Sunday, January 10, 2016

#10 / Gene Drive

The wonder of genetic engineering ("gene drive") may be able to rid the world of pests and diseases. An article by Nicholas Wade, published in the December 21, 2015 edition of The New York Times, describes the process. 

Wade, incidentally, has been roundly criticized by scientists who believe that one of his books (plus, I think, some of this other writings), misuse scientific discoveries about DNA to provide a foundation for racist theorizing. The book that has most strongly evoked this criticism is Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, published in 2014. Those objecting to Wade's argument say that his attribution of cultural differences to DNA goes beyond any legitimate justification provided by science.

Whoever has the best of that argument (and I tend to think that the scientist-critics do), The Times' article I am referencing in this blog posting does not figure in that debate. "Gene Drives Offer New Hope Against Diseases and Crop Pests" is simply a job of "reporting," not "theorizing."

In summary, The Times' article describes the genetic engineering techniques that might be able to eliminate various kinds of insect pests entirely, or that might modify the pests' genetics so that the pests can no longer transmit diseases like malaria. Let's call out mosquitoes specifically, since that's what Wade's article does. The diagram, above, illustrates the concept pictorially. One little snip in the DNA of the insect (using those CRISPR techniques I have mentioned before) will change the nature of the entire population of the pest, so the new and more desirable qualities become universal. 

This all sounds great...

Except, what is really involved in the "gene drive" technique is a human assertion that human beings, from now on, will be in charge of the evolution of life, and the species that populate the planet will not derive from natural selection occurring within the World of Nature, but will be created by human choice and human-operated mechanisms of genetic engineering. 

We might start with mosquitoes, but at least theoretically speaking these "gene drive" techniques can be applied to lots of different species, and total species change (for rapidly reproducing species) can take place in a matter of years, not millennia. 

I am more willing to put my trust in the judgment of the natural processes that have (somehow) brought about life on Earth than I am to have confidence in our human efforts to be "in charge" of what sort of species live and die. 

As human beings seek to assume human responsibility for the creation of the World of Nature (instead of confining their creative efforts to the human world, for which they are truly responsible), the well-appreciated human fallibilities associated with hubris will, almost certainly, become apparent rather quickly.

At the very least, we need to remind ourselves of that extremely helpful "precautionary principle" as we push down the accelerator on our new "gene drive."

Image Credit:


  1. Excellent!

    We're not smart enough to decide which species is a pest and which is not. Nor are we smart enough to mess with the organizational basis of all life.

  2. Special pleading. By hunting, domestication, and cultivation, humans have already changed the genes of the species that populate the planet. Biotechnology allows specific changes to be done intentionally. The precautionary principle applies equally to organic (i.e. natural) pesticides, extant domesticated animals and extant cultivated plants.

  3. It's meaningless to put trust in the judgment of the natural processes because natural processes don't have "judgement". You make a fallacious slippery slope argument that we shouldn't modify the mosquito, even though the change its self sounds great. Modifying the mosquito today in no way forces us to make less wise modifications to other species in the future.

  4. Michael, we "mess with the organizational basis of all life" all the time e.g. hunting, fishing, deforestation, domestication, and cultivation. All activities that change the frequency of genes in populations of animals and plants. Often to out disadvantage, and theirs. This change to the mosquito will protect humans from disease. How does this mess any more with the organizational basis of all life than the use of DDT or mosquito nets?


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