Dog Bites Manier

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 24 2009 11:04 PM

Dog Bites Manier

As the great houses of journalism contract and collapse, what's happening to our best science writers? Here's one answer: Jeremy Manier , formerly of the Chicago Tribune , has set up a " Science Life " blog at the University of Chicago Medical Center .

If you haven't followed Jeremy's work over the years, treat yourself to a few of his fine pieces. Here's his take on synthetic biology last year. Here's his look at empathy among chimps . And here's his wrenching story about a Christian professor's struggle to reconcile faith with evolution .

William Saletan William Saletan

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


In Sunday's blog installment, Jeremy picks a small bone with yours truly. To be precise, a dog bone. Last week, I wrote about the breeding of preferred dog traits using the frozen sperm of a long-dead show poodle. I concluded: " I want to throw up ."

One thing I should have learned about bioethics by now: Mention anything close to puking, and you'll remind people of Leon Kass , whose " Wisdom of Repugnance " essay has been reduced by progressives, unfairly, to shorthand for irrational conservatism. I can almost draw the chain of linked neurons for you: vomit, repugnance, Kass, George W. Bush, and back to vomit.

But my own chain of neurons has carried me away. Back to Jeremy. Here's his critique:

In this case repugnance seems more silly than wise. Dog breeders have been using frozen sperm since the 1960s. As bioethical dilemmas go, it's a Brave Old World. Saletan wants to use dog breeding as an analogy for designer babies, but it may be hopelessly flawed for that purpose because it's so familiar. Such comfortable examples are of little help in imagining how awful genetic trait selection in human babies would be.

Hmmm. Well, here's my answer, for what it's worth: I was using a familiar example because that's what we have. In projecting the future, the best we can do, empirically, is to look for a similar practice in the present or past. The existing practice will differ in some ways from what we're imagining. But the similarities may shed some light.

So here's my question to Jeremy: What current practices would be more helpful than dog breeding in projecting/imagining genetic trait selection in humans? Human trait selection is what interests both of us. As to whether canine breeding is the best way to illuminate that future—well, as the saying goes, I've got no dog in that fight.

But I do have some dogs in the fight for the blogosphere. As the old media dissolve or evolve into the new, I'm rooting for great writers like Rob Stein , John Tierney , Rick Weiss , and Carl Zimmer —from whatever perches they can find—to help weave an Internet conversation about science and technology that's as rich and engaging as the best of the Web's political commentary. Add to that list: Jeremy Manier.




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