In 1856, workers at a German quarry found some bones in a cave. They took the bones to a local teacher, Johan Karl Fuhlrott.
To Fuhlrott, while the bones appeared human, they were unlike those of any living European. Eventually, scientists concluded that the bones belong to an extinct species of hominid which they named after the place where the bones were found: the Neander River Valley, or Neanderthal in German.
Paleontologists estimate that Homo neanderthalensis were extinct no later than 25,000 years ago. Yet if one scientist has his way, Neanderthals could make a comeback.
George Church is a molecular geneticist who teaches at both Harvard and MIT. He recently made headlines when he told the German magazine Der Spiegel that it's possible that he could see the birth of a Neanderthal baby within his lifetime.
After all, we've already sequenced an entire Neanderthal genome. Advances in the field of synthetic biology have made it possible to "read gene sequences into computers . . . alter them and then print a modified gene into living cells."
All that's missing is an "extremely adventurous female human" and perfecting human cloning, which Church views as "very likely," technologically-speaking.
This begs the question of why we would want to bring back the Neanderthals in the first place. After all, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's character in "Jurassic Park," Neanderthals had their shot, and they blew it.
Church's argument for reversing their extinction is that "Neanderthals might think differently than we do." This difference, coupled with their larger cranial size, might make them handy to have around "when the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever."
If that sounds less than persuasive, it's because those aren't reasons, but rationalizations. Resurrecting the Neanderthal is a small part of a larger project that includes changing the human genome, and in the process, changing what we mean by the word "species."
Reading the interview in Der Spiegel, what came to mind was a cross between Jurassic Park and the Island of Doctor Moreau. And like the protagonists of Crichton's and Wells' novels, Church seems fairly certain about the rightness of what he is proposing, and his and other scientists' ability to pull it off.
Thus the German interviewer was on the mark when he told Church, "First you propose to change the 3-billion-year-old genetic code. Then you explain how you want to create a new and better man. Is it any wonder to you when people accuse you of playing God?"
Speaking of God, when asked about his religious beliefs, the ironically-named Church replied "I have faith that science is a good thing."
Of course, science can be a good thing - the issue is whether science alone can decide what ought and ought not to be done. Not even the best-intentioned scientists know what constitutes "a new and better man."
What's on display here, folks, is scientism, which posits that science alone can "yield true knowledge about man and society." If Neanderthals make a comeback - Church understates the difficulty of such an endeavor - it will happen because we can, not because we should.
It will be the result of "extremely adventurous" scientists deciding that they know what's best. After all, science is a good thing and they are scientists, right?