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Scientific gullibility sparks wild Neanderthal cloning rumor

Harvard Medical School’s George Church’s distorted comments went viral on the Internet.

Wendy Maeda /Globe staff

Harvard Medical School’s George Church’s distorted comments went viral on the Internet.

Harvard Medical School genetics professor George Church found himself at the middle of a viral Internet kerfuffle last week. Blogs and news websites picked up on an interview in the German publication, Der Spiegel, and distorted his speculative comments about the technological feasibility of cloning a Neanderthal to suggest the scientist was looking for volunteers: “Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man - Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby,” the Daily Mail newspaper in the United Kingdom announced.

The interview, if one bothers to read it, is prototypically Church: It unflinchingly looks toward the technology of the future, taking an optimistic and expansive view of what will one day be possible. The discussion unfolds like a thought experiment, with Church considering the ethical, social, and regulatory issues that could arise from recreating Neanderthals or building new life forms.

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In a phone interview last week, Church noted that he is not working on sequencing Neanderthal DNA. He is not synthesizing it. He is not working on cloning any whole organisms. He said the pickup of the news story and the subsequent headline creep online has been instructive and made him concerned about the level of basic science literacy, in comparison with other spheres of society.

“When you see how gullible people were on this particular incident, I wonder,” Church said. “If we really talked about [science] as much as we talk about other things,” would this same thing have happened?

Church is willing to talk and think big, which is partly why he has been so successful as a scientist, and also part of what made his comments so ripe to be taken out of context. He has seen massive scientific change during his career, helping enable a downward spiral in the cost of sequencing DNA, from about $3 billion to $3,000 for an entire human genome. “So I have a tendency to think in increments bigger than I, say, would have when I was younger,” Church said.

He sees communication with the public as a major part of his job, and said that he does not think this incident will cause him to shy away from talking openly about the future trajectory of science. Greater understanding of science, he hopes, will mean a less credulous audience.

Much of the reaction has been supportive. More than 100 people have e-mailed him, volunteering for the job of being surrogate to the first cloned Neanderthal. But, as they could have found out by reading his interview, that job isn’t open — in his lab, or anyone else’s.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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