The birth of Dolly the Sheep in July 1996 transformed animal cloning from science fiction into science fact. Since that time, researchers have successfully cloned pigs, dogs, cats, horses, rats, and a slew of other animals. The prospect of cloning human beings remains both scientifically challenging and, for many, ethically fraught.
Until very recently, existing technologies did not allow for the cloning of extinct species, such as a Neanderthal, in which only fragments of DNA, rather than intact nuclei, exist. However, the development of genetic tools such as CRISPR may allow for creating a near approximation of such lost species by inserting their genes into cells of closely related living species.
Harvard geneticist George Church, PhD, has explained that once such DNA is reassembled inside a human cell, either a chimpanzee or an “extremely adventurous female human” might bring the clone to term. Church argued that a potential benefit to humans of such Neanderthal cloning would be increased genetic diversity. His book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, ignited a widespread backlash among more risk-averse scientists.
Assuming the cloning of a Neanderthal to be possible, the decision to clone raises distinct ethical concerns. First, if researchers were to choose a female scientist to gestate the fetal prehuman, one must consider the health and safety implications for this individual. Since this experiment has never been done before, some risks and consequences may prove unforeseen. (It is worth noting that the U.S. federal government has deemed pregnant women to be a vulnerable population requiring special safeguards when conducting research; one wonders how an institutional review board would address a situation in which the pregnancy itself was the experiment.) One must ask, are there some risks so great, that no person can meaningfully consent to them voluntarily?
A second concern involves the welfare of society as a whole. Who can say that the newly created Neanderthal will not be a source of disease or that the creature will not prove violent? While one Neanderthal might turn out to be relatively harmless, this experiment would likely lead to others, and there is no telling what damage hundreds or thousands of such creatures (or the offspring of human-Neanderthal mating) might do.
Moreover, society has yet to generate a set of rules governing such creatures. Would they be treated as fully human? As animals akin to other primates? Would they be held criminally accountable for their actions? Eligible for public benefits? However one feels about cloning Neanderthals, most would agree that these are questions that should be resolved before cloning actually takes place.
Finally, any ethical assessment of Neanderthal cloning must consider the welfare of the individual being cloned. One might reasonably conclude that such a creature would face loneliness, discrimination, and a whole host of other psychological and social ills. Bringing an advanced Homo sapien-like primate into the world merely to satisfy our own intellectual curiosity seems problematic. However, if a more compelling need arose — such as a decline in human genetic diversity that led to increased disease vulnerability — then the advantages would have to be weighed closely against the moral and practical hazards.