Cloning Neanderthal Raises Ethical Questions


Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE)
Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE)

Is resurrecting a Neanderthal possible?

The Huffington Post recently featured a video segment discussing the controversial remarks from George Church, a geneticist from Harvard University, about how cloning a Neanderthal could happen.

In response to Church’s comment, Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE) joined several scientific panelists who offered their viewpoints to the news website. Densmore was asked to engage in the discussion for two reasons: 1) His role in synthetic biology involves creating bio-design automation tools, software, and algorithms, and 2) Church and Densmore are members of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC).

View the video.

Neanderthals are a subspecies of human beings and have been extinct for the past 33,000 years. As a result, cloning a Neanderthal raises scientific and ethical implications.

Densmore understands that Church’s comments were taken out of context and that no one is seriously considering cloning a Neanderthal. However he does believe that as time passes, ethical standards adapt to societal values. In the video interview, he states, “If we learn more about biology and what is possible, ethical discussions will need to take place and positions will change over time. Ultimately it will be ethically imperative to use that knowledge for the benefit of society.”

Many scientists are not opposed to genetically modifying plants or animals. However, the speakers on the panel were in agreement over not crossing “human ethical standards.”

Very few synthetic biologists actually discuss cloning Neanderthals in their daily lives. Most of their laboratory conversations revolve around addressing “disease in third world countries, bio-energy concerns, and making and using cheaper materials,” Densmore said. The main focus of his team’s research, he said, is improving problems in the world.

There was a consensus among the panel that increased dialogue between scientists and the general public would lessen confusion about the goals of geneticists’ research. Finding cures to epidemic issues may not always be as headline-grabbing as resurrecting a Neanderthal, but the effects on humankind would be greater.

-Chelsea Hermond (SMG ’15)