Health, Science / Tech

Exterminate Mosquitoes for the Sake of Humanity

A Plea to President Trump:  Save Millions of People by Exterminating Some Annoying Bugs

A hundred species of beetles will go extinct unless we eliminate 830,000 people each year to protect the insects’ habitat.  Tiny poison-filled drones can do the killing.  The drones’ automation will free us from any moral burden arising from their actions.  Fortunately, since the threatened beetles live in impoverished areas, most of the dead will be poor people in poor countries whose demise will attract little media attention.  Yes, all human life is in theory precious but to preserve a few species of insects on our sacred mother earth shouldn’t we be willing to sacrifice a mere 0.01 percent of us each year?

Okay, I made up the parts about the beetles and drones, but mankind really does face a similarly weighted tradeoff between insects and humans.  Mosquitoes kill around 830,000 people each year mostly by spreading malaria in underdeveloped nations.  Mosquitoes sicken and cause lifelong debilitation in many who don’t die.  By decimating human capital, mosquitoes do much to keep poor people poor. With their ready access to our blood, mosquitoes may even give future bio-terrorists an easy attack vector.

To eliminate this menace, we need only exterminate the 100 of the 3,500 or so species of mosquitoes that bite humans.  Given that we very likely have the technology to eliminate human-biting mosquitoes at a relatively low cost, not doing so is Hitler-level evil.  If a new dictator arose and started killing 830,000 people a year, we would all accept the moral value of stopping him.  Delaying the eradication to first study any possible ecosystem effects would be morally analogous to the allies deciding to postpone the closing of the Nazi concentration camps until they first did an environmental impact assessment.

Extinctions happen all the time without us even noticing.  There are an estimated 2.6 to 7.8 million species of insects.  Losing a hundred of them would make only a tiny ripple in the ecosystem.   After all, over 99 percent of species that have ever existed have gone extinct.  Mosquitoes do provide food for other creatures, but whatever ended up taking over the ecological niche of the departed bloodsuckers would probably also play a role in the food chain.  If we are worried about the loss of diversity, we could eliminate the human-biting mosquitoes and spend a few million dollars helping, say, endangered beetles.

Sure, there are unknown unknowns with eliminating some mosquitoes.  The ecosystem involves complex interdependencies and exterminating a few insect species could have unforeseeable negative consequences.  But the unknown unknowns of keeping the mosquitoes are probably even worse.  Who knows what new diseases human-biting mosquitoes might bring, especially if climate change expands their numbers or causes them to pick up additional parasites.

Just in case, we could keep some lab samples of the exterminated insects and release them back into the environment if we come to think they were beneficial.   I think, however, that this is about as likely as us wanting to reintroduce smallpox into our population.

The only sensible argument for caution is the slippery slope.  If we eliminate mosquitoes today, it might empower us to exterminate rats, cockroaches, or fire ants in the future.  At some point we might mistakenly wipeout a beneficial species.  Just as the moral capital the US gained from victory in WWII pushed the U.S. to fight a few wars it probably should have avoided, exterminating mosquitoes could, perhaps, result in someone eventually going too far in their efforts to reshape the ecosystem to match mankind’s needs.  One possible safeguard to the slippery slope would be if a mosquito extermination effort was led by someone detested by the world’s elites so his efforts would likely not be used by them as a precedent.

Evolution can help us exterminate human-biting mosquitoes because evolution isn’t forward-looking.  When the Nazis attacked Poland, the short-term best path for England and France would have been to accept Hitler’s latest conquest.  But these two nations went to war because they realized that appeasement would eventually put them in a weaker military position.  Unlike what human strategists are capable of, however, evolution will always push to do what’s in the short-term interest of a gene or species, and we can use this flaw to destroy mankind’s deadliest foe.

Imagine that we use the genetic engineering technology CRISPR to create a gene that gives a mosquito a short-run benefit but long-term vulnerability.  Evolution will cause the percentage of mosquitoes that have this gene to grow, at least until the vulnerability cuts in.  If the initial growth is fast enough and the vulnerability big enough, when crush time comes the species will go extinct.

We could use gene drives to cause the eventually deadly genes to proliferate.  Normally, a gene has an even chance of being passed down to an offspring.  But some types of selfish genes always get passed down, making it vastly easier for this kind of gene to eventually spread to every member of the species.

Weaponized patriarchy is another method we could use to exterminate all the species of mosquitoes that bite humans.  We could use CRISPR to create mosquitoes whose descendants will always be male.  Eventually, when the last remaining female mosquitoes of a species mates exclusively with males who have the only male gene, the species will go extinct.

Any one attempt to eliminate human-biting mosquitoes could fail, in part because a new mosquito mutation could undo our efforts.  But we could always try again, and improvements in gene editing techniques should be making it continually easier for us to exterminate any rapidly breeding species.

The Gates Foundation is reportedly looking into ways of using gene drives to destroy some mosquito species.  The biggest barrier, however, might be political.  The Foundation supposedly hired a PR firm to try to convince academics and UN decision makers to be more favorably disposed to deploying gene drives.

As Franklin Roosevelt got ahead of public support in providing aid to WWII Britain, I urge President Donald Trump to lead efforts to eradicate human-biting mosquitoes as soon as possible.   He should start by offering the Gates Foundation whatever financial, logistical, and legal support it needs.  If exterminating mosquitoes would violate laws, Trump should promise presidential pardons to all those who free us from the mosquito menace.

While I would hope Trump would fight mosquitoes to make the U.S. and the world a much better place, crass political reasons should also push him to support eradication.  Obviously, Americans hate getting bitten by mosquitoes and many would thank Trump from saving them and their families from the bloodsuckers.  Furthermore, while I doubt any Republican would oppose exterminating a hundred species of mosquitoes, many of the leftist sacred-Mother-Earth-type environmentalists would, so fighting mosquitoes would become a wedge issue that divides Democrats.  Finally, mosquito eradication would solve Trump’s biggest political perception problem.

Democrats and the liberal media have, unfairly in my opinion, convinced many that President Trump is a racist.  Well, almost all the lives that Trump would protect by exterminating human-biting mosquitoes would be non-white.  If Trump saves hundreds of thousands of African lives a year through a bold initiative that many Democrats oppose, efforts at tarring him as racist will rightly fail.

James D. Miller is a professor of economics at Smith College and the host of the Future Strategist podcast.  He is @JimDMiller on Twitter.

If you liked this article please consider becoming a patron of Quillette

50 Comments

  1. Emmanuel says

    “We could use CRISPR to create mosquitoes whose descendants will always be male.”

    How dare you assume their gender ?

    • Alistair says

      Indeed. Deeply problematic. Even if we grant this “Gene Drive” is a not a social construct of the patriarchy and that some Mosquitos will identify as male, their identity must involve a conscious choice to reject the cis-gendered normative anti-queering of Gene researchers and create excitingly diverse insect diversity in a diverse way! Or something.

  2. “Sure, there are unknown unknowns with eliminating some mosquitoes. The ecosystem involves complex interdependencies and exterminating a few insect species could have unforeseeable negative consequences. But the unknown unknowns of keeping the mosquitoes are probably even worse.”

    The quote shows that the author does not understand the concepts he is using. If something belongs to the so-called ‘unknown unknown’, it cannot by definition be speculated about. Otherwise it is not really outside the scope of prediction, which is what the term signifies.

    The author does not really understand the strongest objection to his rash call to action.

  3. Farris says

    This article points to an often ignored problem; the annual number of deaths from malaria in under developed countries. However it fails to acknowledge this problem was solved decades ago by the pesticide DDT. After Rachel Carson’s fraudulent book, The Silent Spring, the use of DDT was banned with dire consequences for under developed populations. The Silent Spring was one of the first uses of environmental activism where dubious science peddled by activists was used to enact political goals. For more see:https://spectator.org/48925_ddt-fraud-and-tragedy/

    • DDT is still legal and freely available for disease control in underdeveloped countries.
      A few minutes on Wikipedia is helpful in this matter.

      • Farris says

        DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was outlawed in Britain in 1986 and banned as a pesticide worldwide under the Stockholm Convention in 2001.
        From the article….”Resources Defense Council, undertook to discourage other countries from using DDT by threatening to stop foreign aid to any country using it. Its threat spread Ruckelshaus’s ban worldwide.”

        “The effects of giving up DDT were immediately felt in the malarial areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sri Lanka (Ceylon), reacting to Silent Spring, in the 1960s gave up DDT. Its malarial cases had decreased from 2.8 million down to 17. After Sri Lanka gave it up, malaria shot back up to over 2.5 million.”

        “South American countries gave up DDT and suffered the customary rise in malaria. Ecuador, which manufactures DDT, resumed using it in 1993. By 1995, Ecuador had reduced its malarial cases by 61 percent.”

        • Farris says

          In 2006, the World Health Organization reinstated DDT as part of its effort to eradicate malaria. But not before millions of people had died needlessly from the disease.

      • Besides, Carson was not promoting a ban on DDT (Kennedy initiated it, nevertheless), but for a minimal and effective use of such insecticides.

    • What do you mean with dubious science Farris? The agrobusiness?, or the knowledgeable entomologists and ecologists? In fact, if Silent Spring would have been written by a mere, dull scientist (and not by an inspiring , but science based author, a woman, no small coincidence, because males like looking in other directions), maybe we would still use the DDT all over the world. Because: Agrobusiness is agrobusiness.

      • Farris says

        Please review; https://21sci-tech.com/articles/summ02/Carson.html
        From the previously cited article…
        “EPA appointed Administrative Law Judge Edmund Sweeney to evaluate DDT. In 1971-2 he conducted a seven-month hearing. EPA actually participated, testifying against DDT!
        Judge Sweeney, after 80 days of testimony from 150 expert scientists, ruled that DDT “is not a carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic hazard to man” and does “not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wild life. There is a present need for the continued use of DDT for the essential uses defined in this case.”

        Rather than appeal the decision EPA Director William Ruckelshaus banned DDT anyway.

        “Scientists tested the popular shell-thinning hypothesis. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists fed birds for 112 days on a diet with 100 times as much DDT as they were getting from the environment. No thinning of egg shells was found. The DDT had no effect on the birds.”

  4. Malaria was a big problem in European countries too, and not only in the mediterranean nations, even in England and the NL. However, to my knowledge, it was thwarted and extinct even before the DDT was invented. Who knows more about that?

    • Emmanuel says

      Dirk, I believe the main reason malaria and other mosquito borne diseases have mostly disappeared in Europe is because the wetlands where mosquitoes proliferated were destroyed.

      In South Western France, there is a huge area called les Landes that used to be covered with swamps. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the French authorities massively planted pine trees in that area to drain it. One of the main justification was the “assainissement” of the place : getting rid of the mosquito borne fevers that plagued it. It is now one of the biggest forests of Western Europe.

      That kind of action was not unusual or even new : the Romans knew how to drain a wetland and did it 2000 years ago. When you can do it, it is the most efficient way to remove the mosquitoes. That’s the reason so many areas of wetland have disappeared over the time in Europe.

      • Thanks Emmanuel, so I worked in the wrong sites, we even programmed new irrigation schemes. I’ve got about 10x malaria, 1x in the Amazon (really fierce), the others in Kenya, near wetlands. But was cured and am still alive.
        It’s just part of life there. Even with drones, I doubt we can eradicate the mosquito in such regions. Though, the US once had succes with a drastic elimination of the screw worm (animal disease), but that was on an Island, an isolated case.

      • Sydney says

        Swamp-draining was begun in the 1600s by Dutch engineers for quicker transport of wine. It was done throughout the Médoc on what is now prime Bordeaux vineyard terroir.

        Regardless, is this bizarre article a parody? I haven’t seen any intentional humour in Quillette. Eradicate an insect in order to save human lives? Preposterous in more ways than I can count. Reminds me of when Bill Gates delivered pesticide-covered mosquito nets that were hacked as fishing nets:

        https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/world/africa/mosquito-nets-for-malaria-spawn-new-epidemic-overfishing.html

        Or when his foundation wanted to send chickens to ‘developing’ nations:

        https://www.theverge.com/2016/6/17/11965820/bill-gates-bolivia-heifer-international-ngo-us-aid-rejection

        Is the author an employee of the Gates foundation?

        • I just read your link, Sydney, on the intended Gates chickens for Bolivia. A pity, I could not find out which type, but most probably the industrial caged hybrid types that do so well in the US and Europe, if (and only if) fed with expensive chickenfeed (soymeal) and properly caged. Otherwise, they get sick or are just a prey of the many predators on and around the farm. I have seen such (failed) projects earlier. Again, nice examples of what you should not do (in existing ecological, agrological systems) in developing nations, of course.

  5. tarstarkas says

    This article was written by an ecological illiterate. The cascade effect of eliminating even one species of insect, however noxious to human health, is not only unknowable but potentially catastrophic. Mosquitos, even the ‘bad’ ones, are very valuable pollinators. Much better to develop vaccines for the diseases in question, tell the anti-vaxxers to go to hell, and mass inoculate. Besides, the probability of actually being able to eliminate whole species almost certainly approaches zero.

    • Mark Blaxill says

      I completely agree with tarstarkas, dirk and B. This is a classic example of technological arrogance. Quiet possibly the dumbest thing Quillette has ever published (and I’m an admirer). That said, it’s fine to publish dumb things and debate them. There is no doubt that malaria is a serious public health issue. But the notion that man can implement surgical biological interventions on such a scale is delusional both in terms of the likelihood of success (seriously? you really believe you can precision target the extinction of mosquitoes on this scale?) and the dismissal of the near certainty of adverse consequences (the praise above for DDT, a truly horrible chemical,simply illustrates the kind of technological hubris this opinion requires)

      • If the situation presented in the first paragraph was true, would you support releasing the killer drones to save the beetles?

        • Mark Blaxill says

          Of course not. But its an absurd hypothetical scenario and bears little relevance to the real world challenge of malaria prevention.

    • If our objective is only to eliminate the human bloodsuckers, according to the article, Earth would still have another 3,400 compared to 3,500 species of mosquito left to pollinate.

      Also, a serious question: what insect is most responsible for pollination? Bees? Mosquitoes? Something else?

    • zulawski says

      It is indeed the worst thing I’ve ever seen on Quillette.

      • Carlo Donzella says

        The Sharknado of Quillete. Still, even Sharknado was recently re-evaluated…

    • Alistair says

      “The cascade effect of eliminating even one species of insect, however noxious to human health, is not only unknowable but potentially catastrophic”

      This is true, but silly.

      Nature conducts an on-going natural experiment in which species die _all the time_. There must have been hundreds, thousands, of insect species becoming extinct in the last 100 years. Did we notice? I vote the ecological downstream risk is slight; especially as there are many close substitute species. Letting the mosquito live, however, comes with very well known costs.

    • neoteny says

      animals can evolve resistance to gene drives

      Indeed, and the linked article explores how said evolution of resistance happens — with the aim of controlling the evolution of such resistance. The article doesn’t conclude that because the evolution of such resistance it is impossible to control the reproductive performance of organisms through gene drive.

  6. The main problem with DDT is its longevity in life cycles (even now, it is still present in the plankton at the poles) and its habit to add up in body fat of birds and larger animals, so that the deadly effects show up where this fat is used up (as in brooding birds). All this never was even known by the manufactorers, the laboratory and even scientists, only after massive starving of birds and other life, it became clear.

  7. I’d rather return to DDT spraying than genetically eradicate species. The science behind that woman’s book was bubkis. She knew it and the greens swallowed it whole. Once the lie lead to bans and regulation, it could not be reexamined. Well… it’s been long enough. DDT may show up in bird fat or plankton, but so what doesn’t? We’ve got pesticides running off corn fields to produce ethanol, but yeah! It’s politically correct! More birds have died from wind farms than DDT but that is inconvenient so lets focus on something else! Yeah.. Wind and solar are awesome!

  8. Pingback: Exterminate Mosquitoes for the Sake of Humanity – lifehacksgo

  9. I enjoy the presence of denyers of climate change, environmental concern, the shoa and other calamities. Diversity-wise!

  10. Asema says

    How can this article not reference when genetically modified mosquitos were actually introduced. Oxitec’s Friendly Mosquitos (TM) which were designed to produce sterile offspring were found to increase the number of female mosquitos and has even been linked with the uptick in zika infections after the release of the mosquitos. They obviously were not completely sterile in real world conditions. Fwiw science has to start somewhere and the real world is not as neat and tidy as a lab. It will be routine one day and I doubt it will stop at mosquitos or even human beings.

  11. Gregory Bogosian says

    “The only sensible argument for caution is the slippery slope. If we eliminate mosquitoes today, it might empower us to exterminate rats, cockroaches, or fire ants in the future. At some point we might mistakenly wipeout a beneficial species. Just as the moral capital the US gained from victory in WWII pushed the U.S. to fight a few wars it probably should have avoided, exterminating mosquitoes could, perhaps, result in someone eventually going too far in their efforts to reshape the ecosystem to match mankind’s needs. One possible safeguard to the slippery slope would be if a mosquito extermination effort was led by someone detested by the world’s elites so his efforts would likely not be used by them as a precedent.” We could do that. But, we could also point out that to avoid committing the slippery slope fallacy you have to explain what makes the slope slippery. Or better yet, we could have it done by someone whom everyone all ready likes. To set a precedent for future ecological engineering schemes that would save more lives, and allow us to get better at ecological engineering through trial and error.

  12. Peter says

    One gets tired of all this propaganda about the »wonderful and safe DDT« and the »evil environmentalists that banned it«. (It is another Great American Hoax , like the master one by Washington Irving in early 1800s, claiming that the Roman Catholic Church tried to convince Christopher Columbus, that the Earth might be flat.)

    Mosquitoes develop resistance to insecticides, including DDT. This happened in Greece, and in Sri Lanka already in 1969, as illustrated in the following article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3943480/:

    “In 1963, parasite incidence reached a remarkably low-point with only 17 cases of malaria, which included only six indigenous cases (rest were imported) [31]. Given the favorable indicators, in April, 1963, spraying was halted throughout the country except for barrier spraying around jungle areas. Within months however, the appearance of new cases of malaria prompted the resumption of spraying in the affected areas [30]. Number of malaria cases continued to increase in the following years together with the vector density with over half a million cases of malaria reported by 1969 [31]. That year, a further setback occurred when DDT-resistance was discovered for the first time in Sri Lanka [27]. As resistance spread, the country switched to malathion in 1977 [32].”

    In Sri Lanka, they just added DDT to interior paint, and this made houses safe for a year or so. But the extensive use of DDT in agriculture brought DDT resistant mosquitoes. The next applied insecticide Malathion has a bad smell and does not last so long, so people naturally longed for the “good old DDT”, not realizing it did not work any more.

  13. Wipe out some species? I’ve only got one response to that: “Kill All The Sparrows”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Pests_Campaign

    In other words, be very, very careful about secondary and tertiary side effects.

    Thus far, we have the luxury of pointing out that the very stupidest things mankind has ever done were done by communists. It wouldn’t be a feather in our caps if we, say, doomed the worldwide corn crop down the road by engaging in insect eugenics today.

    • Oh Bill, but I just read in your link that the sparrow is a naughty, capitalist bird. Before Mao (and even now) th Chinese culture was a Buddhist one, with respect for even the lowest forms of life (worms, insects). I wonder how a political system can so thorougly influence mass behaviour all over the place,in cities and villages (because, if not 99% would have joined, no effect.

  14. Joseph says

    Just poor writing throughout. Quillette, you’re better than this.

  15. aaron d jensen says

    Any consideration of the effect mosquitoes have on the populations of other species? Could rat populations increase in the absence of mosquitoes, for example?

  16. Is this a joke column? Someone win a bet by getting this published?

    There are giant swathes of land untouched by human colonization, and the reason is that malaria is endemic there. Remove the malaria and suddenly humans will slash and burn, destroy the wetlands, and grow crops for a few years before moving on, leaving a devastated ecosystem behind.

    • That’s nice to read harlando, the positive side of malaria, I agree, because, as soon as this mosquito is destroyed, man is superior, with all his might and destruction of everything else, landscape, forests, birds, animals, frogs, wetlands, what not all, but why is that? Actually? Sometimes I stop thinking, it’s really too bad!

  17. chumpai says

    This article has a couple of logical flaws. Firstly, the author knows that genetic engineering and gene drives can be used to eliminate female offspring from a population. So, would not a less risky option be genetic engineering to produce mosquitoes that were incapable of being disease vectors?

    Secondly, a solution that largely eliminates mosquitoes as a disease vector has already been developed and implemented: Wolbachia. In Queensland, Australia mosquitoes are being deployed with Wolbachia, and infection which spreads through the mosquito population and makes the mosquito unable to carry most disease pathogens. The eliminate dengue program is targeting $1/person for this solution. As such it seems the lowest environmental risk at a reasonably low cost.

  18. Peter from Oz says

    It would seem that many of the commenters have missed the fact that this article is satirical.

  19. I doubt that Peter, or are you the satyricus? If Quillette would have been left wing, it certainly would have been. Now, would the reverse also be imaginable? Some essays (the advantages of fascism, the inequality of the sexes and races) in satyrical form in a leftwing journal?

  20. Pingback: Links for the Week of September 10th, 2018 – Verywhen

  21. CZ Marks says

    text describing a link in this article: “we very likely have the technology to eliminate human-biting mosquitoes”

    A quote from the article it links to: “Researchers are skeptical about whether it is even possible to wipe out mosquitoes.”

    • Im not a mosquito expert, but picked up a few things of Google.
      – There are some 100 Anopheles spp (species), or mosquitoes, able to transmit malaria (also many types) or other diseases.
      – there are many more species that bite humans (the females, they like blood most)
      – Besides, there are many more species that never bite humans, but can be an annoyance to humans or animals
      -I wonder, even more mosquitoes that never even fly near or land on humans or animals (but on plants, yes).
      Anybody who knows better??

  22. CZ Marks says

    “The only sensible argument for caution is the slippery slope. If we eliminate mosquitoes today, it might empower us to exterminate rats, cockroaches, or fire ants in the future.”

    Has anyone actually made that argument outside of your imagination?

    We would certainly eradicate mosquito vectors of malaria (as we eradicated smallpox and are trying to eradicate other pathogens and parasites) if we had the capability to do it safely. And it is worth considering whether CRISPR can provide the technology to make that possible. The reason for caution is not some BS about slippery slopes. The reason for caution is that you are talking about creating a genetic mechanism that can drive deleterious alleles into a population and potentially drive it to extinction and then releasing that mechanism into the wild, where you will have no control over its further evolution or impacts.

    I understand that you could theoretically make such a mechanism species specific. But how sure are we that it could not jump to other, non-target, species through horizontal gene transfer (e.g., by viruses)? Are we 99.9% sure that something like that could never happen (even allowing for further evolution of the mechanism once we release it)? Is that sure enough? How sure are we that there are not other potentially disastrous consequences that we haven’t thought about yet?

  23. Pingback: HADMARS.NET

  24. Pingback: Let's Review 121: SHOUTING IT OUT - American Digest

Comments are closed.