There, on the front page of the weekend Wall Street Journal, amid all the financial news and analysis of the presidential race, a deep moral question in a headline worth pondering: “Mosquitoes Are Deadly, So Why Not Kill Them All?” Do humans have the right to engineer a world without disease-causing mosquitoes?
At its core, the question is whether humans have any business putting their own well-being above that of other species. To some, the answer is a resounding no.
The power to do so is evidently within our reach. Tinkering with the genes of Aedes aegypti — the little nibbler who spreads the dengue, yellow fever, and Zika viruses — could cause its population to collapse within a generation or two and halt the spread of a host of terrible maladies.
Should we do it? Naturally, there is disagreement. “I think it is our moral duty to eliminate this mosquito,” says an entomologist quoted in the article. “We ought to try not to do it,” counters an ethicist. There is plenty to chew on.
Would eradicating this mosquito reduce human suffering? Yes, undeniably. Would doing so disturb the delicate balance of the food chain? No, apparently. Are there future ecological consequences to eradicating a species that we can’t fully appreciate or understand right now, given the current limits of scientific knowledge? Probably . . . maybe . . . who knows?
Finally, and perhaps most relevant, just who do we think we are? There is a God, and we are not Him.
At its core, the question is whether humans have any business putting their own well-being above that of other species. To some, the answer is a resounding no. As I’m sure you are aware, there are many who feel strongly that it is us, Homo sapiens, who are in fact the real pests on this earth.
We pollute. We destroy habitats. Everything we come into contact with, they say, is worse off for having met us. It is we who should be sterilized, they say. It is we who should be reined in. Let nature run its course.
It’s not a view I share, but it is a view and ought to be considered. Funnily enough, those who think we should never screw around with the organic operation of the environment — whether through pesticides, growth hormones, or GMO crops — are often the same people who think chemical contraception, in vitro fertilization, and hormone-replacement therapy for the transgendered are not just super-duper and A-okay, but they’re basic human rights.
The mosquito discussion resonates with me for personal reasons. For the last ten years, I have observed, and sometimes engaged in, a similar debate: whether we should target for elimination genetic abnormalities such as Down syndrome that can be detected in utero through prenatal tests. We have the power to do it. Some people think we should. Others — like me, the father of a child with Down syndrome — think we have no right to fiddle with the natural order of things.
On the face of it, the Down-syndrome and mosquito debates seem identical. Consistency would seem to require that someone who is pro-mosquito should also be pro-life, and someone who thinks that babies have no inherent right to be born should also think that other species have no inherent right to life and that we humans have the right to tweak the natural world to suit our purposes. As noted above, however, people are quite good at rationalizing away contradictions, especially on hot-to-the-touch issues such as abortion.
In fact, the two debates aren’t identical. The needs of a vulnerable, unborn child — even one that doesn’t meet society’s ever-changing standards of “normal” — merit considerably more attention than the needs of Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti. Not infinitely more. There is a balance to be struck. But a rat is not a pig is not a dog is not a boy.
Humans are different. No other species comes close to sharing our capacity for reason, emotion, language, empathy, and abstract thought. The least capable or clever among us has worth by virtue of his unique, eternal, God-given soul. Some, of course, reject the idea of a Creator — at least one who takes an active interest in what we’re up to. But even judged solely by the standards of evolution by natural selection, humans have achieved a level of dominance over the known world and all it contains that clearly indicates we are a species apart.
The mere fact that we have these debates marks us as different. If giant mosquitoes were the dominant species on the planet, you better believe we’d all be living as farm-fresh blood slaves.
What consistently amazes me is the amount of hand-wringing that accompanies the question of whether we should genetically engineer a strain of rice to cure river blindness in the developing world. Meanwhile, the question of whether innocent babies should be murdered for the crime of having Down syndrome is met in many corners with moral nonchalance.
For me, it’s really quite simple. Zika causes birth defects. As it spreads, the number of abortions will spike. There’s no question that dealing a final solution to the Aedes aegypti is the lesser of two evils here.
Let the mosquitoes die. Let the babies live.
This piece originally appeared on National Review Online