Here’s something straight out of the land of philosophical thought experiments. Scientists in Germany have now mapped 65% of the Neanderthal genome, and could bring one of these hulking fellas to life. Neanderthals are a humanoid species that split off from homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago. For some reason there was little interbreeding between the two species, despite very strong genetic similarity. One of the most interesting findings is that Neanderthals had some of the genes critical for language.
Dr. George Church, at Harvard, says Neanderthals could be brought back with existing technology, at a price of about $30 million. The trouble, says Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford, is that you wouldn’t know whether to put Neanderthals in a zoo or at Harvard.
Klein’s question flies in the face of a very sensible sounding view called “moral individualism,” put forth by the always clear and insightful ethicist James Rachels (sadly now deceased). You ought to put Neanderthals wherever they belong, based on their own individual characteristics, he would say. If they were smart, you’d have to let them into Harvard. What would it matter what species they belonged to?
These scientists really seem to set great store by species. The “recipe” for creating a Neanderthal using modern techniques allows you to start with a human cell, and tinker madly (see article for what “tinker madly” means), or start with a chimpanzee cell. The article says–
To avoid ethical problems, this genome would be inserted not into a human cell but into a chimpanzee cell.The chimp cell would be reprogrammed to embryonic state and used to generate, in a chimpanzee’s womb, a mutant chimp embryo that was a Neanderthal in many or most of its features.
How does this avoid ethical problems? The idea seems to be that the resulting creature would be a mutant chimp, not a mutant human, so it would be much easier to justify poking, prodding, keeping it in a lab, etc.
If Rachels were alive to discuss the case, he’d find this the height of nonsense. How could anything be relevant to the way an individual is treated but the character of the individual itself? The special deference we feel toward anything that happens to be classified human is groundless, and not innocently so either. The flip side of the deference for humans is dismissal (relative or absolute–to make Mary Midgley’s helpful distinction) of all that is not human.
If you tinkered with human cells to create Neanderthals, would you thereby be placed in a position of having stronger obligations to them than if you tinkered with chimpanzee cells? Or put it this way: say one research team starts with human cells and creates Neanderthals, and another starts with chimpanzee cells. Do we owe anything more to the human-based Neanderthals?
I think Rachels view is sensible–as I said–but this isn’t really a simple matter. Your thoughts?