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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Baby steps

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

So, I think that I should do a new essay.

Here is my idea: what are the ethical issues about gene-editing to create disease resistance in endangered species.

So, if an animal is endangered and further threatened by disease, first we have to argue that there is a duty to do something about it. We might say that the numbers of the animals may be low due to habitat loss, over-hunting, invasive species and so on - all of which are human-generated reasons. This might confer some kind of obligation. In the case of bats, there are anthropocentric reasons for helping them, as they are pollinators and eat insects that could otherwise prove troublesome to people. Some might argue that the loss of a species is a bad thing as each species represents a unique way of life, perhaps, and that there is thus intrinsic value in ensuring species survival. I am not sold on this.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that there is a justifiable reason to do something. We then have to consider the welfare issues. With bats and white nose syndrome, it's not just that death is bad but that is is brought about by starvation, and thus incorporates significant suffering. In many cases, the suffering, one assumes, would be relevant as well as the death.

However, why would one choose to favour diseases impacting endangered species rather than common species? If we are considering welfare and suffering, and do not believe there is a particular value inherent in species, then why not focus on diseases that cause the most suffering or impact the largest number of animals?

This is kind of circular. We would have to argue for the merit of working with endangered species. There might be pragmatic reasons - like, the endangered status could generate more funding or more urgency. But this seems deeply anthropocentric - it's something that interests us. We might as well choose charismatic or cute animals.

Right. That's all problematic.

Now, the suffering induced by gene-drives. For the wild populations, that seems not to be a concern. All they have to do is mate with the prepared animals and then all the offspring would be resistant. There are practical problems, though: bats breed slowly and they could be extinct before the resistant genes have protected enough members of the population.

In addition, the gene-modified animals would have to be born, learn how to be bats and be released. There are substantial welfare concerns for the creatures themselves and for the surrogate mothers. There are also practical concerns: how do these bats know how to be bats? For example, how much social learning is required to hunt? Or for 'midwife' bats to help other bats have their pups? Or for blood-sucking bats to share their food? As bats live in tight communities, would a lone bat suffer due to the absence of conspecifics?

There are risks, too: are there unforeseen consequences to gene-editing? Like making the bats less resistant to something else or less able to metabolise something? How much should the precautionary principle weigh in?

It's certainly interesting.

However, why would one choose to favour diseases impacting endangered species rather than common species? This would need arguing. If one does not state a case for the intrinsic value of a species, then surely the first priority would be the diseases that cause the most suffering? Or impact the most animals?

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