When Harvard Medical School genetics professor George M. Church was interviewed by the German magazine Der Spiegel about his new book, he had no idea that a misinterpretation of something he said would set off a worldwide media firestorm.
While explaining the process by which scientists might one day clone a Neanderthal, a now-extinct sub-species closely related to the modern human, he mentioned that a human surrogate would need to be employed to carry it to term. In the book that Church cowrote with science author Ed Regis, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves,” he remarked that the surrogate would have to be an “extremely adventurous female human.”
Dozens of news outlets around the world misinterpreted the exchange as an indication that Church was actively looking for such a human and intended to perform the cloning procedure, when in reality he was proposing a hypothetical method to clone a Neanderthal. A headline from the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, for example, read, “Wanted:’Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man—Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby.”
But cloning a Neanderthal was always only a theoretical possibility, Church said during an interview with The Crimson. His description of the process in both his book and the interview with Der Spiegel was far more complicated and speculative than many outlets indicated in their publications.
“It was a part of a very long and nuanced discussion which you can only have in a book,” Church said. “You can’t have it in a soundbite.”
Since the interview, Church has been contacted by many people who object to the concept of cloning, as well as women offering themselves as surrogates for the hypothetical operation.
“They’re still contacting me—hundreds of them,” he said. “Some sort of nerve gets hit. I was not taking sides on it.”
Church said he was surprised that he was not contacted by people questioning the plausibility of actually cloning a Neanderthal. He compared the suggestion that someone could birth a Neanderthal using existing technology with the claim that a quarterback could throw a 200-yard pass—something that is impossible given the length of a football field.
“But this, which is even more implausible, people didn’t detect,” Church said.
He said that while not all news organizations made the mistake, “almost all of the headlines were wrong.” The error was not simply a mistake in the translation between English and German, he said.
“I think the secondary resources feel a great deal more liberty,” Church said. “They don’t feel as constrained by the primary data. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.