HumBug: Ethics of Annihilation

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ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper

The Olympics in Rio and the Zika virus have brought an ongoing ethical debate to the fore. If in the future mankind can use genetic engineering to wipe out mosquitoes that carry horrible diseases, should we?
Previously, I mentioned that the humble mosquito is considered to be the single deadliest animal on the planet, transmitting malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever and a whole host of other diseases killing hundreds of thousands of people every year and leaving even more survivors in lifelong misery. Recently, we've heard they are responsible for spreading Zika virus, which causes microcephaly in newborns whose mothers have been infected while pregnant. Two babies infected with the pathogen have been born in California already. 
A composite of Sierriensis feeding on a cactus leaf in my greenhouse. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A composite of Sierriensis feeding on a cactus leaf in my greenhouse.

Not that I think the present state of the art is capable of doing this, but, maybe sooner than we think, it may be possible to program a mosquito plague or release a hyper-competitive strain that is resistant to the diseases they transmit. There would be unexpected consequences, for sure. Many insect, spider, reptile, bird and fish populations dependent on the ubiquitous food source might well collapse. Some bird populations might prosper, relieved of the burden of avian malaria, which seldom kills but reduces the vitality of the infected.

A composite of Sierriensis feeding on a cactus leaf in my greenhouse. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A composite of Sierriensis feeding on a cactus leaf in my greenhouse.
It will be impossible to figure out all possible outcomes in advance. On one side, how do we justify endangering entire ecosystems and unrelated species? On the other side, how do we justify allowing children to be infected with terrible diseases if we can prevent it?

As Mike Meyers used to say on Saturday Night Live during the Coffee Talk skits, “Talk among yourselves,” because someone is going to make that decision someday.

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