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Environmental Forum | When Extinction Is Warranted: Invasive Species, Gene-Drives and the Worst-Case Scenario

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Event Details:

Please join the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment for a forum with Ann C Thresher, Interdisciplinary Ethics Fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. 

The forum is open to Stanford faculty, graduate students, postdocs, and staff. 


About this Event

Most current techniques to deal with invasive species are ineffective or have highly damaging side effects. To this end, gene-drives based on clustered regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR/Cas9) have been touted as a potential silver bullet for the problem, allowing for a highly focused, humane and cost-effective means of removing a target species from an environment. Suppression-drives come with serious risks, however, such that precaution seems to warrant us not deploying this technology.

The focus of this talk is on one such risk – the danger of a gene-drive escaping containment and wiping out the target species globally. I'll argue that in most cases this risk is significant enough to warrant not using a gene-drive solution. In some cases, however, we can bypass the risks by using an approach that hinges on what I term the ‘Worst-Case Clause’ - that sometimes the worst outcome of an escaped drive is still better than the current state of affairs. This clause, in turn, provides us with the start of a litmus test that can be fruitfully used to determine what species are viable targets for suppression-drives in the wild.

Speaker Biography

Ann C Thresher is an environmental ethicist at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and Stanford Doerr School for Sustainability. She received her PhD from the University of California, San Diego, working in the philosophy of science and environmental ethics, and has two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Sydney, one in Philosophy and one in Physics.

Her work focuses on emerging environmental technologies and, in particular, what risks we’re warranted in taking to solve environmental crises. As part of this, she works extensively with scientists to help identify and solve the ethics questions that arise out of their work. Her current research projects include the ethics of invasive species control, rewilding, gene-drives, research moratoriums and geo-engineering. She is also a research lead at the Next Generation Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, where she advises on the environmental and social aspects of choosing sites for telescopes. Her new co-authored book 'The Tangle of Science; Reliability Beyond Method, Rigour, and Objectivity' explains how science works, and why we ought to trust its results.