Cloning the Neanderthal: only a matter of time and resources

The science behind Relic and Relic II: Resurrection is reaching a tipping point.

Scientists are debating about a possible return of the Neanderthal. With stem cell technology breaking through elsewhere and a complete sequence of the Neanderthal genome at hand, it’s seemingly only a matter of time or resources…

Scientists are debating about a possible return of the Neanderthal. With stem cell technology breaking through elsewhere and a complete sequence of the Neanderthal genome at hand, it’s seemingly only a matter of time or resources.

Seriously, who needs Mammoths, if we could bring back creatures like Dinosaurs and/or our close relatives back to life. The scientific world was surely influenced by the Hollywood blockbusters of late, but they are indeed considering the possibilities.

Big Think had an interview a while ago featuring Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, pondering the thought: what if we actually just clone dinosaurs or even more interesting from an anthropological standpoint the Neanderthal, all based solely off their genomes?

Intriguing and plausible to geneticist and director of Harvard University’s Church Labs, George Church who believes (or hopes) that Homo Neanderthalensis will once again roam the world with us in our lifetime. All that’d be needed is a human female “adventurous” enough to take on that biological task.

As we are in the midst of an ongoing discussion, flaring up for a couple of years now, should we be looking closely at our neighbor’s newborn baby? Church believes that with current stem cell technology and a completed sequence of the Neanderthal genome, the potential has been there for a while now.

The discussion of the last 4 to 5 years clearly shows somewhat of a sentiment of compassion for the Neanderthals that went extinct tens of thousands of years ago, even though tiny bits and pieces obviously survived within our own genome. It would be an impressive feed for science and definitely paves the way for bringing back something from 65 million years ago.

Dr. Kaku chimed in on that idea a couple of times now and always admitted, that cloning a dinosaur won’t be as easy as cloning a Neanderthal or a mammoth. However, does it mean it’s impossible at all? No, nothing is really impossible and the upcoming biological revolution through the use of quantum supercomputer should be immensely helpful in recreating all kinds of genetic sequences we can think of. The Potential for cloning through epigenetics is waiting for us and after finding enough proteins within soft tissues of recovered dinosaurs femurs, we already know that it resembles those of frogs, reptiles and even more so, chickens.

Now, let’s get back to a question that pre-dates the scientific discussion – is it the right thing to do?

Especially if we consider bringing back Neanderthals, where there are only minor technical limitations to get past, the ‘Cavemen ethics’ come into consideration. Big science like this surely is expensive, and any money spent on it is money not spent elsewhere, but if there’s one thing we learned from humanity’s troubled history – what could be done, always has been done… even or especially the morally wrong things.

In other words, what kind of positive value might justify it? Research is often justified by the simple credo of a benevolent disposition – the promise of bringing tangible benefits to all of us such as extending the length and quality of lives. Once the mainstream is attracted to a specific idea, things are quickly set into motion

With Neanderthals, there will always be this ethical element and our most important might be: what do we do once a Neanderthal child is brought to life? It’s not a Hollywood-orchestrated coincidence of bringing back an Encino Man like the early 90ies comedy leads us to believe.

After all, a Neanderthal is a very capable human being that should not be held in captivity next to some zoo animals and also needs a lifetime of study. We could observe the growing child’s behavior. Observation alone will not be enough, though as we don’t know much about the timely role and dependency of environmental inputs. Unlike most other animals, a Neanderthal would begin to understand how it is being treated and most likely reacts in a way that reflects its place in the world, it’s very own world of conception.

Scientists would need to clearly communicate it to the cloned Neanderthal, fully aware of the implications and hoping that language can bridge the gap of time and evolution.

Many people in the scientific community believe this act is far too inhumane to even attempt, where others see the possibility of genetic diversity that could help us in the coming decades. Finally, there are those with a sense of humor, assuming that any Neanderthal born this way would have some natural, inherited human rights within human society, and therefore, if inclined to it, could sue the scientists cloning him or her for wrongful birth.

Feel free to listen to more arguments by Dr. Kaku’s on the complexity of prehistoric cloning.

This article was originally published on pionic. Read the full story:


The Whites of Their Eyes!


the-invaders“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!”

It was more than just a Revolutionary War cry at the battle of Bunker Hill. The white part of human’s eyes, the sclera, may have had an important part in the extinction of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens dominance of Europe (and the world) 40,000 years ago.

According to Professor Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University, early dogs, bred from wolves, played a critical role in the modern human’s takeover of Europe when we vanquished the Neanderthal locals.

Most scientists argue that modern humans – armed with superior skills and weapons – were responsible for forcing Neanderthals into oblivion. Professor Shipman adds a twist. We had an accomplice: the wolf.

Professor Shipman’s book, “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction“, delves into the symbiotic relationship that early man and wolves forged.

Professor Shipman’s hypothesis is that early modern humans, also known as Cro-Magnon, formed alliances with wolves soon after they entered Europe. These early humans tamed and domesticated some wild wolves, and the dogs bred from them were then used to chase prey and to drive off rival carnivores, including leopards and other large predator cats, that tried to steal the meat from the Cro-Magnon kill.

One key feature of Homo sapiens, alone among other primates, and presumably Neanderthals, is that we have white eyes. “The main advantage of having white sclera is that it is very easy to work out what another person is gazing at,” added Shipman. “It provides a very useful form of non-verbal communication and would have been of immense help to early hunters. They would been able to communicate silently but very effectively.”

Thus the mutation conferring white sclera could have become increasingly common among modern humans 40,000 years ago and would have conferred an advantage on those who were hunting with dogs.

By contrast, there is no evidence of any kind that Neanderthals had any relationship with dogs and instead they appear to have continued to hunt mammoths and elks on their own, a punishing method for acquiring food. Already stressed by the arrival of modern humans in Europe, our alliance with wolves would have been the final straw for Neanderthals.

Professor Shipman’s theory about white sclerae is intriguing. I haven’t yet learned of any genetic data suggesting whether Neanderthals had white sclerae. Certainly, it would have been a disadvantage to Neanderthals if their attempts to domesticate or cooperate with wild dogs were hindered by this anatomical difference.

I wonder if there is any connection with the development of white sclerae and other behavioral characteristics that are related to Mirror Neuron theories? A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Mirror neurons have been said to have the potential to provide a mechanism for action-understanding, imitation-learning, and the simulation of other people’s behavior. I did reference mirror neurons in my novel “Relic”; in the story, the military found that Neanderthals had a “mirror neuron deficit” which would become a hindrance when trying to get a platoon of Neanderthals cooperating while on a mission. They couldn’t read each other’s body language.

I would imagine that this sort of deficit could affect the success of a hunting group that is attempting to stealthily stalk their prey. Perhaps not as important when bringing down large game in a brute force manner (bison, mammoth). However, perhaps more important when stalking small or skittish prey. Non-verbal communication skills would also be advantageous to the younger, less strong members of a hunting group; perhaps having these superior non-verbal skill allowed younger members of a Cro-Magnon to become active members of a hunting group at an earlier age. This would have resulted in larger, more capable hunting groups. It also would have allowed younger Cro-Magnons to hunt for small game without the assistance of the larger, stronger hunters. The experienced hunters would go after big game while the younger hunters would stalk smaller game, resulting in overall larger food supply for the tribe.

I could see how cooperation with dogs could play into this. Hunting dogs would not have been as important in bringing down bison or mammoth. Certainly, finding a herd of bison would not require a dog’s hunting skills. Again, this sort of hunting would be the domain of the stronger adult hunters. However, a young Cro-Magnon child or adolescent hunter, paired with a hunting dog, would be much more productive compared to a lone Neanderthal adolescent. A larger percentage of a Cro-Magnon tribe could become productive hunters as compared to an equivalent sized tribe of Neanderthals.

Professor Shipman’s hypothesis, coupled with mirror neuron deficit in Neanderthals, could have packed a one-two punch that ultimately led to the Neanderthals’ demise. Superior non-verbal communication skills for stealthy hunting of smaller prey, along with an alliance of younger human hunters with wolves, may have created the tipping point that drove Neanderthals into extinction.


Could Nurture Trump Nature?

The debate over whether nature trumps nurture has been an ongoing debate in the scientific and philosophical communities for years, if not centuries.

Humans, but only humans, have been the subject and focus of this debate, and with good reason. It is our species alone that possess the intellectual capacity for abstract thought, conceptual language, and the written word. These are all essential tools and factors that are necessary to alter the nature of, that is, to nurture, another human being’s thought process with the intent of changing their behavior.

What if there was another “platform”, another subject, a non human subject, to test this theory? Recent advances in paleontology, genetics, and neurobiology may provide us with such an opportunity.

Science has learned that the human brain is not as “hardwired” as once thought. The plasticity of our brains, that is that ability for the neurons and synapses to grow, change, and even heal, is proving to us that certain unique capabilities for learning (e.g. language acquisition and socialization skills) that are so easily displayed by the very young are not “locked down” when we reach adulthood, but actually can be extended into old age.

Is this capability limited to humans? There are few animals with similar body-to-brain mass ratios as humans that also possess sufficient brain mass (and hence neuron count) to imply the ability of the complex neurological dance that we call consciousness. Dolphins are closest, but the vast differences in anatomy and living environment present too many barriers to studying their intellectual growth and capabilities in a manner similar to studying human development. Great apes possess the anatomy, but not the required brain mass. We have no equal as a comparison.

However, that was not always the case.

Forty thousand years ago, our biological cousins, the Neanderthals, lived side by side with us. Paleontological evidence and research has suggested that Neanderthal’s brain mass was equivalent, and perhaps larger, than humans. Recent advances in genomic research, along with the complete sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, have given as the ability to create that “platform” for truly testing whether nature indeed trumps nurture.

Cloning a Neanderthal is within the realm of possibility. Humanely studying the growth and development of one or more would provide insight into brain development, intellectual capacity, language acquisition, and many other aspects of intellect far beyond what we can do today with humans as our only point of reference. Could brain plasticity extend to other species? Is there only one way to find out?

Could Neanderthals Be Baptized?

Bio-genetic technology is advancing faster than our ability to understand the ethical issues and consequences that arise from such capabilities. With the entire Neanderthal genome mapped, it may be only a short time before some daring scientists, along with a willing surrogate, clone and give birth to a real, live Neanderthal infant; a living being with the potential for intelligent thought equivalent, and perhaps even superior, to our own mental capabilities.

What then?

How would our laws, ethics, and religions deal with the what is essentially the resurrection of an extinct human species? What rights and protections would this child have? Neither human, nor ape, would it be considered property, like any other cloned animal? Or would it be guaranteed the rights and privileges we expect for ourselves?

Andrew Brown, Zach Zorich, and Heather Pringle are among many scientists and bioethicists who have explored the multitude of issues that would arise if a healthy Neanderthal child (or two, or three) were born.

We are possibly closer to this reality than you might think. Our technology frequently exceeds our laws and ethics. Only our morals stand between us and disaster.

Homo Collectivus

Collectivism, teamwork, cooperation.

Could these be the traits that allowed Modern humans (Homo sapiens) to drive Neanderthals into extinction and populate the Earth like no other mammal has accomplished?

A couple of years ago, a certain Dr. Daniel Stark offered the following hypothesis:

“Essentially [Neanderthals] were overwhelmed. Forced into the margins. There is evidence of some interbreeding between the two species. That’s why some modern humans have this trace of DNA. But for the most part, the Neanderthals couldn’t compete with Homo sapiens. …. There [was] something unique about the wiring in a human brain that makes us different, special. Even with a bigger brain, Neanderthals lacked that.”

“…. it was culture that did them in. Or the lack of it. For example, one-on-one, in hand to hand combat, the Neanderthal would almost always come out on top. They’d simply pound you into the ground. However, in groups, Homo sapiens had the advantage. They had better communications skills, better sociological skills. They developed culture, group dynamics. They could plan and execute better as a team.”

“[Essentially]  teamwork killed off [Homo neanderthalensis]. The better social skills of [the] Homo sapiens allowed them to coordinate and work together in larger, more cohesive groups; tribes essentially. It was the first step toward the development of modern cultures. Neanderthals were outsmarted, … Especially when it  [came] to hunting big prey. Big game hunting is a big payoff. It feeds more than the hunters. It feeds the village; the kids, the elders, everyone. A team of hunters taking down a large animal yields all sorts of extra benefits compared to a single hunter catching a rabbit. The modern humans had an advantage. Not everybody had to go hunt. Some could stay back and do other things. Not only the obvious things like childcare, but things like pottery, building huts, making weapons, preparing food, making clothing. The larger, coordinated groups of humans could take better advantage of their environment. They could breed faster and more often since they had a better food supply. After some time the Neanderthals were outnumbered and forced into the less hospitable areas of northern Europe. That made it even tougher to survive. Eventually, they died out.”

Now, a hypothesis offered by Dr. Curtis Marean attempts to extend Dr. Stark’s original ideas. In a recent article in the August issue of Scientific American, Dr. Marean postulates that a genetic propensity for cooperation with unrelated individuals primed the modern humans (Homo sapiens) for world domination. This trait, along with the new technology of the throwing spear, gave us the edge over Neanderthals when hunting big game.

Has fiction become fact?

The Ugly Extinction

There are a number of theories regarding Neanderthal extinction. Some of these center around the struggle between the already established Neanderthal population and the encroaching anatomically modern human (Homo sapiens or Cro-magnon) population in the Levant, and subsequently into Central and Western Europe.

The theories contend that modern humans were better adapted, had superior hunting, intellectual, and social skills. These advantages ultimately forced the Neanderthal population into into less hospitable environs with substandard resources, then ultimately into extinction.

This all may be true. However, I’d like to put forth a slightly different interpretation to the Neanderthal extinction. Sure, I’ll agree it was contention with the new human population. However, instead of the aforementioned characteristics, I believe that Neanderthals died off because modern humans were simply more attractive.

Yes, you read that correctly. Humans won the day because they were (and still are) better looking than Neanderthals.  Face it (and have you seen a Neanderthal facial reconstruction?), a Neanderthal is not the most handsome or prettiest face at the dance.

I contend that Neanderthal males were much more attracted to human females than to their own female counterparts, plain and simple.

It’s a basic instinct and can be observed through the animal kingdom; the better looking male individuals are more likely to mate more frequently with the attractive females. These more attractive females are also more likely to gain favor with the males to bring them food and offer shelter.

To those of us who survived high school, this all makes perfect sense. The current infatuation with geekdom aside, the good looking girl did not always end up with the good looking guy. Singer/songwriter Joe Jackson summed it up succinctly in his hit single Is she really going out with him? “Pretty women walking with gorillas down my street.”

Males are attracted to beautiful women. Females, on the other hand, are attracted to strong males who can provide and protect. Who can blame a young homo sapiens female for choosing a hulking Neanderthal over a slim (albeit possibly more handsome) male Homo sapiens?  The Neanderthal was the better hunter and protector, given the sheer difference in size and strength compared to a modern human. Neanderthal women on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with scrawny homo sapiens males. Sure, modern human males could run faster. So what? Big game hunting (the type that put food on the table at that time) was an ambush game in wooded highlands that required bulk strength. No one chased after big game in an open field.

The problems arose when reproduction is factored in. Hybridization overwhelmingly favored offspring from a male Neanderthal with female human coupling. The offspring tended to be more modern human than Neanderthal . They carried human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) rather than Neanderthal mtDNA, and, most importantly, the hybridized male offspring were infertile. This skewed the subsequent generations further toward human rather than Neanderthal genetics.

With the Neanderthal males chasing human females, Neanderthal to Neanderthal mating was reduced. Sure, the ugly Neanderthal women tried to compete, but as the saying goes: lipstick on a pig….

I suspect that the human females who coupled with Neanderthal males still went off for trysts with human males while their Neanderthal mates were off hunting, further skewing the subsequent generations toward human DNA.

Eventually, the lopsided mating resulted in a diminishing number of pure Neanderthal males. Neanderthal females who had no mates had already died off due to lack of hunting skills and ability to feed themselves and their own offspring.

The rest, I’m afraid, is history.