The DNA Age

The DNA Age

The DNA Age

Science, technology, and life.
April 14 2008 7:42 AM

The DNA Age

My colleague Jack Shafer says the Pulitzers are a fraud. "There's no real science or even fairness behind the picking of winners and losers," he wrote in a piece published four years ago and reprinted last week, after this year's winners were announced. In particular, he noted, "I doubt that one newspaper reader in 10,000 could tell you a day after the Pulitzers are awarded who got the prize for explanatory reporting."

Well, never argue with Shafer. Except this once. The winner of this year's prize for explanatory reporting deserved every bit of it, not just for her terrific writing, but because, for the past two years, she's been pioneering the journalism of the next century.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The prize announcement salutes Amy Harmon of the New York Times for her "examination of the dilemmas and ethical issues that accompany DNA testing." Harmon's series, " The DNA Age ," has actually covered far more than that. It began two years ago and has weaved its way through a thicket of emerging controversies. Her opening topic was people who used DNA tests to establish unexpected ancestry such as whites claiming to be black, or Christians claiming to be Jewish in order to gain the ensuing advantages in areas such as minority admissions, Israeli citizenship, or Native American entitlements. Then she turned to the psychological and social effects of studies that tell us much of our behavior is genetically influenced .

Harmon wrote about the moral deliberations of couples who used preimplantation genetic diagnosis to weed out embryos that might carry or pass on diseases. She talked to parents of Down syndrome kids, who worried that the eradication of Down fetuses by prenatal tests would turn their children, in the public's mind, from disabled people into freakish burdens that should never have been brought to term . She detailed our increasingly methodical genetic engineering of dogs as a potential preview of genetic engineering of human beings. She introduced us to women who had healthy breasts surgically removed based on genetic predictions of cancer. She explored fears that analyses of average genetic and trait differences among populations might foment a "new era of racism." She chronicled the emerging ability to Google your own DNA . She wrote about families who use the Internet to find and bond with other families over shared genetic disorders.

Last month, Harmon looked at " genomic elitism ," the practice among rich people of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a full DNA analysis normal people couldn't afford. And a week ago, she scrutinized " surreptitious sampling ," the law-enforcement technique of obtaining incriminating DNA samples by testing cells and fluids you inadvertently leave in public places every day.

Half of what's amazing about this body of work is that nobody else has done anything quite like it. In retrospect, the trends Harmon has covered will be recognized as the story of our age. We're living in an era of science and technology. Discoveries about ourselves and the world, coupled with our increasing power to transform both, are changing how we live, what we think, and who we are . This is happening at a pace unheard of in previous generations. In Sunday's Washington Post , another of my favorite science writers, Joel Achenbach, points out :

The most important things happening in the world today won't make tomorrow's front page. They won't get mentioned by presidential candidates or Chris Matthews or Bill O'Reilly or any of the other folks yammering and snorting on cable television. They'll be happening in laboratories out of sight, inscrutable and unhyped until the very moment when they change life as we know it. Science and technology form a two-headed, unstoppable change agent.

The fact that such developments are now being recognized by the Pulitzer board and are blanketing the Post 's Sunday opinion section is, in itself, good news.

But that's only half the reason to applaud Harmon's award. The other half is the way she has covered or, in her case, invented the beat. Lots of writers, including me, have opined about the abstract virtues or evils of biotechnology. We think we're being visionary or "morally serious." But real moral seriousness isn't about abstractions. It's about flesh and blood: the real people in whom, and in whose lives, the abstractions take shape. You can't really understand or explain abortion, war, or economic globalization until you've talked to people who have been through it. The same is true of biotechnology. If you go in with moral assumptions, the experiences you see or hear about may change your mind, or at least complicate it. That's part of the point of reporting, not to mention reading.

I can't do justice to "The DNA Age" in a blog post. Read it for yourself . It's as provocative as any sci-fi collection and as nuanced as any novel. Except it's real.