Becoming human

Meet your great-great-great-great-great-… great-great-grandparents, and mine.

Paleo-artist John Gurche has reconstructed the heads of some of our earliest human ancestors, for an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute that opens on March 17. What strikes me is not just all the research and skill that went into recreating the anatomical details, but the effort that went into imbuing these faces with mood and intention: wariness, nervousness, contentment. The Neanderthal in the series has even done up his hair, a simple but powerful humanizing gesture. These aren’t just expressionless mannequins; they’re characters. They could very well be the faces of our distant relatives, looking out at us from these pictures with profoundly human eyes, if we could just turn the family photo album a few million pages back.

(The Smithsonian’s website on the Gurche reconstructions is here.)

I hope my family can visit the exhibit someday. We can see something similar here in New York: the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History features reconstructions of Homo ergaster (“Turkana Boy”) and other hominids, as well as state-of-the-art dioramas of imagined prehistoric scenes: a lone male Homo erectus unwittingly being stalked by a giant hyena; a Homo ergaster couple frightening off a predatory bird from their kill.

For an in-depth exploration of the journey from Australopithecus to Homo, it’s worth taking a look at the excellent three-part Nova series “Becoming Human,” which can be seen for free here.

On a related note, we may be getting closer to the day when we can bring Neanderthals — and perhaps other hominids? — back to life. Archaeology magazine asks the provocative question, “Should we clone Neanderthals?” and explores the scientific challenges as well as the legal and ethical ramifications. The main objection to such an endeavor seems to be that a cloned Neanderthal would be so closely related, genetically, to modern humans that he or she would have to be morally recognized as human, and deserving of full human rights; resurrecting such an individual simply out of scientific curiosity, and for purposes of experimentation, would be an unethical and cruel act worthy of Victor Frankenstein.

But would it, really? Reading through the pro and con arguments in the article, I can see valid points on both sides of the issue. This is, I think, a new ethical problem, made possible by modern technology, that the religious and moral authorities of ancient times could never have anticipated. It’s uncharted territory, and requires the best modern thinking we can bring to bear on the subject.

I find this passage particularly interesting (emphasis mine):

“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?

Indeed. What does it mean to be human? The categories into which we subdivide the natural world — this is one species, that is another — are merely human impositions on what is really a continuum of life. The DNA evidence overwhelmingly shows that we are related to every single living thing that now exists, or has ever existed. It was Richard Dawkins, I believe (though I don’t have the reference in front of me), who argued that it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact moment in time when the last direct female ancestor of Homo sapiens gave birth to the first Homo sapiens baby. On this micro-level, such a distinction seems ridiculous; for why shouldn’t any offspring be the same species as their parents? And so, on what basis can we say it’s unethical to clone Neanderthals — but it may be fine to clone other hominids a couple of species further removed? How far back down the Tree of Life should we go, in order to draw the line between those beings we identify with, and those we don’t? If we say the line is arbitrary, does that necessarily mean all cloning is unethical? And if not, on what basis do we make our distinctions?

I find this head-spinning stuff, and perhaps that’s enough for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

(h/t The Daily Dish, FlickFilosopher)

Photos copyright AMNH/Denis Finnin, Rod Mickens

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