The last Neanderthal died 33,000 years ago, as far as science can tell. Although the species was bigger, stronger and possibly smarter than our own -- homo sapiens -- Neanderthals still drew the short straw in the evolutionary sweepstakes and failed in a world where their rivals thrived.
A stir was created last weekend when geneticist George Church of the Harvard Medical School was quoted in the foreign press as advocating the re-creation of a Neanderthal based on the genetic code found in Paleolithic bone fragments. Reports in European newspapers said Mr. Church wanted to inject artificial Neanderthal DNA into human stem cells. After a brief gestation period, those stem cells would be inserted into a human embryo and eventually transplanted into a human surrogate to carry to term.
After the stories appeared Mr. Church's phone rang off the hook, but he has since told any reporter who would listen that it was all a misunderstanding -- a bad translation by English-speaking journalists who read an interview with him in the German magazine Der Spiegel. Although he was compared, briefly, to Dr. Frankenstein, Mr. Church insists he's not interested in creating a Neanderthal. His point was that it is technically possible right now, but that a detailed discussion needs to take place about the ethics of doing so.
We couldn't agree more.
Mr. Church's specialty is artificial DNA, so he has a sense of what can be done in the field. He also understands that technical wizardry must not be allowed to get ahead of the ethical implications of an experiment. Bioethicists, religious leaders, fellow scientists and members of the public should be relieved at that.
Humans have been spared the ethical dilemma of bringing a creature back into the world that is similar but has no immunity to modern disease. The question of who "owns" or profits from the Neanderthal is moot, too.
Someone will try to do it eventually, but not, we hope, until the big questions have been addressed. Neanderthals may not be human, but they may deserve the dignity of extinction.