Responsibility. That's a word we're going to be hearing more and more as the 21st century unfolds. The Industrial Revolution marked the end of our childhood and the beginning of a precocious technological adolescence, and with our technologies and our ways of life changing the world to greater and greater degrees, sooner or later we are going to have to take responsibility for our actions and the maintenance of the world. The system has become too complex; nature alone can't handle the job anymore.
To reverse the old saying, with that great responsibility comes great power. Once we finally admit that humanity has become an active steward of Earth, a great deal of windows and doors will be flung open. What kind of things could we do - more importantly, what should we do? Questions like that have been asked for generations, but they may be on the cusp of gaining a new immediacy.
Let's take, for one, extinctions. More than 99% of all the life forms that have ever walked, scuttled, oozed, or flown above the earth are now dead, and despite the tolls that deforestation in the Amazon or the thoughtless introduction of predators into unprepared ecosystems have taken, humanity had nothing to do with the vast, vast majority of this shuffling off the stage of life. While you might be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say a word against resurrecting the dodo or the passenger pigeon, given that their extinctions were the result of human activity, how far should that line of thought be taken?
Should humans give serious thought to resurrecting species struck down only by nature, red in tooth and claw? Should we bring back distant cousins and give them a second chance at life? Should we, given the opportunity, return life to the neanderthals? John Tierney of the New York Times considered this possibility back in February, and he concluded that "I'm afraid I can't see the problem... we've also spent lots of money reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished. Shouldn't we be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?"
For the record, I agree. There's no such thing as fairness or compassion in nature. There's no justice in how any extinct species was struck down by nature's claw. I think that restoring a population of neanderthals - and by restoring I mean creating new ones, not unfreezing any hypothetical originals like 21st century Encino Men - has the potential to teach us a great deal about our place in the world. Many revelations come only through measuring oneself against something external. With an extant population of neanderthals, homo sapiens sapiens would be able to take true stock of itself through the differences and similarities of homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
Nevertheless, not everyone is going to agree. Should this issue ever migrate from the demesne of science fiction to workaday reality, the big question is going to be whether it's right to do this. How can we justify resurrecting a species that had its shot and didn't make it, they'll say, when there are so many humans suffering right now? Shouldn't we think about them instead?
"Won't someone think of all those suffering people" is always problematic, in my experience. If you disagree, you're some kind of a monster, but I've always thought of the situation as a particularly unfortunate Red Queen's race. No matter what we do, no matter how stressed the environment and our support infrastructure already is, more and more children are being born every day. Not only that, no matter what progress we make, that progress will never be enough. There will always be suffering people; the only way they'll ever differ is in degree. It's like Zeno's paradox - no matter how close we come to "eradicating suffering," the definition of "suffering" will inevitably change. Putting things like space development or neanderthal resurrection on hold because of "problems on Earth" will only ever prevent those things from being done.
Even so, while a resurrected neanderthal population would most likely not be large, and would as such, likely be subject to racism and the other assorted uglinesses of human psychology, I still think it would be a worthwhile pursuit, though I'm biased - my currently-in-progress story "Restrictions Management" includes a small resurrected-neanderthal population in its setting background.
We only learn about ourselves when it's in comparison with someone or something else. Modern humanity has been alone for too long.