Literary Neanderthals: Not So Stupid After All

A recent suggestion by a scientist that we try cloning Neanderthals reminded me of two books that depict this lost human race and raise questions about our own, homo sapiens.

ONE OF THE ONLINE JOURNALS that I read fairly regularly is MercatorNet, a site that features articles on a variety of subjects whose common link is attention to the inherent dignity of the human person. The subjects of the articles are taken from news headlines, and one of the aims of MercatorNet’s editorial policy is to take on polemically the assumptions embedded in many offerings put out by “objective” journalistic media. Or, as the MercatorNet editorial staff put it:

We’re proud to have enemies and we attack them repeatedly by confronting them with evidence. Here they are: moral relativism, scientism, crass commercialism, utilitarianism, materialism—in short, any ism which reduces persons to ciphers and treats them as soulless machines. We delight in dissecting media cliches.

They actively invite comments on their articles and encourage discussion among readers who may or may not agree with the views expressed. Since comments are moderated, the resulting discussion is always civil in tone, although not necessarily univocal. (By the way, the same publisher also has an online journal that focuses on bioethical issues: BioEdge: bioethics news from around the world.)

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal child

I mention this partly to encourage others to read MercatorNet online, and partly to draw attention to a recent piece discussing a Harvard professor’s proposal that we begin cloning Neanderthals. The view of the professor, genome researcher George Church, is that of most proponents of scientism: “If we can do something [e.g., clone Neanderthals], we are ethically compelled to do it if it will yield new knowledge.” This is just another permutation of the old “Might makes right” argument, which most thinking people would consider suspect, if not plain wrong. For this kind of scientist, the only moral imperative is to seek knowledge (scientia). But while knowledge itself may be morally neutral, the means by which we seek it, and the uses to which we put it, are not. (I seem to recall a story about a couple of early humans—even before the Neanderthals!—who sought knowledge for self-serving motives, and the results were disastrous, for themselves and for everyone else ever since.)

It’s quite amazing that scientists have been able to reconstruct the genetic sequence of members of a long-extinct branch of the human race, and I can well understand the burning curiosity such a development must excite in the imaginations of many modern people. However, as Michael Cook, author of the MercatorNet article, points out, the global scientific community has already acknowledged that human cloning is unethical and should be off limits. That general rule should apply as much to ancient strains of the human race as it does to those of us living today.

As Michael Cook points out, there are many things we would love to know about this forgotten race: what were Neanderthals like? why did they die out while we (homo sapiens) survived and throve? Is homo sapiens really superior and, if so, in what way? But beyond questions that scientists would like to be able to answer are others of a more speculative and philosophical nature: What would the world be like if we suddenly found cloned Neanderthals among us? Would it be good for us? Would it be good for the Neanderthals?

It would be strange indeed if we did not try to imagine what these ancient human cousins were like, and how the world might be different today if they had survived—or if they should return through the miracles of modern genetics. In fact, these questions have already been explored to some extent in modern. Two quite different novelists came to mind as I read the MercatorNet article: William Golding and Jasper Fforde.

Golding: “Smarter” might not mean “better”

The Inheritors book cover

William Golding was morally serious novelist, while Fforde’s novels are light-hearted and whimsical, but both writers manage to deal imaginatively with some of the moral and ethical questions about our relationship to the Neanderthals. It has been many years since I read William Golding’s The Inheritors (he is better known for Lord of the Flies), but the novel made a big impression on me at the time and I’ve been intending to re-read it ever since. As I recall, the story follows a small Neanderthal family as they live their simple but happy lives, until they meet a race of more intellectually gifted, but violently aggressive, humans. The Neanderthals were very gentle and appealing, while the “superior” race they met struck me as quite demonic. In fact, the impression the book left in my memory suggests that Golding intended the Neanderthals to represent unfallen humanity and the newcomers (presumably homo sapiens) represented the fallen race of Man. (Ironically, the more advanced race in the novel views the Neanderthals as demons.) That realization struck me rather hard at the time; it’s chilling to think that I might be a member of a human species that deliberately eradicated a gentle, non-threatening rival race—but then, that is a scenario that has repeated many times throughout the history of fallen Man, isn’t it?

I’ve read a few more of Golding’s novels since reading The Inheritors and have found that fallen human nature is one of the most pervasive themes found in them. While I can’t entirely trust my 30-year-old memory of the novel, I believe that it pretty effectively turns on its head the materialist Darwinian assumption that whatever species survives is in some fundamental way “superior” to whatever has already suffered extinction;  at least, the novel provokes the reader to question what equivalence (if any) there may be between biological and moral “superiority.”

Fforde: Neanderthals might not want to come back

Oh, did I forget to mention the mastodons?

Jasper Fforde’s novels are pure fun, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t (at least obliquely) draw his readers’ attention to some of the more problematic trajectories of modern culture. He does this primarily by the means satirists have always used—drawing ridiculously distorted pictures of the world and then daring readers to recognize themselves in the caricature. Successful satire gets the reader first to laugh at the ridiculous and then, almost simultaneously, to feel a pang of discomfort as he realizes how close to home it strikes.

In Fforde’s well-known Thursday Next series of novels he satirizes, among other things, contemporary culture’s increasing disregard of literature, as well as its penchant for exploiting (quite mindlessly) each new technological achievement, without concern for the consequences—for instance, selling home genetic reproduction kits, by which ordinary consumers can create for themselves pets from now-extinct species (Thursday herself has a pet dodo from an early model kit—the poor critter has no wings or feathers, but Thursday keeps it warm by knitting it cozies to wear).

Among the cloned species are Neanderthals—developed in a government program, I believe, for experimental purposes, which had to be abandoned after the scientists realized that they had cloned real people, not simply “medical test vessels.” As our heroine, Thursday Next, tells it:

The Neanderthal experiment was simultaneously the high and low point of the genetic revolution. Successful in that a long-dead cousin of Homo sapien [sic] was brought back from extinction, yet a failure in that the scientists, so happy to gaze upon their experiments from their ever lofty ivory towers, had not seen so far as to consider the social implications that a new species of man might command in a world unvisited by their like for over 30 millennia. It was little surprise that so many Neanderthals felt confused and unprepared for the pressures of modern life. It was Homo sapiens at his least sapient.

(Lost in a Good Book, ch. 4)

The Neanderthal characters in the novel are sensitive, thoughtful (sometimes to the point of being morose), unimpressed by the complications of modern life, and melancholy over being brought into a world where they don’t really belong and where they are not legally considered to be human. Eventually, however, they are allowed to take employment in jobs that most modern humans think beneath them. In this fictional world—as would likely be the case in our real world, should we ever successfully clone one—male Neanderthals are infertile, so there are no Neanderthal families, a real tragedy since they are very clannish by nature.

This last is a serious point that Michael Cook raises in his MercatorNet article when he analyzes why it would be unethical to clone Neanderthals:

The ultimate argument against cloning Neanderthals is that it violates human dignity to create a being outside of the loving circle of a family. The first right of a human being is to be loved for who he or she is, not as a product or scientific experiment. A cloned Neanderthal would be as close as possible to synthetic humanity as you can imagine. Part of her would be chimpanzee [because the proposed method would involve using a chimp ovum]; the rest would be a patchwork quilt of Neanderthal DNA sequenced from the bones of dozens of forebears who may have lived thousands of years apart, scattered across Europe. Everyone involved in her conception and birth would want to exploit her; none of them would cherish her. She would enter the world as a circus freak.

If this is true, isn’t there something really troubling about the mindset of scientists who are willing to acquiesce in cloning a Neanderthal? They ignore the humanity of the being they propose to create, viewing it merely as an instrument for their own curiosity or utility. For them, a human being is reduced to his genetic code or to anatomical novelties. Of course, it is just a thought experiment, but an unsettling one. Because what it reveals is the persistent capacity of science for dehumanisation.

This last point, I think, is what troubles me most about researcher Church’s proposal to create a Neanderthal clone—he views as an ethical imperative a project which, ultimately, is as unethical as it could possibly be.

Science reduces human beings to abstractions, and it’s hard to empathize with an abstraction. Imaginative literature, however, can do what science never will—it humanizes the abstractions by turning them back into concrete individuals (even if imaginary ones) whose thoughts we hear, through whose eyes we can see the world. We can’t help but feel the desolation of Golding’s Neanderthal protagonist Lok after the last of his family has been killed by the new race of homo sapiens or that of Fforde’s Neanderthal, doomed to a short, lonely life among people who don’t even respect him as a human being.

By getting us to engage imaginatively with possible worlds and situations, literature can help us to consider the consequences of our choices without actually putting anyone at risk. We can indulge our curiosity without allowing it to take us into realms where we should not wander. Fictional explorations of these ethical questions not only do no harm but more importantly help us exercise our moral imagination. In this way, fiction proves to be superior to science as a way of satisfying curiosity.

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