If there is a creature more universally loathed than the mosquito, I have yet to hear its name. Mosquitoes, specifically Aedes aegypti, are the insect equivalent of a used needle, transmitting bloodborne diseases to scores of people and animals across the world (Specter, 2016). In 2016, nearly 450,000 people succumbed to malaria alone (“Malaria”, 2018). As expected, we humans are not too keen on this, and have been developing new technologies to try and mitigate the impact of this needly fly. One particularly controversial method is to modify the genes of the insect itself (Specter, 2016). This is done through CRISPR technology, which allows researchers to manipulate genes however they see fit. In the case of CRISPR mosquitoes, the altered gene would make it so that their offspring would be born sterile. By releasing these mosquitoes and letting them mate with their wild counterparts, the population of disease carrying individuals would drop drastically. Though I may be reading this wrong, the idea of sterilization seems to imply that we are trying to drive them to extinction. No doubt, this technology could save countless lives, not to mention that you could have an evening barbecue in Florida without looking like you’ve been rolling in Red Hots. But despite my own disdain for mosquitoes, much like the scientists working on CRISPR, I can’t help but feel that this could have unforeseen consequences. Presently, it’s believed that the removal of Aedes mosquitoes would not have a severe impact on the environment (Gharib, 2016). But I have to wonder, are we absolutely certain of the role the mosquito fulfills (if not as food)? This may sound heartless, but perhaps their role as disease vectors prevents ecosystems from overpopulating. Nature demands equilibrium, and if a few animals die from mosquito-borne diseases, it places less strain on the system as a whole. This speculation might be completely off, and I suppose that uncertainty is part of the problem, not mention frightening. How are you supposed to prepare for a crisis you can’t see coming?
Much like with mosquitoes, the question of whether or not humans should alter our own genes has no straightforward answer. Healthwise, if we can prevent the suffering caused by disorders such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia, I’m all for it (I share similar sentiments towards cybernectics for people with disabilities). What worries me more are the social implications. Sure, the wealthy would likely benefit from this technology first, but I imagine it would eventually become available to the general public. If this happens, how would society value human life if we could literally tailor a baby like a Sim? I’m not talking about removing harmful genetic code, but about superficial things like hair, body type, eye color, skin tone, etc. Humans are rarely satisfied, and I can imagine that some of these “designer babies” might eventually resent their parents for choosing qualities that the children themselves loathe. Disturbingly, some parents might even outright reject their offspring if the child somehow fails to meet their expectations. Most people are unhappy with our bodies in some way, but at the present moment, our appearances stemmed primarily from chance. There was nobody making a conscious decision about how we should look, nobody to point a finger at. How would genetic engineering change that? Would we have push-back against this with “anti-alteration” groups, much in the same light as anti-vaccination? What if there was a small pocket of humans that weren’t modified for some reason? Would they be considered inferior to the engineered majority? Will it ever be considered child abuse not to remove “bad” genes from your child’s genome? How would this affect competitive events such as sports? Say your parents designed you specifically to be an athlete. What kind of societal pressures would be placed on you because of this? I know free will isn’t as…well, free as we humans would like to think it is. We all have limitations, physically and culturally. But even though we aren’t granted full autonomy, we still possess some. Would that be thrown out the window if we could decide a person’s purpose before they even exist? The truth is that I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how this technology will affect us in the long run or vise versa. Personally, I don’t believe humanity is so depraved that we would all suddenly display an extreme “genetic prejudice” towards one another. CRISPR technology is not going to make the capacity for empathy and compassion obsolete (perhaps we could even use the technology to enhance these qualities). Still, acknowledging the atrocities we are capable of, it should stand to reason that any of the scenarios I’ve considered above might be possible. Should any of them come true, you won’t be hearing me say “I told you so”. If anything, my biggest hope for the future is that my most dire predictions are dead wrong.
Note: Some of you might be asking why I’m less comfortable with releasing genetically engineered mosquitoes into the wild than altering the human genome. Really, it has a lot to do with control. I imagine that you would keep plenty of documentation on genetically altered humans, meaning that the child could be carefully monitored as they grow. A myriad of nameless, identical looking mosquitoes are a smidge more difficult. Additionally, the quick life cycle of mosquitoes means that any unforeseen problems caused by genetic engineering could spur out of control in little time at all. Compare this to a human being that takes 18 years to reach adulthood. With that long of a development period, you’d have far more time to catch any possible issues.
Wow! Did you make it through this entire post? Here, you deserve a picture of a piece of cake (if you have any dietary restrictions, just imagine it’s vegan, gluten free, etc.)!
Gharib, M. (2016, February 20). Would It Be A Bad Thing to Wipe Out A Species … If It’s A Mosquito? Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/02/20/467094440/would-it-be-a-bad-thing-to-wipe-out-a-species-if-its-a-mosquito
Malaria. (2018, May 03). Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/malaria/malaria_worldwide/impact.html
Specter, M. (2016, August). DNA Revolution. Retrieved November 11, 2018.