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

The Atlantic Wire

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?"

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First, Church agreed to an interview with Germany's leading news weekly, Der Spiegel. The well respected synthetic biology researcher 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. Plus, doesn't the phrase "extremely adventurous female human" sound a bit stilted? Maybe that's because it's been translated from English to German and back to English again. There's the first clue that something might be getting lost in translation. 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 Church had 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:

'Adventurous' woman needed as surrogate for Neanderthal baby gaw.kr/2eJiUFi

— Gawker (@Gawker) January 18, 2013
What could go wrong? Scientist wants a surrogate mom to raise fetus with recovered Neanderthal DNA independent.co.uk/news/science/p… — Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) January 21, 2013

As a fan of “Encino Man”, I’m looking forward to this Neanderthal-cloning initiative: arep.med.harvard.edu/gmc/

— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) January 21, 2013

Mad Scientist Seeks Lady To Give Birth To Neanderthal Monster - theawl.com/?p=154256

— The Awl (@Awl) January 22, 2013

This is a movie! Wanted: Surrogate mom for cloned Neanderthal baby. dld.bz/caFTW

— Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) January 22, 2013

Wanted: Harvard seeks 'adventurous woman' to give birth to cloned Neanderthal baby... drudge.tw/WlNjvV

— DRUDGE REPORT (@DRUDGE_REPORT) January 21, 2013

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."

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