“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)
In 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that, after a lengthy global campaign of vaccination and vigilant surveillance, smallpox had been eradicated. No other infectious disease has achieved this distinction, though a few knock at extinction’s door.
Guinea worm is a likely contender. The cause of dracunculiasis—a disease as nasty as its namesake would suggest—Guinea worm afflicted more than 3.5 million people year in the 1980s. However, thanks to the efforts of The Carter Center, World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and many others, incidences of the infection have been dramatically reduced by more than 99%, with only 30 documented cases reported in 2017.
Within our lifetime, Guinea worm is likely to become the second human disease to become eradicated, and the first true organism to have been consciously and intelligently led to extinction.
The human superorganism has set its sights on other targets as well. In 2007, Bill and Melinda Gates caused a stir in philanthropy and medical circles alike when they announced plans to eradicate malaria—an endeavor previously abandoned when mosquito populations evolved resistance to common pesticides such as the now infamous DDT. Malaria-vectoring mosquitoes subsequently bounced back from their dwindling numbers to devastate impoverished African nations. The topic of eradication had since become a fairy tale that would not be fancied, that is until recently. “Theoretically, there’s little doubt that malaria could be eradicated,” writes Leslie Roberts and Martin Enserink for Science magazine, “because there’s no animal reservoir from which the disease could bounce back into the population after it’s gone.”1
The World Health Organization’s Pan African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign seeks to eradicate the infectious disease and its fly vector throughout the African continent.
Most of these eradication efforts, both with malaria and trypanosomiasis, focus primarily on targeting the insect vectors, organisms which transport the parasitic organisms responsible for these diseases. Moreover, the task of targeting these vectors could be expedited with the recent advent of CRISPR-Cas9. Gene-editing technology provides a nuclear arsenal in terms of combating nuisance organisms. Researchers have devised mechanisms which modify key gene drivers in female mosquitoes that cause them to produce infertile offspring. Results show up to a 99.6% success rate.2 Biotech firm Oxitec has similarly tinkered with mosquito genes and between 2009 and 2010 released three million modified mosquitoes onto sites in the Cayman Islands. The firm reports a 96% reduction in mosquito populations within the first year of the trial. Trials conducted in Brazil ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games yielded similar success with reductions of up to 92%. With the reigns of evolution now in human hands, the possibility of disease eradication is within reasonable sight. The fanciful fairy tales of yesteryear are now front-page headlines.
Organisms often induce the extinction of other species. One could call it a law of biotic interaction. In fact, the competitive exclusion principle, or Gause’s law, states that when species compete for a limiting resource, the stronger competitor drives the weaker competitor to extinction. Even if the two organisms aren’t directly competing against each other, the actions of one can cause detrimental consequences for the other indirectly. But the conscious and intelligent eradication of an entire species is a trait unique to the human animal.
These concerted efforts of eradication differ even from our own illustrious history of inadvertent extinction events. While one could argue that extinctions caused by pollution, overexploitation, and habitat loss are too the result of intentional decision-making, many, including those most vocal on continuing these activities, would lament species loss as an unfortunate trade-off for modernity rather than a goal in and of itself.
But now, humanity stands on the precipice of power—a power never wielded before by a single species. The power to wipe out any organism that inconveniences us.
With this comes the obvious but important question—should we?
It is a subject not to be tackled likely. A subject that delves deep into questions of bioethics and conservation philosophy. A subject which, to my surprise, is relevant to the Pokémon World.
The Sludge Pokémon, Muk, as its name would suggest, is the literal embodiment of pollution. But Muk is much more than a Captain Planet-esque monster meant to teach the toll of pollution in the modern age, Muk is a downright public health hazard:
Its body is made of a powerful poison. Touching it accidentally will cause a fever that requires bed rest. (Pokémon Silver Version)
From Muk’s body seeps a foul fluid that gives off a nose-bendingly horrible stench. Just one drop of this Pokémon’s body fluid can turn a pool stagnant and rancid. (Pokémon Ruby Version)
Moreover, Muk not only poses a threat to human societies, but to the rest of nature as well:
As it moves, a very strong poison leaks from it, making the ground there barren for three years. (Pokémon Crystal Version)
A toxic fluid seeps from its body. The fluid instantly kills plants and trees on contact. (Pokémon, Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum Versions)
Its pre-evolution, Grimer, is no better. It’s Pokémon Silver entry states, “Wherever Grimer has passed, so many germs are left behind that no plants will ever grow again.” The mere movement of these creatures can wreak havoc on ecosystems, and a simple slip up around one of these guys can render a trainer bedridden—if not dead.
Now, if we ignore for a second the existential threats posed by the myriad of Pokémon in general, from a public health perspective, Muk and Grimer are serious health hazards, perhaps on par with malaria-vectoring mosquitoes in our world. This would perhaps make them prime candidates for eradication.
Given the advanced technology of the Pokémon world, PokéradicationTM should be a feasible task. The Pokédex even suggests a means by which this eradication could be carried out. Entries such as those in Pokémon Ultra Sun indicate that Grimer cannot exist in sterile environments, or else its internal load of germs which gives the sludge life dies. These Pokémon depend on sludge and industrial discharge from factories to replenish their depleted bacterial stores. Eradication could be as simple as denying Muk and Grimer a habitat by cutting off its pollution food sources and decontaminating infested areas where they proliferate. This would be similar to strategies used to combat malaria-vectoring mosquitoes such as limiting pools of stagnant water and decontaminating known mosquito breeding grounds.
In fact, the task is so simple that it appears to have already been implemented, and to great success if the Pokédex is any indicator:
Their food sources have decreased, and their numbers have declined sharply. Sludge ponds are being built to prevent their extinction. (Pokémon Ultra Sun)
Because they scatter germs everywhere, they’ve long been targeted for extermination, leading to a steep decline in their population. (Pokémon Ultra Moon)
After recent environmental improvements, this Pokémon is now hardly seen at all. People speculate that it may go extinct at some point. (Pokémon Moon)
According to Pokémon Sun, Grimer, deprived of their industrial waste food source, have been on the decline in recent years. Pokémon Ultra Moon even goes as far to say that wastewater from factories is so clean these days that Grimer are “on the verge of extinction.”
Eradication efforts have been so successful that conservationists have constructed “sludge ponds” to prevent their extinction.
But should they? Should Muk and Grimer be left to go the way of Smallpox and Guinea worm?
A similar debate is being had in our own world regarding whether we should eradicate malaria-vectoring mosquitoes. More than 2 billion people face risk from malaria.3 WHO estimates there were 214 million cases of malaria in 2015, resulting in 438,000 deaths. Mosquitoes vector additional diseases too, such as West Nile Virus, Dengue Fever, and most recently Zika Virus, but malaria is by and far the mosquito’s most deadly passenger.
Many health officials, policymakers, and even biologists endorse eradication. Others are more reluctant, citing both ethical and ecological concerns.
With smallpox the matter was simple in terms of ethical debate. The variola virus found few championing its right to life—researchers still dispute whether a virus even constitutes a living organism. Guinea worm, being so debilitatingly cruel in its parasitism and sadistically specialized to its human host drew few defenders too. But mosquitoes continue an entire family of their own, Culicidae, comprised of over 3500 species—only 100 of which require human blood to develop their eggs. Even fewer vector the mosquito’s most deadly passenger. Malaria is only transmitted by females of the genus Anopheles, resulting in only about 40 or so species that actually pose significant threat to public health. Yet for some, even those forty are forty too many.
The debate over eradication of any organism ultimately boils down to a discussion of values. There are three types of value a species can possess—ecological value, instrumental value, and intrinsic value.4
These three values also reflect three key aspects when considering eradication. So, let us explore the possibility of eradication—both of mosquitoes and Muk/Grimer—from these three perspectives.
Ecological value is value derived from the contribution a species makes to the integrity, health, stability, or good functioning of its ecosystem. In ecology, an analogous term would be ecological function, or the processes which an organism provides for an ecosystem. Such processes can include the cycling of nutrients, breakdown of dead organic matter, or detritus, distributing resources, among many others. These functions help form an organism’s ecological niche. A niche can be thought of as an organism’s job description—where it lives, what it does, and how it does it. Like jobs, there are only so many niches to go around depending on your particular habitat. So, when a niche becomes available, either through de novo creation or a vacancy, organisms will fill it. Or so, is argued by supporters of eradication.
Janet Fang writes in Nature that the “ecological wound” dealt by the eradication of mosquitoes would heal quickly as other organisms would fill its niche.5 Currently, mosquitoes main functions are as prey and pollinators.
Consequently, the eradication of mosquitoes could lead to the extinction of highly specialized mosquito predators, such as the mosquitofish. The potential cascading trophic effects may prove detrimental. Alternatively, other organisms could very well fill those emptied niches as well.
However, in tundra ecosystems the loss of mosquitoes would be felt a little harder. In the Arctic tundra, biblical swarms of mosquitoes emerge during snow melts, blanketing the landscape in black clouds thick enough to choke out caribou. It is thought that migratory birds would suffer a 50% drop in population if these vast food sources were removed.5 However, evidence from bird stomach samples suggests a different scenario in which migratory birds acquire nutrients from an alternative insect, most likely midges which are a more important food source for migratory birds.
Similarly, the pollination conducted by mosquitoes could leave thousands of plants without pollinators, but researchers predict that other organisms would fill this niche too in the event of mosquito eradication.
But adult mosquitos are not the only ones to take into consideration. Mosquito larvae, suspended in water, contribute to detritus processing in aquatic systems. However, this function too can be carried out by other organisms. “Lots of organisms process detritus,” says Steven Juliano, a medical entomologist at Illinois State University in Normal. He tells Nature, “Mosquitoes aren’t the only ones involved or the most important. If you pop one rivet out of an airplane’s wing it’s unlikely that the plane will cease to fly.”
But, popping out rivets on a plane is not a good idea if you’re not entirely sure of how the plane works or what each rivet does. You could be popping a vital rivet, or a rivet supporting a vital rivet.
And quite simply, we do not fully understand how Spaceship Earth works, nor do we understand fully the function of this mosquito rivet.
For example, let us return to our Arctic mosquito clouds. Caribou alter their migration paths to avoid these swarms. This may seem inconsequential, just as popping the single rivet seems trivial. But, if you were to remove the mosquito swarms, then you would also shift caribou migration. Altering caribou migration may lead to altering the landscape as traditional grazing locations change. “A small change in path can have major consequences in an Arctic Valley through which thousands of caribou migrate,” Fang writes, “trampling the ground, eating lichens, transporting nutrients, feeding wolves, and generally altering the ecology.”
You start off by popping one rivet but through that singular action loosen the whole set.
Muk and Grimer, a mostly urban Pokémon, does not interact much with biota beyond its own infestation of germs. And what interaction it does have appears to be detrimental if anything.
Although, Muk and Grimer do feed on Trubbish…
Unsanitary places are what they like best. They can be spotted in Alola, often with Grimer in hot pursuit. (Pokémon Sun)
Poisonous gas leaks out of it when it breathes. Muk that catch a whiff of that stench will come drooling. (Pokémon Ultra Sun)
…but both are literally garbage so any effect is negligible.
While mosquitoes at least contribute to their ecosystems in some capacity, Muk and Grimer offer little, if any, ecological value. But instrumental value is a different story.
Instrumental value is derived from a species usefulness to humans. This can come in the form of natural resource value, recreational value, medical value, or even economic value. Again, ecology provides an analogous term, ecological services, or functions that benefit human societies. Pollination is a prime example of an ecological service, as many agricultural crops rely on natural pollinators.
As previously discussed, mosquitoes are pollinators for thousands of plants. However, this function fails to be a service for the simple reason that none of those plants are of any use—commercial or otherwise—to humans. In this respect, mosquitoes provide no ecological services to humans aside from driving you back inside on a warm summer day. Although, some have argued that this may very well be a service in disguise.
Mosquitoes have been a deterrent for more than lakegoers. “Mosquitoes make tropical forests, for humans, virtually uninhabitable,” argues science writer David Quammen. Indeed, the tropical infestation of mosquitoes has been a limiting force in human expansion in many cases. Early attempts at constructing the Panama Canal came to a halt as casualties from malaria-vectoring mosquitoes took its toll on the workforce. Human expansion has been limited by mosquito “walls”, preserving tropical habitats for a time. But then we invented bug spray. The Panama Canal was completed after efforts to limit mosquito proliferation were taken—limiting mosquito breeding grounds and poisoning infested water. The mosquito wall might have held against primitive man, its defenses have not proven to hold up over time.
While mosquitoes lack ecological services, Muk and Grimer in this most recent generation of Pokémon games have proven themselves useful in one key capacity, and that might very well be their saving grace.
Unlike the mosquito, which seems only particularly good at sucking blood and vectoring disease, Muk and Grimer have a knack for processing industrial waste. Born from sludge, these Pokémon sustain themselves off pollution and garbage. In fact, they need to feed on sludge to maintain the loads of germs that give them life. This can, and has been, exploited for human benefit—at least in Alola:
Grimer, which had been brought in to solve a problem with garbage, developed over time into this form. (Pokémon Sun)
There are a hundred or so of them living in Alola’s waste-disposal site. They’re all hard workers who eat a lot of trash. (Pokémon Ultra Sun)
In fact, the use of Grimer and Muk to break down and consume environmental pollutants has a name in our world, bioremediation, and is currently in use to clean up contaminated sites around the world.
The bioremediation services provided by the Sludge Pokémon might save them, and the lack thereof in mosquitoes might damn them. But do these creatures need to provide any service to humans to be worthy of life? Does value stem from the species in and of itself?
Many argue that there is an inherent sanctity of life. Some would even take this a step further and declare a biological egalitarianism of sorts, that no life is more valuable than any other lifeform, humans included. Those that hold this biocentric philosophy would argue species possess an intrinsic value all in and of themselves, independent of their use or value to man. It is a worldview in contrast to the anthropocentrism prevalent in much of the West, where humans concerns take priority over nature, and all that is done is considered with human wellbeing in mind.
Writing for the Journal of Medical Ethics, Jonathan Pugh deconstructs the faults in what he calls the “Singerian View” named after notable musician and animal rights activist Peter Singer. Pugh argues that people who hold to the Singerian View, that all life is sacred, cannot practically apply this position to their everyday life. Most people care little of killing vegetables or condemning millions of microbes to an alcoholic holocaust every time they apply hand sanitizer.
A more plausible view on this matter is to claim that the moral permissibility of killing a living thing depends on whether it has moral status. For a creature to have moral status means that the creature deserves certain forms of moral protection, and a creature’s moral status is often said to depend on the kinds of capacities it has.6 (Pugh 2016)
If one were to truly view all life as sacred than the eradication of smallpox is less a triumph of modern medicine and more a horrific act of “speciecide.”
Should the eradication of mosquito or Muk be seen as any more horrific than that of smallpox?
I hold a biocentric worldview—to an extent. I believe in an intrinsic value to life, that such life can be derived simply from the scarcity of biological life in the Universe as far as we know it. Rarity in and of itself constitutes value. Even if life beyond this sphere were discovered, even if it were discovered somewhere as close as Mars, it still would not diminish the worth of Earth life, as the Tree of Life from which all species stem is a uniqueness to the Universe. Yet, I agree with Pugh in that a practical application of biocentrism or the Singerian View is impossible. Even if a radical biocentrist were to kill themselves to spare other organisms their oppression, the burial or cremation of that individual would have countless ecological impacts, however miniscule they may be. Man can never fully sever umbilical cord to Mother Nature whom gave it life. This, I believe, is the fatal flaw of many well-intentioned activists. In a cruel irony, in trying to enact biocentrist policy they adapt a bastardized form of anthropocentrism, portraying man as the antagonist of all that is natural and constructing an artificial binary of that which is of man and that which is of nature.
I believe all organisms have something to offer. What humans have to offer is something no other organism possesses—an intelligent mind with which we can explore, examine, and understand the natural world. A power to wield this knowledge and determine the fate of species.
Every decision is a trade-off. That is the cost of having this awesome power, we are left with the decision-making. We may choose to eradicate any species that causes harm to our own. We may choose to suffer through until a better solution becomes available. But the fact that we have a capacity to make that choice and execute it to our will is a sobering, yet remarkable responsibility.
Accurate Pokédex Entry: Targeted for eradication for being a public health hazard in recent decades, Muk have been driven to near extinction. The last remaining populations reside either in protected sludge pools or waste treatment facilities where they are used for bioremediation. The ecological services provided by the Sludge Pokémon may stave off its previously imminent extinction.
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- Roberts, Leslie and Martin Enserink. 2007. Did They Really Say…Eradication? Science 318:1544-1545.
- Hammond, A. et al. 2016. A CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive system targeting female reproduction in the malaria mosquito vector Anopheles gambiae. Nature Biotechnology 34:78-83.
- Greenwood, B. M. et al. 2008. Malaria: progress, perils, and prospects for eradication. The Journal of Clinical Investigation 118:1266-1276.
- Sandler, Ronald. 2009. The Value of Species and the Ethical Foundations of Assisted Colonization. Conservation Biology 24:424-431.
- Fang, Janet. 2010. A World Without Mosquitoes. Nature 466:432-434.
- Pugh, Jonathan. 2016. Driven to extinction? The ethics of eradicating mosquitoes with gene-drive technologies. Journal of Medical Ethics 42:578-581.