a sense of what can be done in the field.

He also understands that technical wizardry must not be allowed to get ahead of the ethical implications of such an experiment. Bioethicists, religious leaders, fellow scientists, and members of the public should be relieved.

Humans have been spared for now the ethical dilemma of bringing a creature back into the world that is similar to them, but has no immunity to modern disease. The question of who owns or profits from the Neanderthal is moot.

Someone will try to do it eventually, but not, it’s to be hoped, until the big questions are addressed. Neanderthals may not be human, but they may deserve the dignity of extinction.

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