I've received many communications in response to the profile by Michael Specter in the New Yorker; more than I can answer. They've all been quite positive except for one topic: my comments on the morality of the natural world. One reader wrote:
'One topic that has been really bothering me though is your views on morality and nature. One should not anthropomorphize nature or natural selection and look at it in terms of good or bad, nature just IS, nature is balanced, that's it. As soon as humans intervene is when it becomes unbalanced, its up to you to decide how unbalanced we are willing to make it.
I guess my point is gene editing can be an incredible tool for good to humans but someone with your intelligence and power shouldn't be saying things like “the ridiculous notion that natural and good are the same thing.” or “Natural selection is heinously immoral.” Saying nature is immoral is just as wrong as equating nature to godliness.'
This is an issue deserving of in-depth exploration, so I'm sharing a slightly edited version of my reply:
I agree that nature is value neutral. I normally use the term amoral, not immoral, but only as long as we lack the power to influence it. Once we do, it becomes a test of our own moral character.
If failing to save a drowning child when we could have done so makes us responsible for that child's death, then acquiring the ability to mitigate animal suffering renders us morally responsible if we choose not to.
This is not a comfortable moral position. Right now, we spend ~$2.5 billion per year in the US on animal shelters and trap-neuter-release programs for stray and feral dogs and cats. Three weeks ago I rescued a limping stray cat. Had she not received care and antibiotics, she would likely have lost the ability to hunt and slowly starved due to her badly infected wound. How is that stray cat different from an ocelot cub stricken with a screwworm infection, which is unimaginably more painful? We didn't deliberately create either, but we can do something about the stray cat, but cannot aid the ocelot. Of course, that will not be true for much longer: we eradicated the screwworm from North America with sterile insect technique, and with gene drive could do the same for South America. Should we?
We must face this question openly. It doesn't obviate the other challenges, such as weighing humans against animals or how much more of a say South Americans should have in the case of screwworm. But since we are now developing the power to intervene, it becomes a moral issue where previously it was not.
That's why we need to discuss these challenges now, and why all research on these questions should be done in the open. It's not my decision to make, or yours, but everyone's. I need you as a check on my own intuitions, because I am not confident in my own ability to make wise decisions on this scale. We must face it together.