Cloned Cave Baby Lost in Translation

BY Jenny Marder  January 25, 2013 at 10:20 AM EDT

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal at Mettmann, Germany’s Neanderthal Museum. Photo by Stefan Scheer, Courtesy Wikimedia.

Who doesn’t love a good story about a cloned Neanderthal baby? As they flickered across the web this week, I read them all, and was delighted to hear that expert geneticist George Church was seeking an “adventurous woman” willing to donate her uterus to spawn a 35,000-year-old cave baby. Because, as the Knight Science Journalism Tracker rightly noted — hello reality show!

Of course, it wasn’t true. His words, it turned out, got all mangled in the translation of the interview from English to German and then back to English again.

Here’s what happened, in a nutshell:

The German magazine Der Spiegel interviewed George Church, a giant in the world of molecular genetics, on topics related to his latest book, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.”

The interview was billed in part as a discussion on “the prospects for using synthetic biology to bring the Neanderthal back from extinction.” Here’s an excerpt:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?

Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?

SPIEGEL: Perhaps because it is banned?

Church: That may be true in Germany, but it’s not banned all over the world. And laws can change, by the way.

SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?

Church: Well, that’s another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.

SPIEGEL: So let’s talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.

Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.

And then later in the interview, this:

SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an “extremely adventurous female human” could serve as the surrogate mother.

Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.

If you read closely, you’ll see that Church never expressed outright intent to clone a Neanderthal baby. He simply called it “a possibility.” His point was clear: we have the technology to do it. Words matter. His role, he said, was to determine what’s “technologically feasible.”

But what sprung from the Spiegel interview were grossly exaggerated accounts, some of them just plain wrong. The Daily Mail retooled his words under this provocative headline: “Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man — Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby”

The not-so-subtle subtext here was that he was actively searching the keeper of this “adventurous” womb.

Fox News had a similar headline — Scientist Seeks ‘Adventurous Woman’ to Have Neanderthal Baby — and the network reported Church saying, “I can create a Neanderthal baby, if I can find a willing woman.” The problem is, that quote exists nowhere in the English version of the article.

On the bright side, surging into the blogosphere since have been a delightful assortment of attempts to debunk the misquotes, clarify Church’s meaning and probe the bioethics of the cave baby question.

There was this thoughtful piece, from Forbes’ Matthew Herper, pointing out that such “hyperventilating” distracts from the legitimate and scientifically important work that Church is doing in genome-editing technology.

In an opinion column for CNN, famed bioethicist Arthur Caplan labeled any attempt to clone a Neanderthal baby outright unethical.

“At best,” Caplan said, “it might shed some light on the biology and behavior of a distant ancestor. At worst it would be nothing more than the ultimate reality television show exploitation: An ‘Octomom’-like surrogate raises a caveman child — tune in next week to see what her new boyfriend thinks when she tells him that there is a tiny addition in her life and he carries a small club and a tiny piece of flint to sleep with him.”

The Boston Herald called up Church, who dubbed the initial reports “way too outlandish, and entirely untrue.” The real story, Church told the Herald, “is how these stories have percolated and changed in different ways.”

And perhaps my favorite: Chicago Tribune’s John Kass, who imagines a pet Neanderthal “beastie” with lobbed off thumbs that does lunch runs, pulls rickshaws and engages in combat sports. Until, that is, he turns on you, “calmly pulls your head off with the spine attached and begins running around your office howling with glee.”

Oh, and by the way, Roger Ebert is already pitching it as a movie.

  • Who says nothing good comes from leprosy? “Leprosy bacteria can reprogram cells to revert to a stem-cell-like state, able to mature into different cell types,” Nature News reports.

  • In an older brain, remembering more may require forgetting more, according to this New York Times report.

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

If you read anything this week, read Carl Zimmer’s vivid, fascinating and mildly gruesome obituary to the guinea worm.

Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.

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