The Ethics of Genetic Extermination

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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