Its not playing god when its done so stupidly: the case of mosquito population control by genetic modification

A recent study shows that the introduction of genetically modified mosquitos to control the population of free mosquitos in south america has at best not worked, at worst made the situation a lot worse.

The story goes that with the spread of the Zika virus, amongst other viruses lethal to humans, the idea to try and control the population of their host vector (mosquitos) was born. The idea was that if mosquitos were genetically modified to have incapable offspring and were introduced to a wild population, then interbreeding between the two would lead the wild population to take on the genetic trait of not being able to reproduce capable future generations and thus the amount of mosquitos would plummet and so the spread of Zika be limited.

This was an interesting idea with the main critique being that this was like playing god. However, such a critique misses the practical point that for millennia people have played with fellow species. Yes maybe not in the same way but nonetheless we have cows for a reason, or for that matter many amazing medicines such as the one I take grown in hamsters and regularly injected into me. In addition such a critique provides an air of ‘scientific cover’ rather than critical scientific attention.

If this attention had been there it would have been blatantly obvious that evaluation of whether, amongst all the complexities if life, the hypothesis held true. That is good scientific practice, rather than this poor mishandling of tools. In sum, instead of prior evaluation happening people went ahead with enacting the idea anyway.

Lack of evaluation of population control measures is common, so I should not have been surprised. In my own research I look at how culling of a variety of species in Europe pays little attention to the social complexity of nonhuman animals and in doing so can lead to unexpected outcomes such as a population explosion. You only have to look at badger culling in the UK which has been well documented as increasing the spread of bovine TB.

But seriously, genetic modification is a less familiar technology than a simple gun or poison for culling. Someone in the team doing this work should have tried to at least play god in the sense of doing things well and done some hypothesis testing and evaluation as basic good scientific practice.

But lets put that aside and pretend there were no special interests rushing this and it was a simple fact of wanting to act now to save as many human lives as possible. Even then it is blatantly clear that the scientists involved in the process either have no grasp of emergent complexity or were ignored. In sum, they were not gods, let alone good scientists.

Next time if they want to rush at least hire a team of an anthropologist, ecologist and geneticist who together understand emergent complexity and human-nonhuman relations, the complexities of virus based horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, nonhuman species behaviour, ecological systems, all within the context of population control and the taking into consideration the different lifeworlds and logics of multispecies assemblages.

In other words if you are going to ‘play god’ at least show some signs of having some grasp of the complexity of reality. Otherwise stop insulting the idea of gods, stop calling yourself a scientist (your just a technologist), and just stop.

Or hire me and I will look into this for you. Right now this is just a cursory glance and early morning ramble.

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