Bioethics Blogs

Caveman ethics? The rights and wrongs of cloning Neanderthals

Researchers decoded the whole mitochondrial DNA of five Neanderthal men, one of whom belonged to the El Sidron site (pictured) in Asturias, northern Spain, in 2009. EPA/CSIC

It now appears that the scientist who seemed to be advocating that we clone Neanderthals was suggesting only that “we need to start talking about it.” Ethics is an essential part of such a conversation: assuming we can overcome the enormous technical challenges that currently bedevil any such cloning initiative, should we do it?

Big science is expensive, and any money spent on it is money not spent elsewhere. The (perhaps many) millions of dollars required by this kind of research could be used for hospital beds, poverty alleviation or medical research. Of course, the money may come from private sources, rather than government, and private individuals may have the right to use their money in this way.

But it’s one thing to say that they have the right to spend their money in this way and quite another to say that it’s ethical to do so (there are many things we have the right to do that are nevertheless morally wrong: we can lie to one another, we can buy artworks and burn them, we can express racist or misogynist views, and so on). The very fact that research involves the expenditure of scarce resources, and therefore opportunity costs (the alternative uses we might have made of the money), means that it must have some positive value to be ethical.

What kind of positive value might justify it?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.