Lost in translation: The 'Neanderthal baby'

Last month, the German print edition of Der Spiegel published an interview with notable Harvard University genetic researcher George Church.

Author of "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves," Church spoke with Der Spiegel about potential uses for synthetic biology and DNA, including the notion of bringing the Neanderthal back from extinction.

However, the Daily Mail Online mistakenly reported that Church "believes he can bring (the Neanderthals) back with the help of a surrogate human mother."

Once the false claim that Church was seeking an “adventurous woman” to play the role of surrogate for a Neanderthal “baby” spread like Internet wildfire, Church responded through the Boston Herald by saying it was “too outlandish and entirely untrue."

Now in full clarification mode, Church has been assuring the media that the hypothetical aspects to his statements were lost in translation. While he contends that he is not “advocating” for women to volunteer to birth a human-Neanderthal hybrid, he went on to tell the Herald, “If it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”

And now we are.

Like with most passing topics of conversation through the blogosphere, there are varying stances to deal with, some more legitimate than others.

The obvious moral and ethical implications inherent in cloning are well-documented, though largely glazed over in conversation. However, in the curious case of George Church and the Neanderthal baby, the moral and ethical implications of the scientific and journalism communities have come under scrutiny as well.

Citing a quote by George Orwell, Wired UK writer Liat Clark posed an interesting question: Could sensationalist reporting affect willingness to accept scientific experimentation in the future?

According to the Ohio State University’s School of Communications study referenced by Clark, it seems at least probable that after a reader has been given false information and subsequently given the correction, they might still be inclined to believe what has been proven wrong.

That’s a serious problem when you consider some of the issues we all face. If we’re not going to believe in the truth when it’s presented to us, what then is the point of pursuing truth at all?

Ideally, this is where journalism comes in.

According to Clark, more reports were made on the exaggeration of Church’s “plan,” then reports on when he tried to clear the air. Anyone with only a distorted half of the story would be left to assume that a Neanderthal baby was possible.

Even for those who would dismiss Church and his work based on a ridiculous headline, the damage would be the same.

Ignorance is not only blissful, but it also generates Web activity.

This whole Neanderthal melee really is bittersweet. With so much attention generated by Church in the past few weeks, one would like to think that the full extent of his work would be discussed.

Like his work in health care or synthetic fuels — all through genetics, DNA and genome sequencing.

Clearly, we are instead still preoccupied with our own infantile level of social discourse.

When asked the “why Neanderthal?” question by Spiegel, Church answered that due to their larger cranial size, “They could even be more intelligent than us. ... It’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.”

Maybe it would be. We may never know.


Reach the columnist at jbfortne@asu.edu or follow him at @JOMOFO4


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