Image: AP Photo, via Dawn.com
In what is surely the science world let-down of 2013, Harvard geneticist George Church revealed that he is not, in fact, looking for a woman to impregnate with a Neanderthal baby.
The phony story went viral following a recent interview published by the German magazine Der Spiegel entitled, “Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead?”, in which the magazine interviewed Church about his new book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. In the interview, the magazine asks Church about one of the ideas in his book: that a Neanderthal could conceivably be cloned out of Neanderthal DNA, which scientists at the Neanderthal Genome Project in Germany have been working for several years.
Publications around the world latched onto a short passage in the interview and ran with it. Below, the passage in question:
SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?
Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.
SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an "extremely adventurous female human" could serve as the surrogate mother.
Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.
Immediately, publications around the world ran headlines based on the “surrogate mother” comment. “Palaeolithic Park? Harvard professor seeks 'adventurous' woman to give birth to baby Neanderthal,” read a story in Britain’s Independent. “Spare Neanderthals this modern freak show,” read a Daily Telegraph headline. Things weren’t much better on this side of the pond. An NBC News headline read, “Help wanted: 'Adventurous' woman to give birth to ... a Neanderthal baby?”
In an Associated Press story published today, however, Church made it clear he was “definitely not” looking for a Neanderthal baby mama as the headlines implied. The reports were based on a misunderstanding of the interview, he said:
Is he advocating for creating a Neanderthal? No. Does he plan to pursue such a project? “We have no projects, no plans, we have no papers, no grants,” to do that, he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He also blamed it in an article yesterday from the Boston Herald on Der Spiegel, suggesting, as the Herald paraphrased it, that “poor translation skills may be part of the problem.” Der Spiegel, famous for its deep staff of fact-checkers (but presumably still embarrassed about accidentally publishing George H.W. Bush’s obit), has scrambled to make clear that the error was not theirs and that they ran the English translation by Church before publication.
Reading the excerpt from the interview above, that seems clear enough. It’s better to blame the bad reading skills of hack reporters, and a media culture that scrambles to get things first before getting them right.