In northern Spain 49,000 years ago, 11 Neanderthals were murdered. Their tooth enamel shows that each of them had gone through several periods of severe starvation, a condition their assailants probably shared. Cut marks on the bones indicate the people were butchered with stone tools. About 700 feet inside El Sidrön cave, a research team including Lalueza-Fox excavated 1,700 bones from that cannibalistic feast. Much of what is known about Neanderthal genetics comes from those 11 individuals.
Lalueza-Fox does not plan to sequence the entire genome of the El Sidrön Neanderthals. He is interested in specific genes. “I choose genes that are somehow related to individuality,” he says. “I’d like to create a personal image of these guys.”
Extract from: Should we Clone Neanderthals?
Genetics has reduced the organic world to the status of a code. In a gesture that continues the work of Descartes, mankind has separated itself from its own constitution. The mind, or perhaps the self, is merely anchored to the body, rather than reliant on it. Since Descartes we have been able to refer to the organic body as other, and we continue to congratulate ourselves.
Genetic sequencing instigates a new kind of dualism. That of body and code. The reduction of living matter to four strands of nucleic acid; the code constitutes the life, yet it is not the life. On the computer screen, or in a sequencing lab, the code floats free from the living, becoming pure information in and of itself. We are now able to refer to the information of the human as other and again we congratulate ourselves.
From Descartes onwards, through Kant and the enlightenment, philosophy now finds itself at an impasse. By separating the mind and the body dualism also separated the tools of enquiry by which the holistic ‘human’ could be understood. Man is not of world, man is not even of body: and so it transpires that man is not even of the sequence; the code; the malleable constituent of life itself.
This new dualism opens itself through the rhetoric of genetics. Science is now capable of handling the entire history of life as if it were a cut-up text; a freakish maelstrom of free-floating base-pairs mangled in some Burroughs-esque sequencing shredder. To science the sequence maketh the Neanderthal, but it does not constitute mankind.
But what of the historicity of those creatures? For Neanderthal are much more than a genetic cousin, labelled in similitude. The Neanderthal is a symbol; a mythic resonance. Neanderthals are a different category of person, literally lost to the world, but not lost to our memory. In being so close in kind to us they represent the ultimate other. As much creature as human; as much removed as they are imminent.
Do we give them the gift of life by re-sequencing their code? By ushering them into our time through test-tubes and computer simulations? Forgetting for a moment the religious efficacy entailed by this position (by my use of the word ‘gift’), the moral implications alone out number the minds available to ponder them. And still not a single metaphysical question is raised.
What is it exactly that we think we are cloning? I write more on this over at 3quarksdaily…