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Gene Drives and the Desire for Control

photograph of French Alps weir created by the Barrage de Roselend

Whether discovering a child’s sex before it’s born, amassing wealth to protect against economic uncertainties, or even checking the morning’s weather report before leaving the house, we seemingly have a distaste for life’s uncertainties and, wherever possible, look to exercise influence over the world around us.

However, as Epictetus notes in The Enchiridion, we control surprisingly little. We can’t control what happens to us, nor the actions or thoughts of other people. Moreover, we can’t even exercise complete control over our bodies, with them demanding food and water, needing to expel waste, invariably getting damaged, becoming sick, and eventually failing us altogether.

This lack of control becomes even starker when seen in the context of the natural world, where we’re practically powerless. Flora and fauna, weather and ecosystems, and the interactions between our little blue planet, the solar system and the universe all sit outside our sphere of influence. While we can check the weather before leaving the house, we can’t change it. We can domesticate some animals, but whether we use them or they use us is debatable. We can cut down trees and slaughter wildlife, but destruction and control aren’t necessarily synonymous.

Ultimately, in existence’s totality, we’re subject to, rather than the wielders of, power.

So, unsurprisingly, opportunities for (the illusion of) control are intrinsically appealing. When an innovation promises to relocate phenomena from the realm of happenstance, we more often than not jump at the chance, looking to replace uncertainty with reliability. For example, the invention of mechanized timepieces, like watches and clocks, revolutionized public and personal life, allowing people to monitor how they spent their lives more accurately than ever before – exercising precise control over something which, for the longest time, was more of an organic experience; the passing of time. This increased control led to changes in broader social structures and was a fundamental component of the industrial revolution; time shifted from something we inhabit to a valuable commodity.

Today, advances in genetic technologies promise a similar expansion of our sphere of influence, allowing us to shape the very building blocks of life as we see fit.

It has led to countless philosophical debates about designer babies, personalized medicine, cloning, and synthetic biology, amongst others. This genetic revolution has numerous intersections with our desire to shape the natural world, but of particular note is the use of gene drives.

Gene drives are a self-perpetuating method of species alteration. In short, it works by hijacking inherence in sexually reproductive organisms so that engineered genetic traits are likely (or inevitably) passed on from one generation to the next at an increasing rate.

For example, say we wanted to eliminate mosquitoes. We could genetically engineer several thousand of them within a lab so that they’re only capable of producing male offspring. Additionally, this alteration would be made to the germline – the genetic material passed from one generation to the next – so that the descendants of these genetically modified mosquitoes would also only produce males. These mosquitoes would reproduce with their wild counterparts upon release, producing male offspring carrying this altered gene, who would then go on to reproduce, and so on. Over time, and with each generation, more and more mosquitoes would have the male-offspring-only gene, and the population of wild mosquitoes would increasingly skew away from females and towards males. Eventually, in its most extreme form, we’d reach a point where only male mosquitoes are left, and without any females, mosquito reproduction would cease, and the species would die off.

Now, deliberately causing a species to go extinct might sound ridiculous given the current extinction rate occurring globally. But eliminating certain species could have substantial benefits, according to gene drive proponents.

Eliminating Anopheles Stephensi, a type of mosquito and one of the vectors for malaria in the Indian subcontinent and South Asia, could drastically alleviate the burden caused by malaria, a disease that killed 627,000 people in 2020. Gene drives could also be applied in conservation efforts. Like with mosquitoes, conservationists could use the technology to crash the population of an invasive species, like the U.K.’s Grey Squirrel populace. Doing so would afford the native Red Squirrel a chance to repopulate, free from competition from the larger and more aggressive, originally North American, counterpart.

Now, these outcomes would invariably be desirable. No one’s arguing that keeping malaria in the world, leading to the deaths of countless people, mostly children, is a good thing (or at least, if they’re making that argument, they’re wrong). Also, preserving the Red Squirrel would have ecological and social value. However, there’s a principal question here, just because we could, in theory, use gene drives to shape nature as we see it, does that mean we should? Do we lose something important when we aim for maximum control?

According to philosopher Michael Sandel, the random nature of reality has moral desirability. In The Case Against Perfect, Sandel writes:

The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses, and may even destroy, is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements. To acknowledge the giftedness of life is to recognize that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing, nor even fully ours, despite the efforts we expend to develop and to exercise them. It is also to recognize that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise. An appreciation of the giftedness of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility.

Sandel’s focus here is human augmentation. However, I think his work still has something to tell us about our relationship with nature: we forever run the risk of hyperagency – the desire to shape the world to serve our goals. For Sandel, to try and exercise our will without limitation is to reject the giftedness of life. It is to abandon any sense of humility and consider existence nothing more than a vehicle through which our desires can be satiated. A prerequisite of accepting nature as a gift, given to us by the randomness of existence, is that we take it as it is. Like receiving a gift from a loved one, to complain that it doesn’t meet requirements is to dismiss something crucially important; to eliminate within ourselves the virtue of acceptance and openness.

Now, not everyone buys this argument. It seems difficult to argue that the randomness of nature is somehow a gift when one has malaria, zika, ebola, or countless other horrific diseases. Nor do I think Sandel would make this argument. But I think his work illuminates a risk we run as beings with the desire to improve the conditions of our existence. Viewing the universe as something we have the inherent right to manipulate risks distorting the relationship between person and nature, depriving the former of the humility that an openness to the unintended provides. Gene drives may offer us the unparalleled power to shape the natural world how we see fit, but we must be on guard to the dangers of what we may lose when we subjugate biology and genetic inheritance itself to our control.

Are Self-Spreading Vaccines the Solution to Potential Future Pandemics?

photograph of wild rabbits in the grass

Human beings are engaging in deforestation on a massive scale. As they do so, they come into contact with populations of animals that were previously living their lives unmolested in the forest. Humans are also increasingly gathering large numbers of animals in small spaces to raise for food. Both of these conditions are known to hasten the spread of disease. For instance, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means that it has the capacity to jump from one animal species to another. Many experts believe that the virus jumped from horseshoe bats, then to an intermediary species, before finally spreading to human beings. As a result of human encroachment into wild spaces, experts anticipate that there will likely be rapid spread of other zoonotic diseases in the near future.

In response to this concern, multiple teams of scientists are working on developing “self-spreading vaccines.” The technology to do so has existed for over 20 years. In 1999, scientists conducted an experiment designed to vaccinate wild rabbits against two particularly deadly rabbit diseases: rabbit hemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis. The process, both in 1999 and today, involves “recombinant viruses,” which means that strands of DNA from different organisms are broken and recombined. In the case of the rabbit vaccine, a protein from the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus was inserted it into the myxoma virus that is known to spread rapidly among rabbit populations. The resulting virus was injected into roughly 70 rabbits. A little over a month later, 56% of the rabbits in the population had developed antibodies for both viruses.

Today, scientists are pursuing self-spreading vaccine technology for Ebola, Bovine Tuberculosis, and Lassa Virus. The research is currently being conducted on species-specific viruses rather than on those that have the capacity to jump from one species to another. However, as the research progresses, it could potentially provide a mechanism for stopping a potential pandemic before it starts.

Critics of this kind of program believe that we should adopt the Precautionary Principle, which says that we should refrain from developing potentially harmful technology until we know to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty how the technology will work and what the consequences will be. We do not yet know how these vaccines would function in the wild and how they might potentially affect ecosystems. It may be the case that, without these viruses active in the population, some species will become invasive and end up threatening the biodiversity of the given ecosystem.

On a related note, some argue that we should not use wild animals as test subjects for this new technology. Instead of encroaching further into the land occupied by these animals and then injecting them with vaccines that have not been tested, we should instead try to roll back the environmental damage that we have done. These critics raise similar concerns to those that are raised by critics of geoengineering. When a child messes up their room, we don’t simply allow them to relocate to the bedroom across the hall — we insist that they clean up their mess. Instead of developing increasingly intrusive technology to prevent disease spread from one species to another, we should simply leave wild animals alone and do what we can to plant trees and restore the lost biodiversity in those spaces. If that means that we need to make radical changes to our food systems in order to make such a strategy feasible, then that’s what we need to do.

In the case of genetically engineered crops, there have been some unanticipated consequences for local ecosystems. There have been instances of “transgene escape,” which means that some of the genetic features of an engineered organism are spread to other plants in the local ecosystem. In the case of crops that have been genetically modified to be pesticide resistant, this has led to the emergence of certain “superweeds” that are difficult to eliminate because they, too, are resistant to pesticides. That said, most of the soy and corn grown in the United States are crops that have been genetically modified to be pesticide resistant with very few negative consequences. Nevertheless, in the case of crops, we are dealing with life that is not sentient and cannot suffer. When we make use of these vaccines, we are delivering genetically modified deadly diseases to populations of animals without fully understanding what the consequences might be or if there will be a similar kind of transgene escape that has more serious side effects.

In response to this concern, advocates of the technology argue that we don’t have time to press pause or to change strategy. Deforestation has happened, and we need to be prepared to deal with the potential consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic had devastating impacts on human health and happiness. In addition to the death and suffering it caused, it also wreaked economic havoc on many people. It turned up the temperature of political battles and caused the ruin of many friendships and family units. Advocates of self-spreading vaccines argue that we should do everything in our power to prevent something like this from happening again.

Advocates of the policy also argue that these vaccines would benefit not only human beings, but wild animals as well. They could potentially eradicate serious diseases among animal populations. This could lead to a significant reduction in suffering for these animals. As a practical matter, wild animals can be very difficult to catch, so relying on traditional vaccination methods can prove quite challenging. This new method would only involve capturing a handful of animals, who could then spread the vaccine to the rest of the population.

Some object to this strategy because of a more general concern about the practice of genetic engineering. Those who offer in principle critiques of the process are often concerned about the hubris it demonstrates or worry that human beings are “playing God.” In response, advocates of genetic technology argue that we modify the natural world for our purposes all the time. We construct roads, build hospitals, and transplant organs, for example. The fact that the world does not exist in a natural state unaltered by human beings is only a bad state of affairs if it brings about negative consequences.

This is just one debate in environmental and biomedical ethics that motivates reflection on our new relation to the natural world. What is it to be environmentally virtuous? Is it ethical to use developing technology to modify the natural world to be just the way that human beings want it to be? Ought we to solve problems we have caused by altering the planet and the life on it even further? Or, instead, does respect for nature require us to restore what we have destroyed?

Under Discussion: Global Warming and the Right to Risk Wrong

photograph of industrial chimney stacks polluting air over natural landscape

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

There is an increasing call to use climate engineering as a solution to global warming. Rather than simply try to decarbonize the economy, some think we should work to develop new technology that will allow us to prevent global warming even while fossil fuels are used. Some think we can use carbon sequestration to leech carbon out of the atmosphere even as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Others think that even if carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere, we can counteract the greenhouse effect by reflecting more sunlight away from earth. (For a great introduction to the questions surrounding climate engineering check out this great episode: Pushkin podcast Brave New Planet.)

Some support the use of climate engineering because they think the global coordination required for decarbonization is politically unfeasible; some because they think global warming is already too far gone and we need to buy time; and some because they think the real costs to decarbonization are too high.

There are, of course, also compelling objections to climate engineering. In particular, many worry about the inevitable unintended consequences of messing with the environment even more to fix our initial mistake (remember the old lady who swallowed a fly?). (Though for myself, I think it unlikely that the negative impacts of carefully studied intentional environmental intervention are as bad as the uncoordinated and unintended effects of carbon industrialization.)

However, I don’t want to spend this post investigating the prospects of climate engineering. I’m not nearly expert enough to do that. Instead, I want to talk about an odd sort of moral obstacle to climate engineering.

Here is a simple question: who has the right to run a massive program to change the earth’s climate? Would it be right, for instance, for the United States to unilaterally decide that the risks of global warming are great enough that it justifies a massive cloud seeding project? Any such decision will affect every other country, but of course the citizens of those other countries do not get a vote in U.S. politics (you might worry, then, that this is profoundly undemocratic because those deeply affected by a policy should have a say in its shaping, for an overview to these questions of democracy see Robert Goodin’s paper on the ‘all affected interests’ principle). So perhaps the United Nations should make the decision? But, of course, many nations are not voting members of the UN, nor is the UN a particularly democratic institution.

Even if geoengineering is the right solution to climate change, it is not altogether clear who should be the one to make that final determination? If I, Marshall, personally decide climate engineering is the way to go, and also come into a lot of money, then do I have the moral right to change the climate for everyone else (even if I’m trying to counteract what was already a negative artificial change). Or to make the scenario more realistic, if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided it was time to act unilaterally, would it be right for them to do so?

Now, here is where things get puzzling. How could we have had the power to mess up the environment, and yet not be morally empowered to fix it?

There are two possibilities here. One, it might be that countries were acting wrongly when they messed up the environment. Perhaps we are all blameworthy for the amount we have contributed to global warming; but just because we did damage does not mean we are thereby entitled to find our own way to clean it up.

Second, it might be that actually many did not act wrongly in using carbon. There is something of a collective action problem here. Perhaps each person only produced a small amount of carbon, such that no one person really impacted the climate of anyone else.  It is only in aggregate that the bad effect occurred. However, we cannot fix the climate in a similarly disaggregated way. It might be that each of us could plant some trees, but it would require systematic and careful coordination to adopt a more aggressive climate engineering strategy (and no one has the right to act as the global enforcement coordinator).

Global warming, then, is an instance of an annoying type of moral problem. Sometimes we do things which could be fixed, but which we are not morally empowered to fix. Sometimes we say something cruel and want to apologize, but the person we hurt wants nothing to do with us and we have no right to impose on them even to apologize.  Sometimes we spill stuff on a carpet in a party, and the host waves us out of the way and insists that they will fix the problem. Sometimes we do wrong things, things we’d like to make up for, but which we cannot make up for acting on our own. While often unfortunate, it remains a fascinating problem.

Fixing What We’ve Broken: Geoengineering in Response to Climate Change

underwater photograph of reef

Extending over 1,200 miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system on the planet. It is the only system of living beings visible from space and is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The reef is home to countless living beings, many of which live nowhere else on the planet.

The Great Barrier Reef is valuable in a number of ways. It has tremendous instrumental value for the living beings that enjoy its unique features, from the creatures who call it home to the human beings that travel in large numbers to experience its breathtaking beauty. One also may think that functioning ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is the position taken by notable 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold in his work Sand County Almanac. Leopold claims that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The idea here is that the ecosystem itself is valuable, and ought to be preserved for its own sake.  

When something has value, then, all things being equal, we ought to preserve and protect that value. Unfortunately, if we have an obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef, we are failing miserably. The culprit: anthropogenic climate change. As David Attenborough points out in his interactive series Great Barrier Reef, “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence.” One result of this process is what is known as “coral bleaching.” Coral has a symbiotic relationship with algae. Changes in ocean temperatures disrupt this relationship, causing coral to expel algae. When it does so, the coral becomes completely white. This is more than simply an aesthetic problem. The algae is a significant source of energy for the coral, and most of the time, coral does not survive bleaching. Devastatingly, this isn’t just a problem for the Great Barrier Reef — it’s a global problem.

One general category of approach to this problem is geoengineering, which involves using technology to fundamentally change the structure of the natural world. So, as it pertains specifically to the case of coral bleaching, geoengineering as a solution would involve using technology to either cool the water, lower the acidity levels, or both. For example, one such approach to rising ocean temperatures is to pump cooler water up from the bottom of the ocean to reduce surface temperatures. To deal with acidity, one suggestion is that we use our knowledge of chemistry to alter the chemical composition of ocean water.

Geoengineering has been proposed for a broader range of environmental issues. For example, some have suggested that we send a giant mirror, or a cluster of smaller mirrors, into space to deflect sunlight and reduce warming. Others have suggested that we inject sulfuric acid into the lower stratosphere, where it will be dispersed by wind patterns across the globe and will contribute to the planet’s reflective power.

Advocates of geoengineering often argue that technology got us into this problem, and technology can get us out. On this view, climate change is just another puzzle to be solved by the human intellect and our general propensity for using tools. Once we direct the unique skills of our species toward the problem, it will be solvable. What’s more, they commonly argue, we have an obligation to future generations to develop the technology that will give future people the tools they need to combat these problems. Preventing climate change from happening in the first place requires behavioral changes from too many agents to be realistic. Geoengineering requires actions only from reliable scientists and entrepreneurs.

Critics raise a host of problems for the geoengineering approach. One of the problems typically raised concerns the development of new technologies in general, but is perhaps particularly pressing in this case: How much must we know about the consequences of implementing a technology before we are morally justified in developing that technology? The continued successful function of each aspect of an ecosystem depends in vital ways on the successful function of the other aspects of that ecosystem. There is much that we don’t know about those relationships.  In the past, we’ve developed technologies under similar conditions of uncertainty; we tried to control the number of insects in our spaces through the use of pesticides to devastating and deadly affect. We don’t have a great track record with this kind of thing (as the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change itself demonstrates). There is potential for good here, but also the potential for great and unexpected harm.

Another problem has to do with which parties should be responsible for implementing geoengineered approaches. Who should get to decide whether these approaches are implemented? All life on earth will be affected by the decisions that we make here. Should such decisions be made through a mechanism that is procedurally just, like some form of a democratic process? If so, representative governments might be the appropriate actors to implement geoengineered strategies. That may seem intuitively appealing, but we must remember that our actions here have consequences for global citizens. Why should decisions made by, say, citizens of the United States have such substantive consequences for citizens of countries that, for either geographic or economic reasons, are more hard hit by the effects of climate change? What about the sovereignty of nations?  

An alternative approach is that entrepreneurs could pursue these developments. Often the most impressive innovations are motivated by the competitive nature of markets. This approach faces some of the same challenges faced by the governmental approach—it is counterintuitive that people who have primarily financial motivations should direct something as critical as the future of the biosphere.

Finally, critics argue that the geoengineering approach is misguided in its focus. What is needed is a paradigm shift in the way that we think about the planet. The geoengineering approach encourages us to continue to think about biosphere as a collection of resources for human beings to collect and manipulate any way that we see fit. A more appropriate approach, some argue, is for human beings to make fundamental changes to their lifestyles. They must stop thinking of themselves as the only important characters in the narrative of the planet. Instead of focusing on fixing what we break, we should be focusing on avoiding breaking things in the first place. Toward this end, they argue, our primary focus should be on reducing carbon emissions.