On Neanderthals, And Good Taste.

I stumbled upon this article in Archaeology magazine about the ethics and science of cloning a Neanderthal, and at first I dismissed the idea – both because it’s not going to happen, and because it’s a terrible idea.  I’m not even sure quite what the point would be. True, we do have lots of questions about Neanderthal speech, culture, and mental capacities – but how many of those questions would really be answered by recreating a single individual? We know that Neanderthals had rituals.  We know they learned from one another.  We know they used tools.  Bereft of cultural context, a single clone wouldn’t tell us anything; it would be merely a squat Billy Pilgrim.

However, the plan to incubate a Neanderthal baby inside a human mother is eerily similar to the premise of Mark Canter’s little-remembered novel Ember From The Sun, in which an Alaskan scientist finds a pregnant Neanderthal frozen in a glacier and transplants her embryo into a modern-day human.  When the Neanderthal baby is born, she is basically a super-human: she can put together jigsaw puzzles that have been spray-painted black; she’s an incredible baseball player; and eventually she has to save her frozen ancestors from destruction by some kind of evil gold-mining company.

Ember From The Sun was a book that I loved as a kid – I probably read it eight or ten times – but when I revisited it a year or two ago I found, to my dismay, that it’s actually pretty bad.  Ember’s character is reasonably well-developed, but the characters around her act in awkward and obviously plot-dictated ways.  The writing is insipid.  Ember is superior to the humans around her in basically every way, and Canter’s answer to the uncomfortable question this raises – how, exactly, did the weak humans manage to wipe out the other species? – is that the Neanderthals had psychic powers that prevented them from waging war.  (Seriously.  If I remember correctly, Ember can actually remember things that happened to her frozen biological mother.)

I’ve had this experience before, where I’ve returned to a cherished childhood work of art – Terry Pratchett’s entire bibliography, Pippi Longstockings, the movie Sphere - only to discover that it doesn’t hold up to my recollection.  Who among us hasn’t felt that sinking feeling upon realizing, after having excitedly recommended a beloved childhood movie, that everyone else watching is laughing at you inside?  (My good friend Julia never quite lived down the time she insisted to me that The Goofy Movie was a towering cinematic achievement.)

My response to this, naturally, is to treat any opinion I formed before the age of twenty as deeply suspect.  I may not be working in film right now, but it was during my time at NYU that I remember first thinking seriously, and critically, about the media I consume.  And I like to think that, while I may like bad things now, at least I can explain why I like them, and acknowledge their flaws.  Thinking critically is a learned skill, and part of the reason that I keep this blog is to practice.

But – sometimes, I am afraid.  Afraid that I still haven’t learned to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Afraid that I’ll look back at this blog and say, Really?  I recommended THAT?  What was I thinking? Maybe that won’t happen.  Or maybe that would be a good thing – maybe my taste should be something that evolves with me as I age.  But I hope not.  I’d like to have as few Ember From The Sun’s in my life as possible.