Thursday, February 18, 2010

Are Neanderthals Human?

So I was reading this article today about cloning neanderthals.  I'm not terribly sure its a good idea to clone neanderthals mostly because of the harm it would inflict on the undoubtedly hundreds of failed clones.  But thats another blog post for another time.  What got my interest piqued was this:

"I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties," says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. The law does not define what a human being is, but legal scholars are debating questions of human rights in cases involving genetic engineering. "This is a species-altering event," says Andrews, "it changes the way we are creating a new generation." How much does a human genome need to be changed before the individual created from it is no longer considered human?

Neanderthals are not human (scientifically).  So why would they have human rights?  Well the answer is easy, because the set of rights that we call human rights are not exclusively humans, but rather apply to all persons.  Assumedly if Spock from Star Trek were to beam down on earth right now, we would not deny him rights and protections that we grant to other human beings.

Thats simple enough.  But what makes something a human being?  Genome?  As we tinker and through natural evolution, our genome changes.  And if we change it enough, would we lose our rights?  Again, probably not.

But I want to put forth a bolder claim.  I want to say that either "human" is so hopelessly vague as to be a meaningless term, or that it applies to the things that we may create through genetic engineering, including a cloned neanderthal.  So I'm going against science here.  Neanderthals are human, in the same way that I'm Hawaiian (I'm not Hawaiian in the usual sense).  Being Chinese, my ancestors helped colonize polynesia, and eventually Hawaii.  Hawaii thus, are really just asians with some modifications. (This goes back to the race debate we were having with the census).

Now whereas race is almost a meaningless set of vague descriptions of a category, species identification is a little more exact.   It usually involves inter-breeding possibilities and such.  But presumedly we could interbreed with a very different species, so long as we modified the genetic recombination in a way to produce fertile offspring (this is what they supposedly do in Star Trek for interspecies children unless they were by sheer coincidence genetically compatible).

*edit*  Hmmm... apparently its not terribly controversial that neanderthals are human....  I take it all back.

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