Scientists are predicting that one day they will be able to clone Neanderthals, a different kind of human. As an Aspie, also a different kind of human, I shudder at the thought.
Arguments in favor of doing this are scarily absent of the possible consequences or of how inhumane and unethical this may be. To hear them, you'd think we're fit to wield such power.
I'm assuming for now that cloning Neanderthals is even possible. Pro-cloning arguments run the gamut, among them: We could discover treatments for genetic disorders and diseases; we could learn new problem-solving skills from the different thought processes of Neanderthals, whose brains were wired differently from ours; we could expand our gene pool by producing offspring with them, which could protect us from extinction; we could discover how close they were to our intellectual and moral capabilities; we should because we can. A frequent argument on comment threads goes like this: "It would be cool."
The pro-cloning supporters think only of what we'd gain from this Nobel Prize-winning parlor trick. That in itself is a strong argument against cloning. It reveals modern humanity's feeble capacity for taking into account the rights and feelings of those at our mercy, which strengthens the anti-cloning argument.
I'm thinking of the way we treat non-human earthlings. It isn't pretty. Dolphins are highly intelligent, social animals, but we feel entitled to keep them in our custody so that we can swim with them for our amusement. We have driven countless specie from their habitats and to the brink of extinction. When they're forced to share our habitats, we call them vermin and we kill them. We force them to perform in circuses. We buy exotic, endangered animals and keep them as pets, where the restrictions we must place on them for their, and our, safety rob them of the ability to live out their natures. We imprison them in zoos. The wealthy hunt them for sport, sometimes shooting at them from helicopters. We perform lab experiments on them, inflicting diseases on them to teach us how to cure disease in modern humans or to test for allergens in cosmetics and cologne. We've domesticated them for our companionship and amusement, and then we keep them in solitary confinement at home while we're at work, where they can't seek out the companionship they crave.
Our savagery toward our own kind can be worse. We single out humans with different skin color, religions, cultural traditions, ethnicity, and nationality for persecution. We buy, sell and own people in some parts of the world, often in the same places where we treat women as bad as, or worse than, domestic livestock. We bomb civilians, set up concentration camps, create man-made famines to starve populations, commit genocide, imprison people for their political beliefs, and show little compassion for the poor and weak among us. We're witnessing efforts to deal with the debt and deficit in the U.S. by retaining generous tax rollbacks for the wealthiest among us, and deepening hardship for the poor and suffering. We have a history of putting "freaks" on exhibit in carnivals and circuses. We have conducted experiments on people without their informed consent. In some parts of the world we run amok, ripping apart the planet. Do we behave like a people who would honor the rights of a people we've pulled from extinction?
As someone designated The Other by the neuromajority---"normal" humans---I quibble with plans to clone humans far more Other than me. At least I can withhold informed consent for experimentation. I have a voice. I can defend myself. A Neanderthal could not. I know first hand how it feels to be shunned and reviled, even deemed an oddity to be scrutinized. I feel a duty to go for bat for a people who have no voice. I'm a modern human. I'm an offbeat, eccentric human, and even my garden variety quirks arouse the wrath of the neuromajority at times. I can tell you from my first-hand clashes with today's humans that Neanderthals---a people of eons ago---haven't got the chance of, well, a Neanderthal in the 21st century of enjoying acceptance or equality with us. And lacking that acceptance, they'd be at our mercy. Finding yourself at the mercy of today's humans too often doesn't entail mercy.
Suppose the wannabe Frankenstein crowd pulls this off. We have a sorry history of plowing ahead with untried technology (think nuclear power) with no thought about unintended, long-term consequences to ourselves, to future generations, to Earth's non-humans, or to the environment.
Assume that Neanderthals wouldn't be able to read or write. Do we take a cue from Brave New World and breed them as the race consigned to perform our menial work? If they do, do we pay them a wage for their work, or do we just buy and own them? Do we keep them as family pets? Do we perform experiments on them? Do we make the rounds of Las Vegas and Atlantic City with them, making money off of having them perform at casinos? Will the rich own them as status symbols?
Assume they could learn to read and write and function much as we do. Assume they could live independently. Do they live among us? Do they marry modern humans and have children? Do we set up "Neanderthal Townships" and segregate them? How do we plan for the uncanny valley---the visceral hostility some humans show when faced with something not human as they know human, but showing human abilities? How do we protect Neanderthals from that? How do we resolve the matter of what it means to be human, when we can't seem to do that with our own species? Will Neanderthals have equal rights and responsibilities under the law? If a modern human murders a Neanderthal, does it carry the offense and penalty of murdering a human, or would it be a lesser charge? Do we answer to them why we brought them to life?
I have to return to two pro-cloning arguments. One is that we could learn from their different thought processes. As an Aspie, I have different thought processes. My brain functions differently. I can tell you how "neuromajority" modern humans too often have reacted to my different thought processes in the work place: They've ridiculed my unique take on a task, and sometimes they've driven me from jobs. Neanderthals "thinking differently" could expect much the same.
Pro-cloning scientists also argue that we could gain valuable knowledge about human conditions and diseases. They argue that any experiment is justified if it yields useful knowledge. I'm not calling anyone a Nazi. But the Nazis conducted horrific experiments on those imprisoned in their concentration camps. Was that justified in the name of gaining knowledge about the human condition? And that bit about Neanderthals hopefully saving us from extinction? We drove them into extinction, and now we feel entitled to bring them back to save us from extinction?
I feel a kinship with Neanderthals, even if they don't exist. Scientists have speculated that Asperger's is a step in human evolution. So were Neanderthals. Modern humans seem to suffer from an aversion to steps in human evolution. What are they so afraid of?
Consider. One to 4 percent of modern DNA is Neanderthal DNA. Their brains, though different from ours, were bigger. Artifacts left behind by Neanderthals reveal that they had language, they created art and jewelry, and they grasped symbolism. They cared for their elderly, sick and injured. Most likely they formed close bonds with each other. Every Neanderthal skull you see in a museum display belonged to someone's brother or daughter.
I can't help seeing irony here. We drove Neanderthals to extinction in prehistoric times, and now we're overrunning and trashing our planet to the point where we may drive ourselves into extinction. Just as we're doing that, we talk of re-creating the humans we killed off. I wonder if Neanderthals would appreciate that irony---we wiped them out so that we could bring them back just in time for them to watch us wipe ourselves out.