How CRISPR-based "gene drives" could cheaply, rapidly and
sustainably reduce suffering throughout the living world."The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so."
River Out of Eden (1995)
Towards a Post-Darwinian Biosphere
The idea that sentient beings shouldn't harm each other, or allow each other to come to harm, was once purely utopian. Later this century and beyond, the policy option will be technically feasible. Sociological credibility is another issue. Yet a plea of "It must be so" is no longer technically, ecologically or ethically correct. In the post-CRISPR era, whether intelligent agents decide to preserve, reform, or phase out the biology of involuntary suffering will be an ethical choice.
Four policy options for the biosphere:
1) "Pleistocene_rewilding" - restoring much of the planet to its state before the human impact.
2) The status quo - essentially an extension of existing conservation biology: more wildlife parks, minimal intervention - conservation with no regard to the subjective well-being of individuals, just the abstract health of species and ecosystems.
Traditional Conservation Biology
3) Compassionate biology, ultimately extending to all free-living sentients: CRISPR-based gene drives, cross-species fertility-regulation via immunocontraception, GPS-tracking and monitoring, genetic tweaking and/or in vitro meat for obligate carnivores, a pan-species welfare state in tomorrow's Nature reserves: in short, "high-tech Jainism".
"Genetically Engineering Almost Anything" (Nova)
"'Gene Drives' And CRISPR Could Revolutionize Ecosystem Management" (Scientific American)
4) Phasing out free-living non-human sentients altogether.
"Why improve Nature when destroying it is so much easier?" (2011, Robert Wiblin)
This paper will sketch and defend a version of (3), what might be called Compassionate Conservation. For sure, the blueprint outlined has little near-term chance of being implemented as it stands. The reason for sketching what's technically feasible with the tools of synthetic biology is that only after human complicity in the persistence of suffering in the biosphere is acknowledged can we hope to have an informed socio-political debate on the morality of its perpetuation. No serious ethical discussion of free-living animal suffering can begin in the absence of recognition of human responsibility for nonhuman well-being.
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When a friend of the American composer John Cage asked, "Don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?", Cage answered, “No, I think there's just the right amount”. Few ethicists openly express such Zen-like equanimity at the suffering of other sentient beings; but until recently all ecologists shared Richard Dawkins' assumption of its inevitability. However, the living world is on the brink of a technical and ethical revolution - and a major evolutionary transition in the development of life. Humanity will shortly be able to decide the optimal level of suffering both for members of our own species and across the tree of life itself. Not least, CRISPR-driven gene drives can cheaply, rapidly and dramatically reduce suffering in all species of sexually reproducing organism.
Until 21st century biotechnology, the sheer cost, computational complexity and technical obstacles to tackling suffering in free-living non-human animals seemed daunting to anyone who cared about nonhumans. A pan-species welfare state was inconceivable. Cross-species fertility-regulation via immunocontraception, neurochipping, GPS-tracking and monitoring, and rudimentary healthcare services would be prohibitively costly even for large, long-lived vertebrates in human wildlife parks. How could we possibly hope to tackle suffering in marine ecosystems or the Amazon rainforest, short of invoking molecular nanotechnology and what critics would call Drexlerian sci-fi? Actively helping free-living non-humans in an era when millions of people still lack adequate nutrition and healthcare, and when humans still systematically hurt, harm and kill billions of sentient beings in factory-farms and slaughterhouses, has made such a project seem sociologically fanciful as well. Evolution didn't design Homo sapiens to be impartially altruistic.
CRISPR-based "gene drives" are a game-changer. In principle, gene drives can be used - cheaply, rapidly and sustainably - to "fix" the typical level of suffering undergone by members of entire free-living and sexually reproducing species at minimal inconvenience to humans. If targeted wisely, gene drives could massively amplify the effects of even exceedingly weak and fitful human benevolence towards non-human animals. In principle, the level of suffering in any sexually reproducing species of organism could be significantly reduced via genetic tweaking for the cost of around $10,000 of per species or less at current prices. Back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests the financial cost of a happy non-human biosphere would currently be several hundred million dollars - plus annual maintenance costs of perhaps several million dollars per year.
ETHICAL GENE DRIVES IN ACTION?
SCN9A: a case study
Gene drive systems are "selfish" genetic elements that can rapidly spread in sexually reproducing species even if they reduce the fitness of individual organisms. The genomes of almost every sexually reproducing species show evidence of at least one "natural" active gene drive or its broken remnants. Synthetic gene drives can now be designed to "sculpt" evolution. Researchers can take a gene that has a fitness-cost for the individual, for example male sterility, and move ("drive") it through a population in defiance of the usual constraints of Mendelian inheritance. Gene drives achieve this seemingly impossible feat by ensuring that they will be inherited by effectively all - rather than half - of the organism's offspring. Sexually reproducing animals normally have two versions of each gene located on two different chromosomes. Maternal and paternal chromosomes in such a homologous pair have the same genes at the same loci, but the genes typically have different variants. Normally, an organism's offspring inherit only one of each pair of chromosomes from each parent. Therefore each different allele is ordinarily passed on to only around half of the organism's offspring. The new CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing tool allows this rule of Mendelian inheritance to be broken with powerful and precise gene-editing techniques. Specifically, endonuclease gene drives can cut the corresponding locus of the homologous chromosome that doesn't encode the drive, inducing the cell to repair the damage by copying the drive sequence onto the damaged chromosome. In consequence, the cell then has two copies of the drive sequence. If the modified cell is a germline cell, then the modification will be passed on to all the organism's offspring, regardless of which chromosome they inherit. The same process will then apply to their offspring, too, generation after generation. In effect, a cell's DNA repair-mechanisms can be "hijacked" to spread human-selected traits throughout an entire species. CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing potentially allows biohackers, scientists, or tomorrow's wildlife park managers accurately to insert, replace, delete and regulate genes in all sexually reproducing species and then "drive" the desired alteration(s) across the entire population. Species that can reproduce both with and without sex, for example many plants, are more problematic; and gene drives can’t alter asexually reproducing populations such as bacteria. Yet the vast majority of sentient beings on Earth today belong to predominantly or exclusively sexually-reproducing species. In short, gene drives can potentially be designed to engineer the well-being of all sentience.
Consider a concrete example of how gene drives could be used to reduce suffering in Nature. The lives of countless sentient beings are blighted by physical pain. Multiple genes modulate an organism's pain-sensitivity. Here let's focus just on the sodium channel, voltage-gated, type IX alpha subunit coded by the SCN9A gene. The SCN9A gene belongs to an evolutionarily ancient family of genes that code the construction of sodium channels. Sodium channels transport positively charged sodium ions into nerve cells, allowing the generation and transmission of electrical signals. The SCN9A gene provides instructions for making the alpha subunit of the sodium channel NaV1.7 found in nociceptors that transmit pain signals. Dozens of different alleles of SCN9A have been deciphered. Rare, maladaptive nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene abolish an organism's ability to feel pain altogether. Yet other SCN9A alleles confer unusually high or unusually low pain-sensitivity without compromising function to any marked degree. Recall how today a small minority of high-functioning people display an exceptionally high pain-tolerance. Such "abnormally" low pain-sensitivity isn’t the same as a dangerous and potentially lethal congenital analgesia. For such lucky people, pain is little worse than a useful bodily signalling mechanism in situations where "normal" human and non-humans animals alike would be screaming in agony.
In principle, there's now nothing to stop intelligent moral agents "fixing" the [conditionally-activated level of] subjective physical distress undergone by members of entire free-living species by choosing and propagating benign alleles of SCN9A or its homologs via gene drives, i.e. engineering via CRISPR-mediated gene-editing not a currently utopian "no pain" biosphere (cf. The Abolitionist Project) but a “low pain” biosphere.
To be sure, risks abound; but no one is proposing compassionate stewardship of ecosystems by philosophers. Humans are capable of choosing our own future pain-sensitivity too; but any species-wide genomic shift in human pain tolerance will depend on the willingness of prospective parents to use preimplantation genetic screening.
Even in an age of CRISPR, customised gene drives and exponentially increasing computer power, the cost of compassionate stewardship of the biosphere won't be financially negligible. Yet perhaps compare the $100,000 today spent salvaging a single 23-week-old human micro-preemie with the price of "fixing" the default well-being an entire species of free-living vertebrate - indefinitely. Millions of non-human animals are as sentient - and demonstrably as sapient - as human prelinguistic toddlers. Many billions of non-humans are as sentient and demonstrably as sapient as human infants. Effective altruism dictates shedding anthropocentric bias and helping our fellow creatures accordingly.
Until the CRISPR genome-editing revolution, helping any free-living non-humans beyond a few large, long-lived vertebrates such as elephants (cf. "A Welfare State for Elephants") was implausible in our lifetime. Aiding small rodents, marine invertebrates or insects (cf. "The Importance of Insect Suffering") could at best be a task for our grandchildren and mature nanotechnology - or more credibly, for posthuman superintelligence. “Gene drives” turn this intuitive chronology on its head – in theory at any rate. For it's actually easier, cheaper and quicker to help fast-reproducing r-selected rather than K-selected species. Even the most cognitively humble life-forms can benefit from a bare minimum of human benevolence towards other sentient beings.
Which subjectively unpleasant traits are most morally urgent to modify? The control of raw pain is clearly vital to quality of life. However, other parameters, most notably the core emotions, can be genetically adjusted to shape default well-being too.
- COMT ("The catechol-O-methyl transferase Val158Met polymorphism and experience of reward in the flow of daily life")
- Serotonin transporter gene ("National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A Cautious Exploration")
- ADA2b deletion variant ("Is Pessimism Genetic? Research Shows Your Outlook Might Be Cloudy By Genetic Design")
- FAAH gene variant rs324420 ("Genes may contribute to making some nations happier than others")
And so forth. "Fixing" pain-sensitivity, depression-resistance, and default hedonic tone via gene drives will prevent immense suffering throughout the living world. The Cambrian Explosion was an explosion in suffering too; and only now are intelligent moral agents in a position to bring it under control.
Naturally, pitfalls lie ahead. Neither action nor inaction are ethically risk-free. A prudent if informal rule of thumb for policy-makers might be that anything that conceivably can go wrong with germline interventions will go wrong - and more besides. Mankind's dark historical track-record suggests that gene drives are more likely to be used for genetic terrorism, ethnic bioweapons and entomological warfare than harnessed to promote the welfare of other sentient beings. Ideally, artificial gene drives will be used to end the scourge of mosquito-borne diseases. Insect-borne pathogens sicken and kill millions of human and non-human animals each year. Malaria-proof Anopheles mosquitoes already exist in the laboratory. If released into the wild, such disease-resistant transgenic mosquitoes would rapidly spread and soon supersede their malarial cousins, thereby protecting numerous species of birds, reptiles and mammals including humans. On the other hand, a single bioterrorist could design a small number of mosquitoes powered with a gene drive equipped with a gene for making a deadly toxin. Mosquitoes reproduce rapidly. Soon all the world’s mosquitoes of the modified species would make the toxin. Every mosquito bite would be lethal. (cf. "This could be the next weapon of mass destruction"). Idealism may be as hazardous as misanthropy. Perhaps some youthful biohacker will decide genetically to tweak the Texas Lone Star Tick Amblyomma americanum (cf."This bug's bite could turn you vegetarian") - not the best way to win the global battle for hearts and minds. Such scenarios could be multiplied. Hence the need for multiple safeguards, well-drafted regulations and effective enforcement mechanisms before an engineered gene drive is unleashed in the wild. In the post-CRISPR era, all that intelligent moral agents can responsibly do is weigh risk-reward ratios and then act accordingly.
Consider pain-tolerance again. Unlike rare individuals born with congenital analgesia or victims of severe and debilitating chronic pain syndromes, organisms born with exceptionally high and exceptionally low pain-sensitivity alike can be high functioning. Nevertheless, both "low pain" human and non-human animals do behave differently from neurotypicals, although well-controlled cross-species studies are lacking. Responsibly using synthetic gene drives to shift the typical behavioural phenotype of an entire species towards the spectrum of behaviour today characteristic of its nociceptive outliers first calls for pilot studies, multiple safeguards and intelligent computational modelling - and regulation. Right now, using molecular tools available on eBay, a single biohacker could construct a gene drive to benefit - or harm - an entire free-living population world-wide. In principle, a modestly talented ethical biohacker using molecular tools readily available for under $10,000 could "fix" the default level of suffering for an entire species of small fast-reproducing vertebrate within the time-frame of two or three decades - and the default level of suffering of a sexually fast-reproducing species of insect or marine invertebrate within two or three years. Helping an entire species of slow-reproducing elephants exclusively in the same way, i.e. by using gene drives and no other intervention, would take two or three centuries.
The scope for unanticipated side-effects from well-meaning but ill-judged interventions is huge. For example, the unusually high and unusually low pain-sensitivity promoted by different alleles of SCN9A is associated with unusually high and unusually low olfactory acuity respectively: NaV1.7 sodium channels are found in olfactory sensory neurons of the nasal cavity that transmit smell-related signals to the brain. Modelling the cross-species ramifications of altered smell-perception conjoined with reduced pain-sensitivity will be computationally challenging - which is not to say that we'll physically run out of computational resources. One possible solution involves contained field-trials using "low pain" organisms engineered with the benign high pain-tolerance but lacking the functional drive to spread it. Or to raise another thorny issue, what will minimised pain-sensitivity do to empathy towards conspecifics in species with at least a rudimentary theory of mind? (cf. "Rats forsake chocolate to save a drowning companion") The existence of short-acting empathetic euphoriants such as MDMA ("Ecstasy") illustrates that heightened empathy and profound subjective well-being aren't mutually inconsistent traits; but this happy congruence can't simply be assumed and extrapolated. Long-term population monitoring will be ecologically prudent even after benign alleles have been "fixed" in a species via gene drives or any other species-wide intervention.
Is compassionate stewardship of the biosphere best conducted via private initiative? Or under the auspices of the United Nations, with at least some form of democratic accountability and international regulatory oversight? Immense diplomatic challenges lie ahead before humanity collectively agrees on the basic principles of ethical ecosystem management. Ecosystems don't respect nation-state boundaries; and neither do gene drives. Cheaply and efficiently minimising pointless suffering in Nature deserves to be uncontroversial even among the morally apathetic; humans tend to be callous rather than malevolent. "May all that hath life be delivered from suffering" is a widely esteemed quote from Gautama Buddha, not some madcap transhumanist. Yet many secular and religious organisations and state actors have values and priorities beyond minimising needless misery. For instance, intelligence-amplification of entire species of free-living non-humans is imminently feasible. Laboratory mice engineered with the human variant of the FOXP2 "language gene" are demonstrably more intelligent than their primitive conspecifics. Gene drives could ("Human ‘language gene’ makes mice smarter") amplify intelligence and dramatically postpone senescence in entire populations (cf. "Longevity: Extending the lifespan of long-lived mice"). The uplift universe of science fiction writer David Brin probably strikes most people as whimsical fantasy; but free-living Neo-Chimpanzees, Neo-Dolphins, Neo-Gorillas and Neo-Dogs will shortly be policy options.
Even the most enlightened and comprehensive regime of gene drives won't abolish traditional natural selection altogether. If a genetic alteration is slightly harmful to an organism, perhaps like exceedingly high pain-tolerance, then the engineered gene drive would eventually break. More severe harms would break the drive over shorter evolutionary time-scales. Under a regime of compassionate stewardship, broken versions of a gene drive would eventually need overwriting with new and more robust functional copies. Also, biohackers - or state actors - with different ethical priorities may unleash competing gene drives. So-called "immunising drives" block another gene drive from spreading by pre-emptively altering the sequences that another drive targets, thereby preventing it from initiating copying. Pranksters, mischief-makers, genetic open-source enthusiasts and "script kiddies" could all potentially wreak ecological havoc with "rogue" drives, not just incompetent idealists. Gene drives are a rapidly emerging technology. Human use of CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing is only a few years old. We may anticipate the development of user-friendly software tools that lower the threshold of technical competence for engineering gene drives from talented biohackers as now to tomorrow's high-school students. Perhaps regulatory authorities will license genomic alterations via gene drives to a species in the wild only in conjunction with development of another "reversal" gene drive held in reserve. Such a reversal gene drive could be launched to undo the effects of the original gene drive in case of unanticipated adverse side-effects. Biohackers, let alone "black-hat" biocrackers with purposes of their own, may not heed such safeguards, or actively subvert them.
Intuitively we might imagine that most interventions would eventually prove maladaptive to engineered organisms, causing the gene drive ultimately to break. This needn't be the case. All sorts of traits are potentially fitness-enhancing to an organism but haven’t evolved under a regime of natural selection because their evolution would have involved crossing "fitness gaps". Nature has no foresight; no non-human animals forage using wheels. CRISPR-mediated genomic-editing followed by premeditated use of synthetic gene drives allows crossing gaps in the fitness landscape prohibited by natural selection. Intelligent moral agency can "leap across" fitness gaps. Moreover, the emergence of drive-resistant alleles can be delayed or prevented altogether by targeting highly conserved sites in the genome at which resistance is anticipated to have a severe fitness-cost to the organism. Natural selection can thereby be circumvented. Intelligent agency is poised to seize control of evolution as the post-Darwinian transition accelerates.
With adult humans, bioethicists face the thorny issue of consent. By contrast, it’s hard to talk of the “right” of a mouse involuntarily to suffer. Even if all prospective human parents were routinely offered preimplantation genetic screening so they could choose e.g. the pain-sensitivity, depression-resistance, and default hedonic set-points (etc) of their offspring, millions of traditionally-minded parents-to-be would presumably still play genetic roulette and opt instead to have kids "naturally”. All sexually reproduced organisms are currently unique and untested genetic experiments. Barring a sea-change in public opinion world-wide, hundreds of years of avoidable human suffering consequently still lie ahead via the crapshoot of traditional sexual reproduction. Yet unless we subscribe to the mythical Wisdom of Nature, the choice of a "low-pain" living world in the vertebrate lineage and beyond will shortly be a technically feasible and financially affordable policy option – perhaps not yet a full-blown pan-species welfare-state, let alone a perfect world, but at least compassionate conservatism.
Talk of "conservatism" or "conservation" for a technology as revolutionary as synthetic gene drives sounds paradoxical. Yet the potentially species-conservative role of gene drives offers a rhetorically attractive compromise between ethicists who advocate the dramatic alteration or outright abolition of archaic Darwinian life and traditionalists who favour the pain-ridden status quo. For the greatest long-term obstacles to reducing and ultimately abolishing suffering in the living world aren’t technical but ethical-ideological - and above all, status quo bias. Radical bioethicists believe that a compelling moral case can be made for non-violently phasing out the cruelties of traditional Darwinian life. However, even the prospect of civilising Darwinian life by "policing" Nature raises the hackles of species essentialists. Thus the species essentialist claims that obligate carnivores who eat in vitro meat, or reprogrammed predators who no longer asphyxiate, disembowel or eat their victims alive, will have lost some vital part of their species essence, a fate assumed to be inherently ethically objectionable. This objection can be defanged by highlighting "bioconservative" uses of gene drives that simply fix "natural" benign alleles and allelic combinations in free-living populations rather than designing and propagating true genetic novelties. Even such timid bioconservatism is sure to upset extreme traditionalists; but the claim that a temperamentally happy lion or a mouse isn’t "truly" a lion or a mouse compared to his or her misery-ridden conspecifics borders on the ridiculous. Are exceptionally happy or abnormally pain-tolerant humans today not "truly" human? Are Africans who lack the 1%-3% Neanderthal gene admixture of non-Africans less authentically human than Europeans? Or vice versa?
And what should advocates of compassionate biology say to religious believers? The precise answer depends on our target audience. Yet if God had wanted His creatures to suffer, then presumably He wouldn’t have given us CRISPR/Cas9. If the lion and the wolf are really to lie down with the lamb, as the Bible foretells, then each party will need some behavioural-genetic tweaking, unless we suppose the metabolic pathways of obligate carnivores can be modified by the Holy Ghost.
So what exactly are our ultimate ethical responsibilities to other sentient beings? With power comes a deepening complicity in their lives and fate, whether Homo sapiens likes it or not. By analogy, if one comes across a small child from a different ethnic group drowning in a shallow pond, then choosing to walk on by rather than inconveniently get one's clothes wet is almost as morally repugnant as if one had pushed the child into the water oneself. Walking on by if the drowning victim is of comparable sentience and sapience to a human toddler but belongs to a different species rather than to a different ethnic group is no less culpable. Humans have not (quite) yet reached this level of complicity in the fate of most free-living non-human animals. Yet the biotech and IT revolutions also amount to a revolution in human complicity in the persistence of suffering. Systematically helping free-living non-humans via ecological engineering will shortly pass from the technically impossible to difficult to easy to trivial.
Inevitably, critics of compassionate intervention will talk of human “hubris". Yet is it more humble or hubristic not to rescue a drowning toddler from another ethnic group? Why invert our response with beings of comparable sentience and sapience to human toddlers simply on the grounds they belong to a different species?
"Re-wilding" advocates claim that the prospect of compassionate stewardship of Nature threatens to turn the rest of the living world into a "zoo". Yet human and non-human animals typically flourish best when neither "wild" nor incarcerated but free-living. And at the risk of an ad hominem response, the bioconservative critic's professed respect for an ethos of "wild and free" rarely extends to going vegan and urging closure of factory-farms and slaughterhouses.
Some commentators worry about a loss of genetic diversity. CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing can be used to increase or decrease genetic diversity for all sorts of traits. Not all genetic diversity is inherently valuable. For example, hundreds of different disease-causing alleles of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene have been discovered. Most ethicists agree that the optimum level of cystic fibrosis alleles to aim for in the human gene pool is zero. Phasing out alleles and allelic combinations implicated in suffering and malaise is more controversial. Yet depression and chronic pain syndromes can be at least as devastating to quality of life as cystic fibrosis.
Other critics take issue with anthropomorphism. "Projecting" human emotions and feelings onto non-humans is allegedly sentimental and unscientific. Who are humans arrogantly to impose our values on members of other species? Yet complications aside, no sentient being wants to be harmed. The pleasure-pain axis extends across all animal phyla. Whether or not other sentient beings desire to starve or be asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive isn't an unfathomable metaphysical mystery beyond human comprehension. To be sure, there are aspects of non-human animal experience that are alien to humans, for example what's it like to echolocate like a bat, or sexually to fancy a female warthog (etc). These alien state-spaces of experience don't extend to feelings of pain, hunger, fear or despair - or happiness. Human toddlers and non-human animals alike display a clearly expressed wish not to be physically molested or to undergo suffering and malaise. Ethically speaking, it's up to responsible caregivers to safeguard their interests. Of course, for evolutionary reasons some humans and some non-humans wish to harm others; but with humans, at least, we normally recognise that the interests of the victim take precedence. The right not to be harmed differs from a notional "right to harm". Either way, compassionate stewardship of the living world can potentially benefit (ex-)predators and their former victims alike.
THE FUTURE OF SENTIENCE
Looking further ahead, humans or our descendants/successors are likely to practise terraforming other planets and moons, and perhaps eventually other solar systems. Cynics may echo C.S. Lewis, "Let's pray that the human race never escapes Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere.” Yet evolutionary niches tend to get filled. If intelligent agents do propagate beyond Earth, then ethically the least that intelligent moral agents can do is assume responsibility for compassionate stewardship of the sentience in any ecosystems we create. Deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature or surface topography of a sterile planet presumably poses few ethical problems. By contrast, deliberately creating a Darwinian ecosystem with its concomitant misery and malaise is an ethically momentous step. One needn't be a Buddhist or a utilitarian to believe that the deliberate creation of such mass-produced suffering is ethically indefensible. Such a response doesn't rule out enlightened terraforming based on the principles of compassionate biology. For without the molecular signature of experience below "hedonic zero", suffering of any kind is physically impossible. Mature gene drive technologies can potentially phase out the biology of suffering; and maybe even "lock in" a biology of information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss. Before colonising other planets, let alone radiating across the Galaxy, ethical prudence suggests fine-tuning the management of pain-free ecosystems here on Earth.
Sociologically realistic time-frames for compassionate ecosystem design can only be speculative. Yet every cubic metre of the planet will shortly be computationally accessible to surveillance and micro-management. "Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it" (Matthew 10:29), says the Bible. Two thousand years later, secular humanity must decide whether to use our impending God-like omniscience for Orwellian or benevolent purposes. CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing and gene drives offer a powerful tool for compassionate stewardship of Nature at a politically realistic price. English-born American theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, writing the New York Review of Books, remarks (cf. Our Biotech Future) “In the future, a new generation of artists will be writing genomes the way that Blake and Byron wrote verses.” Biotechnology can be used for purposes more morally urgent than artistic self-expression.
The other mainstay of responsible stewardship of the living world will be cross-species immunocontraception. Most critics of compassionate biology assume that any proposal to help free-living non-human animals is ecologically illiterate. Ivory-tower philosophers don't understand the thermodynamics of a food chain. Feed a herd of starving herbivores in winter, for example, and the outcome will be a population explosion next spring followed by ecological collapse. The upshot? More misery. However, recall that exactly the same predictions of immiseration and "inevitable" Malthusian catastrophe were made last century to argue against helping famine-stricken members of other ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa. The solution is combining emergency famine-relief with help with long-term family planning. Non-human animals can't use contraception on their own initiative. But intelligent human-directed use of gene drives, cross-species immunocontraception, and other tools of fertility-regulation can manage ecologically sustainable population sizes as a compassionate alternative to population-control via famine, disease, parasitism and predation. Exponential growth of computational resources harnessed to mastery of our genetic source-code promises a world where all sentient beings can flourish. The World Health Organization definition of health is admirably bold - "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". Arbitrarily restricting the promotion of such good health to members of a single species is as unwarranted as its restriction to a single ethnic group.
Despite the glorious long-term prospects for sentience, most animal advocates would judge any exploration of compassionate stewardship of the living world to be premature. Before systematically helping other sentient beings, mankind's first obligation is surely to stop systematically harming them. Early in the twenty-first century, global veganism strikes many consumers as utopian dreaming. A post-animal bioeconomy of in vitro meat products is indeed still decades away. As long as the animal holocaust continues, a debate on wild animal suffering risks seeming surreal. In the words of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens (2011):"Tens of billions of them [non-human animals] have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history."So can humans redeem ourselves by genetically engineering a happy biosphere? Or will suffering endure as long as life itself? Biologist Edward Wilson outlined the challenge in Consilience back in 1998:"Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us.... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become."
Gene Drives FAQ
Gene Drives: Hotlinks
Gene Drives (Wikipedia)
Quora Answers (2015-23)
The Antispeciesist Revolution
A Welfare State for Elephants
Reprogramming the Biosphere (2020, pdf)
Gene Drives on the Horizon (NAS report, pdf)
Should we eliminate the human ability to feel pain?
David Pearce (2016, 2023)