Designer Dogs

Designer Dogs

Designer Dogs

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 18 2009 7:47 AM

Designer Dogs

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William Saletan William Saletan

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

Yesterday we talked about the emergence of embryo screening for

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. Scientists are becoming proficient at identifying the relevant genes. A Los Angeles clinic is advertising the service and says customers are beginning to line up.

When the screening starts for real, what will it look like? Would we really select babies based on such superficial criteria?

It's impossible to predict the course of such a revolution with certainty. But we know that 10 percent of couples who seek genetic counseling say they'd screen for traits such as height and athleticism if they could. And we have a loose precedent that illuminates our propensity to tinker with aesthetic traits: dog breeding.

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One of my favorite writers, Amy Harmon of the New York Times , explained two years ago why we should study dog breeding before plunging into trait selection in humans:

Free of most of the ethical concerns—and practical difficulties—associated with the practice of eugenics in humans, dog breeders are seizing on new genetic research to exert dominion over the canine gene pool. Companies with names like Vetgen and Healthgene have begun offering dozens of DNA tests to tailor the way dogs look, improve their health and, perhaps soon, enhance their athletic performance. But as dog breeders apply scientific precision to their age-old art, they find that the quest for genetic perfection comes with unforeseen consequences. And with DNA tests on their way for humans, the lessons of intervening in the nature of dogs may ultimately bear as much on us as on our best friends. "We're on the verge of a real radical shift in the way we apply genetics in our society," said Mark Neff, associate director of the veterinary genetics laboratory at the University of California, Davis. "It's better to be first confronted with some of these issues when they concern our pets than when they concern us."

So dog breeding offers cautionary lessons about what trait selection does to its targets. Does it also offer cautionary lessons about what trait selection does to its perpetrators?

Three years ago, I thought so. I argued that dogs were the world's longest self-serving, ecologically reckless genetic experiment , perpetrated by the world's first genetically engineering species: us. So here we are, three years later, turning the experiment on ourselves. What does dog breeding tell us about the culture of aesthetic eugenics?

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As it happens, we got a good look at that culture last week, when the Westminster Kennel Club held its annual dog show . The Times ' Katie Thomas used the occasion to examine the increasingly efficient practice of breeding dogs from frozen semen . "In 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, frozen semen was used to conceive 760 litters of [American Kennel Club]-approved puppies," she reported. Among other things, "[f]rozen semen has been used for decades by breeders who want to inject a dash of nostalgia into a litter of puppies." The owner of a canine semen bank explained, "One of the reasons people like to use frozen semen is to be able to dip back into a gene pool for a more classic look."

That's what the breeder of one of this year's winners at the dog show did: He made the dog using 25-year-old frozen sperm from a previous champion named Snapper. The breeder "said he had long lamented the decline of pizazz in modern-day poodles, the trademark 'poodly temperament' that gives them such stage presence in the ring," Thomas reported. "He wondered if Snapper's genes would do the trick and create an exciting show dog."

The good news: The Frankenstein experiment worked. The poodle brought its long-dead sire's "sashay," "balance," and "fluid movement" back to life . It won the show .

The bad news: I want to throw up.

That's what aesthetic trait selection in humans will do to us. It will make our bodies prettier—and our souls uglier.