The Ethics of Genetic Extermination

Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.

While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.

One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.

The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.

I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.

A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.

There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.

There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.

A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.

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  1. Here is some specific information on the topic of insect extermination. The new suspicious ingredient is called Fipronil:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fipronil

    Molecular biology is beyond my expertise, but this is how it seems to work. The toxic Fipronil molecule is extremely stable, which means that it does not break down quickly in the natural ecological system. Thus once introduced, it can carry from organism to organism without losing any of its potency. It may ultimately be responsible for the worldwide decline in bee population.

  2. Yes species go extinct from different causes. I cannot see that any extinction can be regarded as Unnatural. Human beings are a part of the natural world and they have great survival characteristics by virtue of natural selection. They interact within the natural world as another organism so any extinction of another species by them is a natural effect, stemming from the fact that they seem to be the superior species. I am not convinced this is an ethical question, it is more a matter of common sense which humans have far and above any other organism on this Planet. To hunt a species to extinction just for the fun of it is like destroying items of valuable scientific research just to light a bonfire on new year’s eve. It is thoughtless, foolish, short sighted. On the other hand if Mosquitoes are a serious threat to human life we may well seriously consider the consequences of eliminating them from the planet. I do not have sufficient scientific knowledge to speak as to the consequences and I am not sure anybody can with certainty predict the outcome of such a venture. A small adjustment anywhere in the biological web of life could have disastrous consequences elsewhere we could end up worse off than where we started. Some insecticides are lethal to bees and without bees humans face a bleak and possible terminatory future. I find an ethical viewpoint in connection with this matter difficult to apply. We are certainly not averse to killing other humans by the millions when they threaten us and we hold celebrations when we are the victors. I have already said a common sense approach seems appropriate and this includes destroy no life unless that life is out to destroy us and then exercise extreme caution when making a decision. I do not despise an ethical viewpoint but feel this can sometimes obscure what is best for ourselves as a surviving species. Amongst other things we did get rid of smallpox with what seems to be only beneficial consequences. How ever if I understand correctly we still retain under lock and key a small amount of the virus which to me seems good scientific practice.

  3. Don Bird,

    True-since we are a natural species, our actions are natural. But, people tend to mean “not caused by humans” when using “natural.” However, as you note, there might not be an important distinction here when it comes to the ethics of the situation.

    I would say that it is an ethical question, even if it is just in terms of the harms that we might do to ourselves indirectly.

    I’d say that my main practical concern is the matter of unintended consequences. While I would not advocate that we be paralyzed by fear, past incidents have shown that it is often better to err on the side of caution when engaged in this sort of thing.

  4. I believe that around 99% of all known species have disappeared from the face of the earth. I agree it is natural, consequently, we should neither seek to prevent the disappearance or cause one to go away without some serious reflection.

    Need to do so should be established. Right now in New Mexico, we have the environmentalists in an uproar about the Mexican Grey Wolf. No, I don’t know why they call them Mexican, as I am sure they are neither Hispanic, nor can they speak Spanish. (Maybe they should re-name them, the Hispanic Grey Wolves to be more politically correct).

    Genetics is the best option, although it may have the same dangers as poisons, (The Killer Bees?).

    Problem is that if you make a void in nature, nature usually finds a way to fill it. We know that certain fish, for example, when there is a shortage of males or females, the species changes sexes. Mess with bacteria or viruses, and you may start something that causes some mutations that may be more unstoppable than the AIDS virus initially was.

    But I have faith that we will do it, and mess it up.

    I have a unique personal observation regarding the use of poisons.

    In 1968, in Viet Nam with the Marines I was exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant. Want to know what poison can do? I I have little feeling in my waist to my feet, I wear two leg braces, I have had one kidney removed, stomach cut out, am diabetic, have ED, IBS, and that is just the beginning. I spend 70% of the time in a wheelchair, and can barely walk for short times. I take 17 pills a day, some of which are to replace chemicals my body no longer can produce, and I take two shots in the abdomen daily. And I also developed severe PTSD, and cannot stand to be around people, even my own family.

    It’s no wonder I am so irritable and impatient sometimes. But I am alive……or not.

    In the 60’s, when I was in college the first time, I recall thinking we should all be careful what we ask for, because we might get it. The real question to me is whether we think we have psychologically kept pace with technology. I don’t think so, but that’s my 2 cents worth.

  5. Mr. Tim R Ford, Sir
    Some things of little cost have great value. I’m humbled by your strength to live. Your 2 cents are priceless.

  6. Thanks, I have had a good life, and now I have the time to look at philosophy to learn something about the Prime Mover……

    Don’t feel bad for me, I just hope my sons or other father’s sons DON’T go through this.

    I think we could have done better

  7. ‘While I would not advocate that we be paralyzed by fear, past incidents have shown that it is often better to err on the side of caution when engaged in this sort of thing.’

    Have they really? Are you in a hurry to bring back the smallpox or polio viruses, or the bacteria that caused bubonic plague? I would say that, faced with those sorts of species, erring on the side of caution could be a grave error indeed.

  8. I should have been clearer-I am fine with getting rid of disease causing organisms that seem to have no positive function. However, macro level exterminations of species should be handled with considerable caution. The history of DDT is the obvious cautionary tale here.

  9. The Ethics of Genetic Extermination | More Interesting Things - pingback on January 16, 2013 at 12:28 pm

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