Who’s afraid of designer dogs?


By Jeremy Manier

William Saletan of Slate has a nice piece this week warning of recent developments that could bring genetically selected “designer babies” a step closer to reality. He begins by noting that the idea is so shopworn that he’d stopped taking it seriously – me, too. Then he goes on to list some studies and changing practices by certain fertility clinics that could be a prelude to selection for traits such as gender, eye color and hair color. None of the news items he mentions is scary on its own, but as a group they suggest something troubling is in the air.

Or that’s what I thought, until I read Will’s post the next day on “designer dogs.” Dogs are basically a designer species – living, drooling examples of eugenics in action. Without thousands of years of artificial selection by humans, dogs as we know them wouldn’t exist. To Will’s mind, dogs are “an ecologically reckless genetic experiment.”

He’s being a little facetious, but just a little. The piece goes on to lament the origins of this year’s winner of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show – a poodle conceived with frozen semen from a former champion dog. That use of standard reproductive technology to make the dead poodle a dad again proves too much – “I want to throw up,” Saletan writes.

Leon Kass has praised the “wisdom of repugnance” in thinking about bioethics, but 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.

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