I read this article this week about scientists that are trying to engineer new types of coral that are more resistant to heat shock and can make our coral reefs more resistant to the effects of climate change. Rather than diving into the hard science of how they are trying to breed new coral (and how interesting of a project it would to try to reengineer coral from a genomic level), I want to talk about the ethics behind this kind of project and what it says about humanity’s role in nature.
Because what is happening here is that we (humanity) are trying to develop technology to solve a problem (coral reefs dying) that was caused by our own technological advance (massive increase in CO2 output due to the industrial revolution and age of globalization).
Nature adapts and evolves, that’s what it does. There is one mentality that the warming we are causing the planet should be allowed to carry out, no matter how much damage to our global biodiversity it does. Eventually, the warming will kill out the source because we are living unsustainability but some life will survive to go on to start a new age (think of climate change as the new meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, leaving small mammals to repopulate the earth). Humanity (and many more species) will die off, but life will persist at some level.
Now, another mindset to take is that human-directed evolution is simply nature developing a better way to develop itself. In the long view, biological diversity has happened at an exponential pace, starting slow for billions of years and accelerating (with a few blips of extreme extinction and explosions of new species) in the relatively recent years. To keep up, a more complex species has developed a way of making more and different species. This also brings up the idea of coevolution. Humanity’s history of causing genetic modification in the species it interacts with goes back much further than the discovery of DNA and restriction enzymes, it goes all the way back to the agricultural revolution. The species of plants and animals that we domesticated look vastly different from their ancestors. Looking up the origins of many of our fruits and vegetables is wild. You could also think about how many breeds of dogs we have developed over thousands of years of dog domestication. Here’s the thing though: it’s not simply that we are creating new and different species, we have made ourselves dependent on those species and those species dependent on us. Many of our fruits and vegetables could not survive in the wild, they survive because they have adapted as horticultural species and we survive because we have domesticated them. So in a way, you could see something like humans genetically engineering coral to be simply a new iteration in the story of coevolving species around us for mutual benefit.
What this view brings up is the question of ethical responsibility. Are we, as humans who have the ability to modify species around us, now have an obligation to help other species survive to changing conditions that we have caused? Are we some sort of new guardian species that is responsible for maintaining the biodiversity of Earth as we know it? If so, where does this line end? How many species of plants, animals, fungi, fish, birds, bacteria, archaea do we owe it to help survive? And then, even if we tried, there is no way we could work to evolve and maintain every species and every ecosystem on the planet.
So what are we to do? Do we say that what we are doing is just a new environmental selection method and other species need to adapt or die? Do we do our best to help evolve the species that we can? How do we decide what resources and personal to this mission of helping other species survive?
As with most bioethical questions, there are no easy answers and I do not have any, but I do believe in developing options and so I support the work done to help evolve species like coral, especially for the critical role they play in our marine ecosystems.