Raising Neanderthals: Metaphysics at the Limits of Science

by Daniel Rourke

A face to face encounter, devoid of the warm appeal of flesh. The eyes are glass, a cold blue crystal reflects the light in a way real eyes never would. A muzzle of hair, perhaps taken from a barbershop floor or the hind quarters of an animal. The painted scalp peeks through the sparse strands: there is nothing here one might caress with fumbling fingers, or, a millennia ago, pick between to lovingly tease out a louse or mite. The figure balances uneasily on stumps for legs. Its waxen surface bears no resemblance to skin. It is a shade saturated of living colour. In another shortened limb the figure holds a wooden spear, with a plastic point designed to take the place of the authentic stone tip. Under its beaten brow this creature forever stands. He is a spectacle, a museum attraction. He is not human, he is 'other'. He is not man, he is Neanderthal.

Encounters like this, hashed together from memories that span my childhood and adult years, represent the closest many of us will come to meeting a Neanderthal. Encounters built upon out-dated science and the desire of museums to authenticate experiences which, in reality, are as far away from 'true' anthropology as those glass eyes are from windows on the soul. In a recent Archaeology.org article a question was put forward that made me think again about these encounters:

Should we Clone Neanderthals? : I could not help but probe the proposition further.

Neanderthal and Human skeletons comparied In my own lifetime our understanding of these absolute 'others' has gone through several revolutions. What once were lumbering apes, incapable of rational thought, speech or the rituals of religious reverence, have become our long lost evolutionary cousins. Research from various quarters has shown that not only were Neanderthals quite capable of vocal expression, but in all likelihood they lived a rich, symbolic life. They had bigger brains than we did, or do, and were probably burying their dead with appeal to an afterlife 50,000 years before our ancestors left Africa. They cared for their young, lived in well established social groups and apart from their prominent brow and less mobile, stocky build, resembled humans in most other aspects. More recent evidence seems to show that far from being a completely separate species, it is quite possible that ancient humans interbred with Neanderthals. This astounding revelation, if it were ever verified, would mean that many of us – if not every one of us – carry within our genetic make-up a living memory of Neanderthal heritage.

But Neanderthals are more than scientific curiosities. They are the embodiment of the 'other', a reflective surface via which the human race may peer upon themselves. Human myth is filled with lumbering creatures, not quite human but every bit an echo of our deepest fears, our vanities, our failings, our memories prone to fade in time. With Shakespeare's Caliban, the feral beast of Prospero's burden, and William Blake's depiction of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who myth says was reduced to animal madness, being only two in a long list of sub-human characters. Along with these mythic creatures the Neanderthal has achieved the status of a linguistic archetype, carrying the weight of our inhumanity when admitting our limitations is too much to bear. For a very long time after their discovery Neanderthals were named as the very embodiment of our ineptitudes. To be violent, or brutally instinctive was to be Neanderthal Neanderthals stood as a fiendish remnant of the days before language, fire or social grace, before the borders between man and nature had been breached by the gift of free-will – a gift bequeathed to us, and not to them.

This vague notion of a 'gift' came to me after reading the article about the possibility of cloning Neanderthals At first I read with a certain distance, the same reading I might have given to an article about cloning dodos, mammoths or dinosaurs. Soon though, it was clear that “bringing Neanderthals back from the dead” was a far more metaphysically slippy statement than similar ones about long extinct birds or mammals.

Although concise and engaging the article bounds between two wildly opposed positions when it comes to representing Neanderthals On the one hand the scientists interviewed seem to understand Neanderthals as entities worthy of 'human' rights and freedoms:

“We are not Frankenstein doctors who use human genes to create creatures just to see how they work.” Noonan agrees, “If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have,” he says, “and if your experiment fails…well. It's a lose-lose.” Other scientists think there may be circumstances that could justify Neanderthal cloning.

“If we could really do it and we know we are doing it right, I'm actually for it,” says Lahn. “Not to understate the problem of that person living in an environment where they might not fit in. So, if we could also create their habitat and create a bunch of them, that would be a different story.”

Extract from article: Should We Clone Neanderthals?

On the other hand, much of the article is made up of insights into piecing together ancient – and therefore fragmented – DNA sequences, and the benefits a Neanderthal clone might be to human medicine:

“Neanderthal cells could be important for discovering treatments to diseases that are largely human-specific, such as HIV, polio, and smallpox, he says. If Neanderthals are sufficiently different from modern humans, they may have a genetic immunity to these diseases. There may also be differences in their biology that lead to new drugs or gene therapy treatments.”

Extract from article: Should We Clone Neanderthals?

The article does a very good job of considering the moral implications of these outcomes, and on many levels I agree with them. But when it came to the metaphysical significance of cloning a Neanderthal the article, like so many other articles about science, stayed largely silent.

Before I come back to the notion of the 'gift' I mentioned before, I'd like to reconsider the article with a few simple questions:

1. What would it mean to give life to an extinct creature, let alone one whose mental capacities are as varied and dexterous as our own?

Neanderthal burial The likelihood is that early human groups had a part to play in the extinction of our closest cousins, as we still do in the demise of many other, less human, creatures. Our propensity to distinguish ourselves from the natural world that supports us is one intimately bound to our notions of identity, of cause and effect and – perhaps most fundamentally – of spiritual presence. Where the Neanderthal differs from other extinct species is at the status of 'other'. By being so similar in kind to us the Neanderthal cannot help but become a mirror for the human race. Of course it is impossible to know how early humans and Neanderthals reacted to each other all those centuries ago. But the outcome would suggest that humans did not run to help their evolutionary neighbours as their life slipped away. To us they must have seemed both alien and kin. Something to fear, not because of their absolute difference, but because deep down we knew how they viewed the world. And if it was anything like the way we did, we were better rid of them.

Further more, to bring Neanderthals into the world as scientific curiosities – which they would be by necessity – is to deny them the status of 'human' from the beginning. Not only would a Neanderthal grown in a test-tube be the embodiment of 'other', they would also be a walking, talking genetic tool-kit, replete with the needs of a person, but the status of a slave.

2. How much of what we decode and reconstruct is just DNA?

Genetics is an impressively successful science, giving us insights into the living, breathing world at a range of detail unknown to previous generations. But I don't think it is too cynical of me to throw caution upon its 'truth' value. Genetics is not a truth about the world. Instead, it is a highly paradigmatic model that scientists use to understand abstractions of reality far removed from the every day. Of course this gross generalisation is worthy of a long discussion in itself, and one better balanced by whole swathes of research designed to outline the weak points of the genetic paradigm, as well as advance our understanding of it. When the issue at hand is better medical care, or the development of advanced crops for the third world, we should keep these issues in mind, moving forwards cautiously as long as the benefits outweigh our reservations. When it comes to bringing to life an entire species, and one in whose original demise we probably played a part, a blind trust in scientific models is much more likely to lead us into a moral cul de sac we may never escape from. Although the article talks at length on the problems associated with cloning (such as birth defects and multiple infant deaths) it fails outright to consider what genetics, and thus 'cloning', actually represents.

Any creature that we did 'raise from the dead' would be as much a result of contemporary scientific models as it was of mother nature.

…and with both those questions in mind, a third:

3. What happens to our vision of ourselves once the deed has been done?

This final point, leaking naturally from the other two, is founded on what seem on the surface overtly metaphysical concerns. But I hasten to show that through applying the rhetoric of 'human rights' onto creatures that were born in a laboratory, nothing but confusion can arise.

It pays here to visit two theorists for whom the questions of the 'gift' and of the 'tool' are highly significant to their philosophies.

From the writings of Georges Bataille we learn that nothing humans make in utility may be given a status above a tool:

“The tool has no value in itself – like the subject, or the world, or the elements that are of the same nature as the subject or the world – but only in relation to an anticipated result. The time spent in making it directly establishes its utility, its subordination to the one who uses it with an end in view, and its subordination to this end; at the same time it establishes the clear distinction between the end and the means and it does so in the very terms that its appearance has defined. Unfortunately the end is thus given in terms of the means, in terms of utility. This is one of the most remarkable and most fateful aberrations of language. The purpose of a tool's use always has the same meaning as the tool's use: a utility is assigned to it in turn and so on…”

Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion

For Jean-Joseph Goux the act of 'giving' is always a statement of otherness:

“The impossibility of return reveals the truth of the gift in separating it from the return and, most of all, in showing it as an act carried out for others. This service toward others must be the only reason for the kind deed…. It is only as a superior level in the gradation of the regimes of giving that the gift without return can be thought. This mode of giving imitates the Gods. We have two extreme positions on the moral scale, “The one who brings kind deeds imitates the Gods; the one who claims a payments imitates the usurers.””

Jean-Joseph Goux, Seneca Against Derrida

To consider the cloning of Neanderthals as an act of utility (i.e. for the benefits their genome would be to human medicine) is to, by definition, subordinate them to their 'use-value' – denying them outright the status of human and the rights to which that status is associated. On the other hand, to consider the act of cloning as a true 'gift' to the Neanderthals is to push our own status as the 'givers' towards the divine. Either the cloned Neanderthals are tools for us to use as we wish or their life is their very own and one instantly removed from any right we claim to administer it.

Of course it is impossible to imagine the cloned Neanderthals' 'gift' as being one we would honour unto them without any claim of return. In the modern world such creatures, born in our laboratories, would at least be the legal property of the institution that bore them. At the very worst the cloned Neanderthal would grow up under the lights of a thousand television cameras, only to be cut open and dissected in front of the very same zooming lenses when it came of age.

Neanderthal depiction There is a much deeper problem at play here, one that I believe science has no possibility of solving. Once our technologies are capable of bringing sentient life into existence, whether that be a Neanderthal or a cognitive computer, that very same technology becomes instantly incapable of representing the life it has created. Simply put, it is at this point that scientific rhetoric collapses as a field of enterprise, and only the patterns and considerations of philosophy and religion become relevant. As Bataille and Goux show, the only entity capable of truly giving – asking not for return, the only metaphysical concept capable of acting upon the world without utility is a divine being, neither of this world nor capable of being represented in it. Not for one moment does this philosophical enquiry suggest that such a being exists, what it does do is draw firmly into the sand a metaphysical line beyond which 'we' cannot cross. It is not that humans won't be technically able to bring such living entities into the world, it is more that, at the very moment we do so 'we' – as a concept – cease to be. In religious terminology the relationship we might have with such beings is similar to that between the shepherd and his flock. At the moment we bring Neanderthals into our world they become our most significant responsibility, exploding to infinity any notions we may have carried before about our own place in the cosmos.

I have no idea whether I would like to see Neanderthals walking the planet alongside us, or whether their memory should stay that way, long into our future. What I do know is that this philosophical parable is one that science, and the modern humanity it supports, would do well to become more aware of. So often it seems that our scientific rhetoric is incapable of providing us with solid enough foundations for the acts we commit in its name. Perhaps in a world of continued, man-made extinctions, of climate change and ever increasing human populations, perhaps in this world science needs a Neanderthal-cloning moment to awaken it to the implications of its continued existence.

“…philosophy seeks to establish, or rather restore, an other relationship to things, and therefore an other knowledge, a knowledge and a relationship that precisely science hides from us, of which it deprives us, because it allows us only to conclude and to infer without ever presenting, giving to us the thing in itself.”

Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands

by Daniel Rourke