Malaria is a devastating disease that has taken the lives of an estimated 435,000 in 2017, with most of these cases being transferred by the tiny insect that is known as the most devastating creature besides humans to populate this earth: the mosquitoes. These six-legged beasts are grade-A killers; they’ve been around for at least three million years, there are trillions of them, and a single one can lay up to 300 eggs at a time. So it may seem that we’ve lost the fight already, and shouldn’t be trying to eradicate them as it is pointless. But as it turns out, the gene-editing tool CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) has made eliminating these masters of destruction quite realistic.
Imagine if it were possible to genetically engineer mosquitoes that did not allow the malaria virus to survive in their bodies, which would mean that they couldn’t pass it on to humans. By releasing these insects into the wild, they would mate and produce a race of malaria-free mosquitoes. This is when people will be quick to remind us of the few bits of knowledge they managed to scrap out of high school biology: there’s only a 50% chance that the offspring of the edited mosquitoes would be born with the inability to pass malaria. Don’t worry though, because science has that figured out. It’s possible to increase the chances of the anti-malaria gene being dominant to 97 percent. And we could breed thousands of these mosquitoes quite easily, and introducing them to the population wouldn’t be that hard at all either.
And now imagine that these mosquitoes already exist, because they do, somewhere in a lab, in a room, in a cage, with eager scientists conducting all sorts of tests on the bewildered pest. Therefore, the initial doubt of our ability to do so has been debunked and the problem has become much more of a moral debate. Would it be moral to edit the genes of a being for a purpose that is believed to benefit humanity, even if it could produce bad or even worse side effects in the future?
In 2019, it’s very common to have these sorts of debates regarding ethics, and this example of mosquitoes is one among many moral divides. To understand how these moral debates have been proposed throughout time, I’d like to remind us of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published originally in 1818.
The novel centers around Victor Frankenstein and his scientific pursuit of creating life. Frankenstein functions as a cautionary tale that warns us of when curiosity becomes immoral. By analyzing just the novel, it’s possible to assume that Shelley was warning us for the future. However, this novel was extremely timely, as the age of enlightenment had just passed, and it was during this time when people believed that reasoning and logical thought could overrule what was considered the status quo. One specific example of this that likely influenced Shelley was the discovery of ‘animal electricity’ by Luigi Galvani. He discovered that a frog’s legs would twitch when connected to electrical wires, and this sparked a great scientific movement believing that electricity could hold the secret to reanimation.
So, Mary Shelley evidently noticed the intense scientific movement and believed that it was possible for it to go wrong. Therefore, maybe that the answer to our mosquitoes question can be rooted in the story of Victor Frankenstein’s monster.
It’s possible to argue that these two case studies are incomparable because Victor’s motivations are much more selfish than to eradicate a terrible disease. However, we can view the Monster as a symbol of the byproduct of attempting to alter nature; for we could end up breeding a strand of mosquitoes that wouldn’t be affected by mating with the sterile ones. Also, it’s possible the mosquitoes adapt over time and form a super-species that would devastate us worse than the current problem.
And then there’s the problem we started with: is it moral to go against nature by modifying a living creature? Should we just accept that nature has decided that some people living in certain areas, like Central Africans, will die by the hundreds of thousands? For, after all, Mary Shelley has warned us of the effects of trying to play God and create or modify something that we must maybe shouldn’t. It was Victor Frankenstein’s ideology of immortality that turned into immorality. Now, we know that everyone must die; it is decreed by whatever God, or natural phenomena you hold faith in. Should we not, in a similar fashion, believe that we should cease fighting nature because we have no moral justification for doing so?
I, personally, would deny these arguments. As a curious individual, I don’t believe that we should just sit and let people die if we have a chance to treat them. I disregard the evidence that I just laid forth about nature because I believe that humans are unnatural. If we were to abide by the laws of nature, only the strongest would survive. This means that people with vision problems, hearing problems, the permanently disabled and diseased would not exist. And obviously, we don’t live in a world like that. Hundreds of years ago, life expectancy was much lower, diseases were more widespread, and there was a much worse overall quality of living. So why should we, when we have come so far, stop now?