closeup of screw worm

The Ethics of Deliberate Extinction

Principal Investigators: Gregory E. Kaebnick, James Collins

Co-Investigators: Athmeya Jayaram  

Funder: National Science Foundation

Genome editing provides new tools for controlling wild organisms–maybe by suppressing or eradicating populations, and even in principle by driving entire species extinct. Candidate species include the new world screw worm (above), which eats the living flesh of animals including human beings; mosquitos that transmit infectious diseases such as malaria; and rats, which pose public health and environmental threats to threatened and endangered species in many places. Nonetheless, the prospect of using genome editing to extinguish a wild species is inherently troubling for many people. This project aims to bring attention to this possible use and propose recommendations for how decisions about it should be made. The project will thereby support regulatory oversight and promote broad public deliberation about genome editing. The work will be shared through an open-access report and publications for professional and nonprofessional audiences. The project will also build scholarship on these issues, by enlisting a group of scholars in the development of the report and by providing training in values-oriented research to a graduate student in ecology or conservation biology.

The scholarly focus of the project is on philosophical and ethical questions raised by the idea of extinction via genome editing. Why, exactly, might that idea be troubling? Some of these questions are about the value of species, biodiversity, and the human relationship to nature generally, whether humans ought to reduce the suffering of wild animals, and how trade-offs should be made between public health, agricultural, animal welfare, conservation, values, and other goals. Other questions are about the nature of genome editing and how it differs from other ways of controlling species. Yet other questions have to do with how the public should be engaged in science policy. The work will contribute to environmental ethics, conservation biology, science and technology studies, and political science.