Why we should resurrect Neanderthals

Monday, 10 November, 2008

The recent announcement that scientists had cloned a mouse that had been dead and frozen for 16 years has been raised hope that extinct species may be cloned and brought back to life ála Jurassic Park. The first species on the agenda is currently the woolly mammoth, but being that I love ethically troubling science, I say the first species we should be aiming to bring back are our long-lost brothers and sisters, the Neanderthals. While these may not be found frozen any time soon, enough DNA is considered to be potentially available that the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in partnership with 454 Life Sciences, has been working on sequencing the full genome for Neanderthals. Once complete, it would clearly be possible (though maybe not technically feasible as yet) to construct a physical Neanderthal nucleus, and from that produce a living Neanderthal (who would need to grow up from baby to adult, of course).

Neanderthals are an extinct species of hominin, which were driven to extinction some time around 20-25,000 years ago. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, and Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, are generally accepted to be sister species, evolving from a speciation (splitting of one species into two) of the our common ancestor between 150,000-350,000 years ago. The speciation event can’t be pinned to any specific year, as interbreeding between the two species may have occurred for many millenia, and may have always been possible.

Neanderthals, also physically distinct enough to be classed as a separate species, would still very similar to modern humans. Francisco Ayala and Camilo Cela-Conde write of the difference between Neanderthals and humans:

“If we leave behind last century’s romantic view of Neanderthals as brutes, clumsy and deformed, and instead we dressed them up in any of our neighbor’s clothes, would we pick a Neanderthal out among a group of human beings? Maybe not. But would that make him one of us?” Ayala and Cela-Conde (2007), Human Evolution, Oxford University Press, p 314

Such ‘romantic’ view of another species are hardly surprising, given the common caricature of even other races within our species as brutish simpletons. While racism may be on its death bed, and we would think it horrid to insult somebody by calling them a ‘Nigger’, speciesism is still as rife as ever, and we would hardly think it especially offensive to denigrate another with the label ‘Neanderthal’.

And this is the reason why I think Neanderthals should be brought back. Currently, we have expanded the circle of protection from ourselves to others of our group and then to strangers outside our group (other races, other religions), and will continue to expand it (as Peter Singer, borrowing from W.H. Lecky, has argued). But I don’t think we will ever see unanimous equality between species until we actually can see another species similar enough to humans for this species barrier of ethics to be broken down.

It is a well known effect that discrimination decreases as diversity increases, but currently we have no diversity among our genus. We modern humans are the only species in our genus, so it is then hardly surprising that many humans are extremely intolerant and bigoted towards other species. What would their reaction be, then, when confronted with a young Neanderthal child? Will they consider the child to be less than human for not belonging to the superior species, just as a girl child was in the past considered a lesser human for belonging to the superior gender? Or will they realise that their species is not superior, and that other species are their moral equals.

Evidence suggests that Neanderthals had culture, religion, art and, vitally, language. A key factor in removing any bigotry is for the group being discriminated against to be able to speak out against such behaviour (noting that the ability to speak vocally is not required, as deaf and dumb humans would no doubt have me emphasize). Therefore, it seems likely that Neanderthals will be in the best position to argue against speciesism, being a member of another species.

There are three common argument for humans to have rights. First is that human are unique, exceptional among other life forms, and (sometimes) the sacred creation of a divine being. And, this argument goes, any human being is therefore deserving of rights just for being human. As I’ve argued previously, this argument is blatant bigotry, and therefore combating this viewpoint is one important reason for bringing Neanderthals back*.

Second, a being is said to deserve rights if it can understand the concept of responsibility. Of course, this doesn’t let humans infants have any rights, so these people usually just fall back on the above mentioned view, and say that it is enough to be a member of a species with the concept of responsibility (why species? why not genus, or family?). Anyway, it appears that this will be a moot point, as it would be likely that Neanderthals would have had some concept of moral responsibility if they had language and formed groups with religions and cultural traditions.

adult_male_neanderthalLastly, and the view I favour, is that rights are political representations of our responsibility towards other autonomous sentient beings. If a being is capable of valuing its life, it can then consent to life or death, and therefore only with this consent can its life be permanently and irreversibly ended. From this, therefore, I conclude that this being has a right to life. Likewise if a being is capable of valuing being free of pain, we give a right to not be tortured or suffer unnecessarily. Under this viewpoint, not only would Neanderthals have almost all the rights of humans, but many of these rights could also be extended to other animals, especially the great apes.

It may be, then, that speciesism will always remain, or at least until we can develop human-level artificial intelligence or encounter human-level alien life. But even without this moral imperative seeming likely to be successful, the field of evolutionary anthropology would be accelerated tremendously by examining the difference between Neanderthals and humans.

By the way, for a fictional account of this, I have been made aware that a series of novels by Jasper Fforde has mention of bringing Neanderthals back via science, and the subsequent Neanderthal rights movement.

*A minor group of scientists is of the opinion that Neanderthals are merely a sub-species of humans, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (with us being in the sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens). With a living Neanderthal to examine, their viewpoint might be pushed – for emotional reasons – into popular acceptance, or even be found to be true. This would undermine any efforts to combat speciesism, as it would merely pull Neanderthals into the circle of our species rather than move the circle out to take in another species. To count this, I’d suggest cloning other species of genus Homo, such as our direct ancestors H. erectus or H. heidelbergensis, but the relatively recent demise of the Neanderthals makes gathering the requisite DNA much more feasible, and the similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans are enough to make it more likely that we would end up accepting Neanderthals as persons, if not as fellow human beings.


  1. Lovely post. =D

    Though I must, for the sake of being possibly redundant rather than important issues being forgotten, point out that a single Neanderthal or a few cannot represent all of them, especially as they will be stripped bare of any culture their ancestors had, leaving naught but their bodies. These new Neanderthals would never ever have anything to do with the ones in the past, except for some of the biology (and they’ll probably be more closely related to each other than the ones in the past). The new Neanderthals would truly be our contemporary brethren, the same way the old ones were to their homo sapiens sapiens.
    I fear that while different cultural and ethnic groups of homo sapiens sapiens may get the feeling of being closer, the racism will get shifted to the neanderthals, or possibly that people will take this as an opportunity to divide homo sapiens sapiens into stronger genetic subgroups and subsequent racist abuse of something that actually could be medically useful. The pessimist part in me thinks that increasing diversity will only make things worse, unless we all have a common goal we’re working to. Diversity breeds tolerance only if the diversity is experienced up close, but we can’t force people to get more mixed for the sake of that and its local side-effects alone. If it comes as a minor result of far more important goals, if people choose it themselves, they will be more keen to embrace the changes.

    There was a comedy series about “cavemen” I’ve been meaning to watch, but haven’t gotten around to yet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavemen_(TV_series)

  2. “The new Neanderthals would truly be our contemporary brethren, the same way the old ones were to their homo sapiens sapiens.”

    Durr, no. My bad. In fact, they will be that way more so than in the past.

  3. Semi-random interesting talk that’s likely to be relevant to your interests:

  4. I agree with you, I think when it becomes possible, we should clone these dudes! My boyfriend is staunchly against it because he thinks the clones would have huge identity issues. I bet they could handle it.

  5. Hi!

    I’m doing some research for my final essay at University where I study images of Neanderthals. I’m interested in the blond one, the last one in this post. Can you tell me where you got the picture from, when the reconstruction was made and by whom, where it’s located or where I could find more info about it?

    Anything would be helpful!


  6. they all resemble people i know, why are most scientists so against the idea we are not decended from neandertals, or a cross breed.

    • It’s the same reason scientists would be against the idea I am descended from my brother, even though we look alike. Modern humans and neanderthals coexisted and came from a common ancestors, rather than being descended from each other.

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