An interview published last week by SPIEGEL with American genetic scientist George Church has sparked frenetic media speculation about a supposed plan to bring the Neanderthal back from the dead. Church feels his remarks were mistranslated, but it was other media outlets that twisted his words.
“Wanted: Surrogate Mother For Neanderthal,” screamed an article in the Berliner Kurier tabloid in the German capital on Tuesday, complete with an image of a grinning, bearded caveman. Britain’s Independent seemed positively creeped out by a Harvard professor who wanted to bring such beings back to life as some kind of “Palaeolithic Park.” Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph implored: “Spare Neanderthals This Modern Freak Show.”
Media and websites around the world — in Britain, Italy, Poland, Greece, Hungary, Russia, South Korea and Turkey — expressed interest in the idea of resurrecting the Neanderthal. By Wednesday morning, more than 600 sources on Google News had reported the story, with all citing SPIEGEL as their source. What happened?
The source of the net furore was an interview SPIEGEL conducted with George Church. The Harvard University genetic researcher then provided an explanation to the Boston Herald for the sudden media fever. He blamed it on an error downstream of SPIEGEL. He said it had been incorrectly reported that he was looking for a surrogate mother to carry a Neanderthal clone.
The sudden interest in the Neanderthal, our human cousin, may tell us a little bit about the diffuse fear of overly ambitious genetic researchers. But it tells us even more about the laws of tabloid journalism.
In this case, the entire brouhaha arose in articles written outside of SPIEGEL’s domain. And it is important to us to communicate this because we make a significant effort to ensure that our stories are correctly translated when they appear on our English-language website. Occasionally mistakes slip through — as is inevitable with any site that relies heavily on translation — but when they do we are quick to correct them.
In addition, we sent Church an English version of our interview the week before it went to print for authorization. This provided him with an opportunity to change any formulations that may have caused any room for misinterpretation. We did make some alterations later without checking, and have since apologized to him for introducing the word “hell,” which he did not say.
A Storm of Coverage
It should quickly be obvious to anyone following the hype over the Neanderthal surrogate mother closely that the storm of coverage didn’t break out until a week after the interview was published. Last Friday, we posted the interview, which we had requested from George Church because we had been fascinated by his latest book. The title alone, “Regenisis,” seemed promising.
And Church didn’t disappoint in his interview. He laid out the great future he believes the still relatively young research field of “synthetic biology” will have. Regardless whether he was discussing the cloning of humans, the genetic optimization of Homo sapiens, the manipulation of the genetic code of all life forms or the re-creation of the Neanderthal, nothing was treated as taboo in his interview. In other words, it offered plenty of fodder for both controversy and thrilling entertainment.
The interview first appeared in the German-language print edition of SPIEGEL on Monday, Jan. 14, and the raft of outraged reader letters reflected the intense interest the interview generated. Church has always presented himself as a bold and argumentative visionary who won’t hesitate to consider anything that might be scientifically feasible.
Initially, few media outlets picked up the story. Nor did that change after we posted a short article focusing primarily on Church’s remarks on the potential for resurrecting the Neanderthal on SPIEGEL ONLINE in German. The hype machine got going shortly after that.
It was only then that the story was given the decisive spin — by other media outlets. Early tweets on the interview, may have helped to set the tone, like one person who tweeted: “My life’s new ambition: Mate with a Neanderthal woman.” A short time later, the first journalist stumbled across the interview’s emotive word: “surrogate.” That’s when headlines like the one that appeared in the Daily Mail — “Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby” — were born. Subsequent tweets are already discussing the possibility of a film being made of the story.
The question of whether a surrogate mother could be used for a possible future Neanderthal clone does in fact pop up in the interview. In the question, we cite a passage in Church’s book in which he writes that, “a whole Neanderthal creature itself could be cloned by a surrogate mother chimp — or by an extremely adventurous female human.”
No Want Ad Implied
It would have to be clear to anyone who gives that passage in the interview a critical read — and the same applies to both the German and English versions — that it is in no way intended as some kind of want or personal ad. Church didn’t mean it that way and we didn’t understand it to mean that either. Really, what Church was explaining is that he considers the rebirth of the Neanderthal to be technically possible. He also explains the steps that would be necessary to get there. The last step, someday, would be the search for a surrogate mother. He also says that he believes the chances are good that he might experience the birth of the first Neanderthal clone within his lifetime. We thought that statement alone was a bit of a reach, particularly given that Church is 58 years old today.
We’re sorry that Church, who provided us with such fascinating insights into his research, has now become the victim of media hype. In the course of the past two decades, he told the Boston Herald, he has done perhaps 500 interviews about his research and this is the first one to spiral out of control quite like this.
What’s perhaps most bizarre about the entire media hysteria over Church’s interview is that potential surrogate mothers are now contacting the geneticist. His concern — at least if things get to that stage — that he will have difficulty finding potential surrogate mothers appears to be unfounded.
*Editor’s Note: At the request of George Church, five changes have been made to the above text. In particular, he wanted to avoid the impression that he had blamed a translation error on the part of DER SPIEGEL for the confusion that ensued following the interview’s publication.