Watching this Debate on Extinctions, I was struck by the fact that the assembled panel seemed to have no clear consensus on the morality of recreating Neanderthals, even though most of them seemed to be in no doubt that this would be at least technically feasible within a matter of decades.

That video is the second half of a fairly long debate, so I'll just summarize a couple of points I think are now generally accepted by researchers, as background to the ethical issue...

1: Neanderthals had very limited language capabilities (they lacked the anatomy for versatile vocalization, the brain areas concerned with symbol processing are underdeveloped, etc.).

2: It looks like Homo Sapiens didn't just "outcompete" Neanderthals for resources - our ancestors systematically exterminated all other hominids they encountered. Which wasn't too difficult, since "we" could devise, communicate and refine plans for a better future, which other hominids couldn't.

I reason from the above "facts" that if we did recreate Neanderthals, our ability to communicate with them would forever be on a par with how we interact with, say, cats and dogs - they don't and never could have anything like human self-awareness, or a concept of "the meaning of [their] existence".

I don't want to get bogged down in whether those "facts" are irrefutably established in the specific case of Neanderthals - if not them, there will surely be other even more primitive hominids we could eventually recreate, who would most definitely lack those mental capabilities we define today as "quintessentially human".

I'm also completely uninterested in the religious perspective here. I think religion and morality are at best orthogonal, and only "secular" morality can be expected to prevail in the long run.

Finally, I don't think the morality of recreating Neanderthals strongly correlates with the morality of creating self-aware Artificial Intelligence (which may or may not be technically possible), since in that case by definition our "unnatural creation" would be able to discuss their circumstances with us, as rational thinking entities. In essence, what I want to focus on is...

Exactly why might it be "immoral" to (re)create a relatively intelligent but not self-aware humanoid biped (complete with opposable thumbs, etc., and all that implies)?

EDIT: To keep things tightly constrained, I want to address this issue in terms of Utilitarianism. I can easily find texts exploring the ethical treatment of existing animals from that perspective, but I'm specifically interested in the ethics of (re)creating a "non-self-aware, but intelligent" animal.

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    I can't see how this can appropriatly be answered without writing a book about it. Without restricting it to a particular ethical framework, it seems too broad to me.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 16:53
  • @Philip: Oh. I wasn't expecting that. I thought I'd been at great pains to focus on a very specific issue. Is there anything I could do to make it not Too Broad for you / this site? Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 16:59
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    Well, as a reference request it could perhaps be asked if there has anything been written on this specific problem, and limiting the question on say utilitarianism or respectivly kantianism. Don't get me wrong, the question as it stands might as well be considered good by others, I take it to be quite interesting.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 17:04
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    @Philip: I'm not big on the "Kantian" perspective (it seems to net down to the idea that there's some "external" concept of right/wrong, which seems to me to be essentially "religion by the back door"). Would it really improve the question if I specifically said I wanted to address this issue in the context of utilitarianism? Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 17:56
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    @AmeetSharma: if your position is that suffering reduction IS the primary ethical goal, then we are at an impasse. Under which philosophic system is this the primary goal? I'm puzzled. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 22:19

5 Answers 5


In your question, you are almost presupposing the answer when saying:

if not them, there will surely be other even more primitive hominids we could eventually recreate, who would most definitely lack those mental capabilities we define today as "quintessentially human" [.....] a relatively intelligent but not self-aware humanoid biped.

There are two assumptions you are making here:

From this point of view, recreating "sub-human" hominids is on par with cloning sheep or cloning frogs, and presumably there is nothing wrong with it, unless you object to cloning in general.

An opposing view was presented by Douglas Hofstadter, in his book "I am a strange loop", ("I am a strange loop", Chapter 1, "On souls and their sizes"). Hofstadter disagrees with your second assumption (B), and believes that most highly evolved animals, including all mammals have enough consciousness that they should be treated ethically. He doesn't see self-awareness as a on-off thing that a being has or doesn't have. Instead, he argues that there is a continuous scale of consciousness, with plants on end having none at all, insects having very little, and gradually increases until we get to full fledged adult human consciousness. Under his hierarchy of "Soul sizes", most animals have enough consciousness that they are self-aware and should be treated ethically (He himself became a vegetarian based on these considerations).

Based on Hofstadter's considerations, either you can recreate such homonids, but on the condition of treating them ethically, and presumably according a minimum number of rights, or if you are not willing/able to do that, refrain from recreating them.

  • I tried to avoid referencing ethical treatment of "recreated non-self-aware hominids" in my question text (would we put them on a reservation, keep them as pets/slaves, etc.?) But perhaps my view of self-awareness isn't univerally shared (I don't think there's any real comparison between what goes on between the ears of the smartest non-human and the dumbest (non-defective) human being). Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 18:20
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    Some have argued that Neanderthals had a form of rudimentary religion. It also now widely accepted that Orcas have different cultures. I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss all other animals of having no self awareness. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 18:44

Many contemporary utilitarians and consequentialists (such as Peter Singer) don't care whether the pleasure/pain is being experienced by a self-aware being or not. Thus, they wouldn't care about the distinction between "intelligence" and "self-awareness" wherever that would be drawn.

Instead, the fundamental question would be whether the amount of happiness in the world (or the amount of suffering in the world) would be maximized (or minimized) by the reintroduction of mammoths or neanderthals.

This consideration only begins to frame the problem of how to consider this. A second consideration is whether we are looking at actual happiness achieved or at reasonably expectable happiness that might occur.

Those who side with the former are going to be more apt to be what are called "act utilitarians" who make judgments de novo at each moment. Thus, for instance, they might say 'let's give it a shot!' and make some neanderthals. If that turned out to make a large number of human people happy or provided us with benefits and didn't create an extreme amount of suffering for the neanderthals, they would say it turned out well. Well, until it doesn't. But if it was just the neanderthals who were suffering, it seems a purist act utilitarian should not have a problem with killing them all.

Rule utilitarians, in contrast, are trying to maximize happiness by coming up with a framework that they think will probably yield maximal happiness. To do so, they are going to think about the potential suffering and unhappiness neanderthals could unleash more carefully than act utilitarians before they go ahead and make them.

I take it that many (if not all) the concerns would be scientific. But the science is not so difficult to imagine -- would creating them create risk for diseases spreading (mutates in one species jumps to the other)? Would they be treated with sufficient dignity to live enjoyable lives?

A third consideration is the harm principle which Mill suggests in On Liberty. At the simplest, do we accept doing harm to some in order to maximize happiness for the many or not? If yes, then there's less reasons to worry about experimenting on making them. If no, then there's good reasons to think we should not even try this experiment as undoubtedly there'd be several trial runs resulting in dead neanderthals.

  • Wikipedia says that in the context of Utilitarianism, utility is defined in various ways, but is usually related to the well-being of sentient entities. Because I didn't instantly instantly recognize the name Peter Singer, I typed it in to Google - which (significantly, I thought) offered to "auto-complete" with the three alternatives animal liberation, animal rights, and quotes (not philosopher or utilitarianism/ist, etc.). Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 13:50
  • ...it's hard enough to "balance" human pain/gain, and things get even more difficult if we have to factor in animal suffering as a "weighting factor" that in extremis could actually outweigh human gain. By which I mean reducing animal suffering as an explicit goal, rather than just being the "icing on the cake" where human objectives can still be met in full. If animal gains also have to be factored in as "goals", it all just becomes too subjective for me. Who knows what animals "want", or how much they want it? Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 13:56
  • I'm not really sure what you mean with either of the two things you are saying in your comment. To get a good definition of Utilitarianism, I would suggest reading the book by the same name written by J.S. Mill or the less well known precedent one by Jeremy Bentham. In neither text will it hinge things completely on the well-being of "sentient entities." Admittedly Mill is concerned with humans, the extension to animals made by many contemporary consequentialists is trivial since the exclusion was based on irrational animal vs. rational human. But rational is not well founded for utilitarians
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 13:57
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    @FumbleFingers, that's the impression I get, too. Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 15:44
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    @FumbleFingers: You should generally be careful with things that are on Wikipedia. And what virmaior said was that it "isn't so great" and how Wikipedia seems to contradict itself using a definition of one particular branch of utilitarianism as granted for all of them. And as an aside, one principle of SE is that while mods may have more rights (not that many more than users with a high score), they can be downvoted and argued against like everyone else.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 19:37

Revived Neanderthals would be unlikely to be able to interact with the present human population, and so would need almost certainly to be geographically confined if not even more restricted in their movements. It is also hard to see how we could recreate the environment to which in their prime they were adjusted.

We could treat them with respect but any existing environment or environment created for them would almost certainly be more or less alien and deprive them of a life of full flourishing. In this respect they are different from, say, the Dodo, which could readily adjust to a range of existing environments including probably the one in which they were eliminated in the 17th century.


Your question is flawed by several assumptions:

  • H. sapiens neanderthalensis burial practices suggest the possibility of self-consciousness, not just intelligence. Moreover, other more distantly related higher apes have been shown to be self-aware, so it would be quite a leap to assume neanderthalensis wasn't.

  • While the positioning of their hyoid bone would have prevented speech akin to an adult H. sapiens sapiens, they would have the sound-producing ability of a sapiens infant or toddler. Further, they definitely had well-developed Wernicke's and Broca's areas, suggesting long-term use of communication of some kind, if not language proper. They also carry the FOXP2 gene related to language.

  • Our ability to communicate with Neanderthals would be better than our ability to communicate with bonobos who can use language at about a 5-year-old human level—not the level at which we communicate with pets.

  • Also, sapiens & neanderthalensis absolutely interbred with one another—which is why the designation as Homo sapiens nenderthalensis is proper. Simply interbreeding and out-competing them would have been enough to force them into extinction; the idea that we exterminated them is possible, but still hotly contested.

I'd suggest editing your question so it doesn't spread misinformation. Your quoted, bold section is enough.

  • I said I didn't want to get bogged down in debate as to whether the relevant "facts" are irrefutably established in the specific case of Neanderthals. It seems to me you're not only ignoring the question I actually asked - you're specifically addressing the very issue I didn't want to bother with. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:05
  • @FumbleFingers I understand that. What I am suggesting is, because you don't want to bother with those aspects, you should remove them from your question so that others do not take them as a given. Otherwise, as great as your question might be, it does a disservice to scholarship. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:10
  • But that's exactly my point! For example, Wikipedia says the size and functionality of the Neanderthal Broca's and Wernicke's areas, used for speech generation in modern humans, is debated. Maybe Neanderthals could indeed use language as well as or better than a modern-day 5-year-old (though I seriously doubt so myself), but that's a debate that would need to be conducted on another site. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:21
  • @FumbleFingers "though I seriously doubt so myself" Forgive me, but I trust my training in anthropology more than a random user's intuition on the matter. "but that's a debate that would need to be conducted on another site." Which is why you should remove the information from your question. It ultimately isn't relevant to this site or your question. People need to trust the expertise found on SE and your question lacks expertise in this area. That is fine; no one expects anyone to be an expert on all things. But, there is no reason to leave such assumptions in your question. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:24

Your question requires we assume that conditions that would result in a need for a close ethical examination are not-present/false.

If the clone as adults are the equivalent of dogs, then whatever stance you have on the cloning of dogs should apply to them.

If on the other hand, you feel that you might possibly be cloning Einstein, MLK or the other LBJ, it's a bit different...

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