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editorial | scientific literacy

Biology, tabloid-style

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Neanderthal sex.

Got your attention, right? The reproductive capabilities of our ancient genetic cousins have become an object of intense popular fascination, as evidenced by reports about possible interbreeding with humans millennia ago and a recent contretemps over an interview that Harvard Medical School professor George Church gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel.

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In the interview, Church said it would be feasible to clone Neanderthals, who vanished around 30,000 years ago, provided that many technological hurdles were cleared and a human woman would be willing to volunteer her womb. Church was discussing only what was theoretically possible, not what he was planning. But the Der Spiegel interview was picked up by other news outlets; filtered through the always reliable world of British tabloid journalism, it became “Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby.”

As offers from women to serve as a surrogate rolled in, Church was understandably upset. He blamed the distortion on a lack of scientific understanding — an explanation that lets the Daily Mail off the hook too easily. He’s right to be annoyed, and nonscientists would of course benefit from knowing more biology. But when people are falling for luridly misleading news reports about Neanderthal cloning, what’s needed isn’t just scientific education, but media literacy.

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