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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?

Should We Intervene to Help Wild Animals?

photograph of deer in the snow

The parasitic larvae of the New World screwworm consume the flesh of their living hosts, causing pain which is “utterly excruciating, so much so that infested people often require morphine before doctors can even examine the wound.” At any given time, countless animals suffer this excruciating pain. But not in North America – not anymore. Human beings have eliminated the New World screwworm from North America. This was done to protect livestock herds, but innumerable wild animals also benefit. In fact, eliminating the screwworm from North America has had “no obvious ecological effects.”

All of us should be happy that wild animals in North America no longer suffer the screwworm’s torments. I argued in an earlier post that if something has conscious experiences, then that entity matters morally. Suppose some stray dog experiences cold, hunger, and disease before dying at two years old. This is a bad thing, and if some person had instead helped the dog and given it a nice life, that would have been a good thing. Why is what happens to the dog bad? Surely the answer is something like: because the dog has a mind, and feelings, and these events cause the dog to experience suffering, and prevent the dog from experiencing happiness. Why would the person’s helping the dog be good? Surely the answer is something like: because helping the dog helps it avoid suffering and premature death, and allows it to flourish and enjoy life. But then, the exact same thing can be said about wild animals who do not suffer from the screwworm because humans drove it out.

So we have helped many wild animals by eliminating the New World screwworm, and we should be happy about this. The question then becomes: what if we intentionally intervened in the natural world to help wild animals even further? In South America, they still suffer from the New World screwworm. And they suffer from many other things all over the world: other parasites, disease, starvation, the elements, predation, etc. In principle, there may be quite a lot we can do to alleviate all this. We could eliminate other harmful parasites. We could distribute oral vaccines through bait. (We already do this to combat rabies among wild animals – again, this is for self-interested reasons, so that they don’t serve as a reservoir of diseases which can affect humans. But we could expand this for the sake of the animals themselves.) In the future, perhaps we will even be able to do things which sound like goofy sci-fi stuff now. Perhaps, say, we could genetically reengineer predators into herbivores, while also distributing oral contraceptives via bait to keep this from causing a catastrophic population explosion.

If we can do these things and thereby improve the condition of wild animals, I think we should. In fact, I think it is extremely important that we do so. There are trillions of wild vertebrates, and perhaps quintillions of wild invertebrates. We don’t know exactly where the cut-off for the ability to suffer is. But because there is so much suffering among wild animals, and because there are so many of them, it seems entirely plausible that the overwhelming majority of suffering in the world occurs in the wild. Since this suffering is bad, it is very important that we reduce it, insofar as we can.

Of course, we’d better make sure we know what we’re doing. Otherwise, our attempts to help might, say, upset the delicate balance of some ecosystem and make things worse. But this is not a reason to ignore the topic. It is instead a reason to investigate it very thoroughly, so that we know what we’re doing. The field of welfare biology investigates these questions, and organizations like the Wild Animal Initiative conduct research into how we can effectively help wild animals. It may turn out, of course, that some problems are just beyond our ability to address. But we won’t know which ones those are without doing research like this.

Many people react negatively to the idea that we should intervene to help wild animals. Sometimes they suggest that what happens in the natural world is none of our business, that we have no right to meddle in the affairs of wild animal communities. But aiding wild animal communities is merely doing what we would want others to do for our own communities, were they afflicted with similar problems. If my community suffered widespread disease, starvation, infant mortality, parasitism, attacks from predatory animals, etc. and had no way to address any of these problems on its own, I would be quite happy for outsiders who had the ability to help to step in.

Others worry that intervention would undermine the value of nature itself. They think the untamed savagery of the natural world is part of its grandeur and majesty, and that “domesticating” the natural world by making it less harsh would decrease its value. But, as the philosopher David Pearce has noted, this is plausibly due to status quo bias: an emotional bias in favor of however things currently happen to be.

Suppose we lived in a world where humans had greatly reduced disease, starvation, parasitism, etc. among wild animals, thereby allowing a much higher proportion of wild animals to live long, flourishing lives. Does anyone really think that people in that world would want to put those things back, so as to restore the majesty and grandeur of nature? Surely not! And anyway, I am not at all sure that improving the condition of wild animals would make them less grand or majestic. If someone, say, finds some baby birds whose mother has died and cares for them, are they making nature less grand or majestic – even a little bit?

Still others pose a religious objection: they worry that intervening in nature would mean arrogantly “playing God,” interfering in the natural order God established because we think we can do better. But we already use technology to protect ourselves, and our domestic animals, from natural threats – disease, parasites, predators, etc. And if anything, people think God wants us to do that, likes it when we express love for others by helping them avoid suffering. Why should the situation with wild animals be different? In fact, in this paper, I gave a theological argument in favor of intervening to help wild animals. I note that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have traditionally viewed humans as having been given a special authority over the world by God, and then argue that, if anything, this gives us a special obligation to exercise this authority in helping wild animals.

So: we should do what we can to help wild animals. As I’ve said, there is quite a lot of work to be done to figure out what is the best way to do this. But that just makes that work more urgent.

Earth Day in a Year of Reckoning

image of Japan and Korea landscape from space

Last year’s Earth Day, April 22nd, 2020 was unique. The United States, the country where the now international holiday originated, had realized it was in the midst of a pandemic just a little more than a month earlier. Lockdowns and closures meant less travel and less pollution. We all got a chance to see a glimmer of what might happen if we in the West reduced our consumption, even if only for a short period of time. Carbon emissions were dramatically reduced. Animals roamed the landscape. We were provided with a poignant visual representation of exactly what we have done to the planet. Most people had no sense at this point of what to expect out of the pandemic or of the lessons it would offer, if we would only pay attention.

This year’s Earth Day stands out as well. As a result of our experiences during the long pandemic, many people are both physically and emotionally scarred and battle weary. In spite of the challenges, or, perhaps, because of them, many now find themselves in a position to think about human activity on the planet in a more honest way than ever before, even if that means coming to some grim realizations. Human encroachment into wild spaces puts us in contact with non-human animals who spread diseases that may not be dangerous to them but are deadly to us, and vice versa. We never seem to stop encroaching.

How did all of this begin? The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the nature of human experience. The relationship between humans and the natural world in which they live changed along with it. Throughout the course of most of the human narrative, humans had short lifespans, interacted in reasonably small groups, and their actions had mostly modest consequences. Humans stood in awe and often in fear of the creative and destructive forces of the natural world. They were largely powerless and insignificant against those forces.

Much ink has been spilt over the centuries and through the course of philosophical thought on what many take to be the distinctive feature of human beings — our capacity to reason. Aristotle, for example, set up a natural hierarchy of living things — plants are at the bottom, non-human animals are superior to plants, and humans, guiding the whole enterprise with the reigns of reason, preside over all of creation. In the 17th century, philosopher Rene Descartes argued that human beings are fundamentally different from all other living things in light of our capacity for reason. For Descartes, non-human animals were “mere machines,” unable to form beliefs and to express those beliefs through the use of language.

Childhood stories also focus on reason as a mysterious, precious, and dangerous feature of human experience. Consider Mowgli from The Jungle Book: Mowgli is raised by wolves, but when it becomes clear that he can make tools and manipulate fire through use of reason, two other things also become clear — first, that Mowgli belongs in a community with other reasoners, and second, that his capacity to use reason to make tools makes him very dangerous to those against whom those tools might be used. The story of Tarzan tells a similar tale.

So here we are in the 21st century. We’ve used our capacity to reason to bring us to places early humans never imagined possible (for example, we’ve recently flown our first aircraft on Mars!). We’ve dramatically extended the range of our social encounters. We can now interact with people from radically different places and cultures. Under ordinary conditions, we can hop on a plane and visit a person from another country whenever we can afford it and the urge strikes us. In many places, using technology, humans produce food in abundance, often in so much abundance that there is significant waste. We drive to jobs and to visit family members. We can grow both food and bodily organs in petri dishes. We can predict the weather and respond to it before it happens. We cool our houses in the summer and warm them in the winter. In developed countries, many people are almost never in a position to feel even a moment’s hardship as a result of weather. It may be that through various types of geoengineering, we’ll have control over even the weather itself.

We’ve made some miraculous progress. The impressive degree to which human beings are creative forces is matched only by the degree to which we are often the sources of horrifying acts of destruction. We’ve produced so much non-biodegradable garbage that we created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretching from the West Coast of North America to Japan. It covers 1.6 million square kilometers and is twice the size of Texas. We’ve engaged in deforestation at an alarming rate, clearing critical trees to make room for grazing land for cattle and to grow soy to feed animals raised on factory farms. We’ve overfished our oceans. We’ve released tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise, melting glaciers and ice caps, and causing ocean acidification that has bleached our coral — essentially killing our reefs.

The tragic irony in all of this is that most individuals love nature. Many people experience an almost religious sense of awe and wonder when they gaze out across a breathtaking natural landscape or when they observe simultaneously fragile and resilient natural systems replenish and renew themselves.

Those are the background conditions that situate our reflections on the current moment. This set up may have been full of doom and gloom, but there remains much reason for hope. Human beings are creative and resilient. Our ability to use reason to manipulate the natural world has caused a tremendous amount of trouble, but, at its best, that capacity makes it possible for us to really reflect on philosophical and moral questions related to the natural world and our place in it. On this Earth Day, we can take the opportunity to reassess — to learn one of the primary lessons imparted by the pandemic, which is that no environmental problem is really an isolated matter. The environmental choices that we make are global and momentous. They are choices we must come together to make as a global community with our eyes wide open, willing to be receptive to evidence and to be motivated to change our behavior.

Rethinking Modification of the Natural World

Photograph of people touring glass biospheres

Aristotle famously pointed out that humans stand out from other living beings because humans are rational.  To live a flourishing human life is to live in accordance with the dictates of reason. Much of the philosophical thought about the essence of man going forward was heavily influenced by what Aristotle had to say on this point.  It is hard to deny the importance of rationality for the survival of the human species. Because we can reason, we can use language, make plans, satisfy obligations, know things about the world, and, importantly, we can change the world as we see fit to meet our needs.  It would be an understatement to say that we took full advantage of that last part. It is important that we ask ourselves: Are there any constraints on how far we should take our ability to modify the world around us? Continue reading “Rethinking Modification of the Natural World”