Over the holidays many people indulge in drink or sweets. Like a true nerd, I indulge in reading all the books I couldn’t get to during the semester. Among those books was anthropologist Chris Stringer’s Lone Survivors (Henry Holt, 2012). The book presents Stringer’s Recent Out of Africa (ROA) theory according to which homo sapiens emerged from Africa around 100,000 years ago at which point they migrated east and north into Europe were they gradually replaced the Neanderthals.
The mountain of archaeological and genetic evidence the book marshalls to show how anthropologists reconstruct the past is truly dizzying. But for me the most interesting part of the book are the philosophical questions that it raises. For example, there are questions about the origin of culture from crude shell beads dating to 100,000 years ago to cave paintings 30,000 years ago. And one wonders whether Cro Magnon (homo sapien) man would have recognized Neanderthals as fellow humans. Or whether they would have thought of them as altogether different. (I suspect the latter given that two stone age human tribes living in adjoining valleys are just as likely to view the other tribe as less-than-human.) And there is that big and unsettled question: what factor(s) led to the human cultural explosion?
In the midst of all these questions I come to what may be for me the most intriguing part of the whole book. It is a moment when Stringer takes off his anthropologist’s hat and puts on his ethicist’s hat as he talks about the Neanderthals, a species that died out perhaps 30,000 years ago. (In case you were wondering, the Geico caveman is really just a homo sapiens actor in makeup. But I digress.) Here’s the quote:
“Given our possible role in their demise, should we reverse the process of extinction and attempt to clone a Neanderthal from its newly reconstructed genome? This is something I would have dismissed as pure science fiction only a few years ago, but with the staggering progress recently in genomics no one should rule out an attempt in the future. What I am sure about, though, is that it would be quite wrong to resurrect long-extinct species purely to satisfy our curiosity about them, especially if they were human. Neanderthals were the products of a unique evolutionary history in Eurasia that lasted for several hundred thousand years, but they are gone, along with the world in which they evolved, and we should let them rest in peace.” (199)
There are two things that puzzle me about this passage. To begin with, curiosity — the desire to understand — is surely the driving force behind most scientific discovery. So it intrigues me that Stringer declares it would be wrong for this curiosity to be the ground for “resurrecting” extinct species. Further, I am especially intrigued by Stringer’s assumption that it would be especially wrong to “resurrect” an extinct species of the genus homo. Since Stringer doesn’t provide the reason why this would be “quite wrong” we are left to speculate.