De-extinction-the latest scientific neologism

February 25, 2013

 A Neanderthal in our time. (copyright Nenderthal Museum / H Neumann)

 

In explaining my concerns over science in my last blog I mentioned, in passing, the recent head-line grabbing news that a Harvard professor of synthetic biology had argued the case for the ‘de-extinction’ (sic) of the Neanderthals. That professor is George M. Church and his book, co-written with Ed Regis, is – Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. A broadly sympathetic review of the book can be accessed at http://newbooksinbrief.com/2012/10/30/23-a-summary-of-regenesis-how-synthetic-biology-will-reinvent-nature-and-ourselves-by-george-m-church-and-ed-regis/

Furthermore, Church was also interviewed by Der Spiegel magazine in January 2013 and that can be accessed here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/george-church-explains-how-dna-will-be-construction-material-of-the-future

*

Now synthetic biology is very much the new kid of the block in contemporary science and its advocates are making some pretty grandiose claims for it – from solving the world’s energy problems, cleaning-up pollution, making humans totally resistant to viruses and ‘curing’ old age; thus making vibrant and healthy 120 years olds a commonplace. Some of this work is undoubtedly very exciting indeed – especially the prospect of highly personalised medicine and the elimination of life-threatening cancers – so it is very curious indeed that Church should simultaneously raise the controversial prospect of the de-extinction of Neanderthals and the prolongation of life (on an already over-crowded planet). What, then, could possibly be his justification for resurrecting the 30,000 year extinct Neanderthal species? 

Church: “Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it's not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.” [Der Spiegel] 

 

There it is then – firstly, the give-away word ‘curiosity’ (simply because it could theoretically be done now that the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced) and then the incredibly lame ‘diversity’ argument, as if Homo sapiens sapiens – all 7 billion of us – aren’t diverse enough already. Diverse, that is, not only in terms of various populations carrying different proportions of shared genes often differently expressed, but in terms of what they continue to carry of genetic encounters with different types of Homo in their deep genetic past (including the small percentage of Neanderthal DNA found exclusively in Europeans). Who is Church kidding? This is a clear case of post hoc rationalisation – looking around for reasons after the initial decision to go ‘forwards’ in this particular direction. But, even so, how would he do it? 

 

Church: “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.” [Der Spiegel] 

 

Only it isn’t the final stage, because for that he would need, as he states in his book, an "extremely adventurous female human" – to serve as the surrogate mother. 

 

Only one mother and one Neanderthal wouldn’t be enough it seems. In order to study how Neanderthals think and how they would cope with the environment, including diseases (implicitly) Church argues that “you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.” [Der Spiegel]

 

But if ancient and extinct Homo DNA, up to a million years old, according to Church, can be recovered (teeth are an especially good source, apparently) and read and copied, what is to stop Church or others in time making a Homo heidelbergensis whilst they are at it, or a Denisova hominins*, say, or a Homo floresiensis perhaps, or even some hybrids thereof? This is chillingly reminiscent of Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau who, in their mutual passion for research, their obsessive pursuit of something that might just be possible to do (regardless of the consequences), ended up playing God – with, literally, monstrous results.

 

It cannot just be me who sees a veritable minefield of ethical issues in here; issues just completely ignored or glossed over by Church! However, I am not going to rehearse all the ethical and practical objections to this scheme right now because my main point was to show that Church, in company with too many scientists, sadly, has simply let the science take him where it will (the mythos of science referred to in my previous blog) and consequently his justifications and reasoning, which should be prior surely rather than post, are utterly spurious, completely lame and disturbingly naïve (Neanderthals living uninterruptedly in community somewhere (really?) busily creating a culture de novo and even becoming a political force!).

 

But taking just one moral objection – the current prohibition on people cloning – how are we to trust a man whose response to that is to imply that he would either go somewhere else fairly lax in these matters or that he’d lobby hard to get the law changed in his own backyard or – inferentially – that he’d probably go ahead on the grounds that, as such, this wouldn’t be human cloning anyway!

 

*

 

 

 

 

* A recently discovered species – centred on the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia  – whose mitochondrial DNA is genetically distinct from the mtDNAs of Neanderthals and modern humans.  Subsequent study of the nuclear genome from a Denisovan specimen suggests that this group ranged from Siberia to Southeast Asia, and that they lived among and interbred with the ancestors of some present-day modern humans, with up to 6% of the DNA of Melanesians and Australian Aborigines deriving from Denisovans.

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