How the Viral Neanderthal-Baby Story Turned Real Science into Junk Journalism

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When Harvard geneticist George Church sat down for a casual interview with a German magazine, he wasn't trying to send out the message, "Mad Scientist Seeks Lady To Give Birth To Neanderthal Monster." So how did the media — and The Daily Mail in particular — take a level-headed discussion about the future of cloning and turn it into a story about plans for "Palaeolithic Park?"

First, Church agreed to an interview with Germany's leading news weekly, Der Spiegel. The well respected synthetic biologist got to expound on everything from genetically engineering virus resistance to the hypothetical possibility of bringing Neanderthals back from extinction. When it comes to cave-baby insemination, here are the money quotes

SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?

Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these ... Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.

SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an "extremely adventurous female human" could serve as the surrogate mother.

Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.

Alright everyone, take a deep breath. Church is obviously on very theoretical terrain here, and isn't actively soliciting surrogate applications from "extremely adventurous female humans." To make matters worse, a few days after the Spiegel interview came out, The Daily Mail's copy editors translated Church's quotes into tabloid-ese, making it sound like he'd taken out a classified ad seeking women willing to harvest his Neanderthal children. 

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That's when the Internet's collective brain exploded:

OK. Church's "mad scientist" reputation is the first thing that needs clearing up. As a Harvard professor, leading biotech researcher, and one of the Human Genome Project's founders, he's no crackpot. Another thing that needs clarifying: Church today confirmed that he has never actively sought volunteer surrogates to birth Neanderthal clones. "I’m certainly not advocating it," Church tells The Boston Herald's Gary J. Remal. "I'm saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today." 

It's no shocker that the media sometimes twists sound science into bizarre narratives. But Church says this viral story was by far the most sensational angle the media has ever taken with his own work. Still, he'll continue talking with reporters. "I’m not going to run away," he said in the Boston Herald interview. "I want to use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.