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An Economic Rationale for Resurrecting Neanderthals

We’ve found their DNA. As soon as practical let’s use these building blocks of life to birth a few Neanderthals.

By: James Miller, July 3, 2012

We’ve found their DNA. As soon as practical let’s use these building blocks of life to birth a few Neanderthals. As a mere economist I’m not qualified to discuss how we could accomplish this, but people do think it will eventually be possible, perhaps through cloning. The economic benefits of resurrecting a few Neanderthals could be enormous.

My soon-to-be-published book considers the impact of likely future increases in human and artificial intelligences. Innovation, which springs from human brains, propels economic growth. If through drugs, genetics, brain training, or merging with machines we can increase the intelligence of the very smartest of us, perhaps pushing them above the heads of geniuses such as John von Neumann, we could reap massive long-term economic gains. An alternative path to acquiring a super-intelligence would be to resurrect an extinct species that had intellects superior to our own.

I doubt that any Neanderthal had better math skills than von Neumann. But since we don’t understand why evolution blessed us with math smarts, we can’t eliminate the possibility. Even a tiny chance that a cloned Neanderthal would turn out to be the best scientist the world had ever known would justify the cost of her resurrection. Still, the fact that Neanderthals didn’t start a civilization, didn’t seem to have created anything that their contemporary Homo sapiens sapiens (us) couldn’t, and lost the evolutionary battle to us provides powerful evidence that even a version of von Neumann raised as a caveman would almost certainly have destroyed the Neanderthals in a test of general intelligence.

If the following diagram is correct then Neanderthals couldn’t directly contribute to our civilization’s innovations:

A small quantity of matings with Neanderthals was enough to cause some of their genes to become commonplace among modern man, hinting that their genes gave us something of significant value. And if this did happen it’s possible that these few matings weren’t enough for them to give us everything of genetic worth that they possessed. Of course, even if their genes did confer a survival advantage it might have been for entirely non-cognitive reasons such as providing us with greater resistance to cold weather. Indeed, it’s even possible that the Neanderthal genes yielded a large non-cognitive advantage while simultaneously reducing their new hosts’ general intelligence.

Other humanoids besides the Neanderthals might have had cognitive traits we lack. Cro-Magnons, tantalizingly, had much greater brain capacity than we do. Still, if I had to bet at even odds I would wager that modern man is intellectually superior in every economically meaningful way to all types of humanoids that have ever walked the earth, so my mode estimate for the contribution that Neanderthals could make to innovation is zero. But my mean estimate is colossal because of the massive importance of brain power to innovation and of innovation to economic growth.