Sunday 20 January 2013

mountain high, valley low

Two recent articles featured via Neatorama offer up an intriguing triangulation touching ethics, technical feasibility, the capacity for imagination as well as questioning what it means to be human through the lens of speciation. The latter points to a very interesting interview between reporters with Der Spiegel and a Harvard professor who is one of the leading thinkers in the field of synthetic biology, regarding the possibility of resurrecting the Neanderthals, whose genetic map has already been successfully sequenced and cloning this branch of the family of man would be (after all the questions are answered, and the scientist and his team invite public debate as essential) a relatively simple matter of finding a willing surrogate.
Like the Jurassic era (adapted into an early cautionary-tale) is named for a mountain range in the western alps, the sub-species Neanderthal is named after a valley (Tal) near Dรผsseldorf, frequented by a pastor in the 1800s, called Joachim Neumann (Neander is the Greek-form of new man) for inspiration. The characteristic limestone layer of the age was first discovered in the Jura mountains, and the fossilized skeleton of our cousins was first recognized for what it could be in Neander’s valley. Notwithstanding the harvests of genetically modified crops that have infiltrated our food supplies mostly out of business interest (we have not yet made good on the promise of drought-resistant crops for famine-struck regions but that is not a profit that companies can necessarily take to the bank), vaccines, and pedigrees of dogs and cats, it is not acceptable to create or revive sentient beings purely for the benefit and advancement of human kind—in the style of Planet of the Apes, however, Neanderthal physique was at minimum more robust than ours and may have been smarter than their lither and perhaps crueler competitors.

We already do not know how to procede with the little knowledge we already have about tinkering with DNA and are not able to treat other humans humanely, so perhaps this sort of thinking is a bit premature but it still does not remain unreachably in the realm of fantasy. Neanderthals could conceivably have a different take on intellect and help solve the problems that the surviving Homo sapiens created, make new scientific discoveries and be kinder, more empathetic leaders—maybe the ruling class we need rather than putting our trust in the hands of robotic overlords. Mingling our genetic material would create more diversity, too, and perhaps provide resistance to a host of human diseases. These last two benefits lead to the former article regarding what the Star Trek franchise has taught us about evolutionary biology.
The humans accepted the benevolent tutelage of the more experienced Vulcans before arrogantly taking on the Universe like the Wild West, and characters like Mr. Spock, Mr. Worf (Worf was raised by adoptive human parents), Counselor Troi, and B’elanna Torres were outstanding representatives of both sides of their families. One wonders if alien races could really inter-breed, and perhaps it was just a plot-device to excuse costuming and set-design due to budget-constraints (the teleporter was written into the storyline because it was cheaper than staging a ship landing every episode) but the analysis recalls an episode from the Next Generation that explains the humanoid appearance through panspermia, orchestrated by a dying primogenitor race—as well as the hybrid children, since the concept of specie is marked by the ability to cross-breed naturally. Maybe science fiction does not answer all the ethical and philosophical quandaries when it comes to experimenting with genetics, but it probably does provide a good place to start.