Wanted: Adventurous Surrogate to Gestate Neanderthal Baby [updated]

Posted by Pete Shanks January 19, 2013
Biopolitical Times
Here's one from the Mad Misogynist Scientist Department: George Church, Harvard professor, synthetic biology pioneer, entrepreneur, "life hacker," author (and speaker) told* was widely reported as telling Der Spiegel that he'll soon be looking for an "adventurous female human" to impregnate with a synthetically constructed and genetically engineered Neanderthal-like clone.

GenomeWeb summarizes the interview:

Church is currently developing technology in his lab that can be used to make human cells similar to those of Neanderthals. Eventually, an "adventurous female human" needs to be found as a surrogate mother for the first Neanderthal baby ...

(It sounds no better in the original German, here.**)

Church had previously voiced his enthusiasm about using a chimpanzee as a surrogate for a Neanderthal-like baby. Originally, this seems to have been an outgrowth of proposals in 2008 to revive the extinct mammoth, in part by reprogramming and then re-engineering an elephant's cells.

At that time, Church proposed the chimp workaround for creating Neanderthals as an alternative to using humans that would "alarm a minimal number of people." He seems to have lost whatever inhibitions he then had.

He also seems to be callously indifferent to the fate of the women who would supply eggs for his experiment, and then, he hopes, offer their bodies as surrogates. (One woman? He's going to get this right the first time? That seems unlikely.)*** Other people's bodies — even, perhaps, his own — are mere phenomena, to be investigated and played with, to satisfy his own abundant curiosity.

His ambitions are not limited to reviving our long-lost cousins. He also hopes to tweak human genetic design, to extend lifespan ("What if we were all 120?"), to program in resistance to viruses, and then ... well, he has previously written that:

Our methods treat the chromosome as both an editable and an evolvable template, permitting the exploration of vast genetic landscapes.

Church is aware that some people are strongly opposed to this kind of technology, but he clearly does not understand why. The Der Spiegel interview closes ominously with his assertion that while mingling human DNA with that of other species has always been off-limits, "this barrier will fall."****

He's not just misogynist, though the effect on women would be the first bad consequence of his deluded fantasies. He's downright misanthropic. A benevolent, even gregarious, misanthrope perhaps; but a deeply misguided one.

Update 1/22/13: Church has strongly objected to the way many outlets reported this story, and insists that he is "certainly not advocating" impregnating a woman with a Neanderthal embryo. He blames, in part, translation problems. More context will be provided in a later post. In the meantime, some minor edits and comments are called for:

*It is incorrect to say he "told" Der Spiegel that he would "soon" be looking; rather, he delineated a theoretical process. In the now-posted English Q&A, from which the German interview is clearly derived, he was asked, "Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?" He replied, "That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so."

**The Q&A does include significant caveats, such as: "However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society." But the phrase "an extremely adventurous female human" is in the Prologue (p. 11) of his book Regenesis, used in this exact context, and Der Spiegel asked him about it. Church's principal focus in the discussion is on the benefits to be obtained from these experiments.

***Church specifically discusses creating "a cohort, so they [the neo-Neanderthals] would have some sense of identity." That considerably increases the number of women who would be at risk.

**** From the Q&A: "So far, the definition of different species has been that they can't exchange DNA. But more and more, this species barrier is falling. Humans will probably share genes with all sorts of organisms."

Previously on Biopolitical Times: