Another Perspective

Return of Neanderthal

What was he thinking 450,000 years ago?

By 2.24.10

That fellow across from you on the subway. Strange look to him. Undershot jaw. Protruding nose.

Short legs. It would be unkind to look too hard, let alone say anything. You let it go, not knowing that you have had passing contact with a recently-cloned species that our ancestors shared several thousand years with before homo sapiens over-propagated, ate all the chow, and forced Neanderthal to retreat to places where our contemporaries are removing their remains from caves and graves.

Graves? Yes, the best thinking is the Neanders began the practice of burial of the dead which was adopted by the homos. What else remains to be learned from them may be locked within the brain of that stranger on the subway.

It is possible in the not-too-distant future for science to unlock the few remaining secrets of the Neanderthal genome, to create cells containing their DNA and through a process of pluripotentcy come up with the real thing. The Max Planck folks in Leipzig and 454 Life Sciences in Connecticut have come close to re-creating the essence of a woman who died in a Croatian cave 30,000 years ago.

The processes of sequencing would retrace and undo something that happened some 450,000 years ago, when Neanderthals departed the homo sapiens lineage and went off on their own: larger brains, more efficient tools, more muscle. How different are they? Perhaps no more than some of us differ from our contemporaries.

As large as the scientific challenge is the moral one. In the summer of 2005 the United Nations voted to ban human cloning. A non-binding ban. Under most current laws, genomes can be patented, which could offer the lawyers of this earth enough grist to last until we are living in another galaxy. Think for a moment of the ethics of re-creating a being long-thought deceased? When the Neanderthal left to develop on his own, the one thing he developed was a brain somewhat larger than those old homos. What do you suppose a differently thinking being could bring to current thought?

If ever I see that fellow on the subway, would it be out of order to ask him what his ancestors did with snow 450,000 years ago?

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.