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Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

Nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
Isa 35:9 (NASB)

There’s an interesting article in the May 2017 edition of Scientific American that might interest those of you who are “dog people”. The title of the article is “How to Build a Dog“. No, it’s not that scientists are now so far advanced with DNA manipulation and life incubation techniques that they can custom-design a dog, and then use CRISPR, stem cell activation and artificial incubation technology to grow that customized dog in a lab. No, we haven’t gotten to the point where you can custom order your next dog, mixing and matching features as if selecting from a Chinese restaurant menu, Say, for example a miniature German Shepard with long, fold-over ears, a fuzzy tail, and shaggy white fur with brown patches.

The SciAm article is really about foxes. A number of biologists and naturalists over the years have tried to take foxes from the wild and teach them how to live with human beings. These attempts have generally failed; foxes just have too much “wildness” inside of them. However, one long-term scientific experiment based in Siberia actually has been quite successful in creating a different kind of fox, one that is similar to your average run-of-the-mill pet dog. This experiment was begun in the 1950s at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk by a Russian geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev. The SciAm article was written by Lydmila Trut, who started working for Dr. Belyaev in 1958 as an intern, and took over the project following Belyaev’s death in 1985. Dr. Trut gained her doctorate in evolutionary genetics and now at age 83, continues to direct the domesticated fox program in Novosibirsk.

The program was quite successful. The SciAm article describes the looks and behavior of their current generations of foxes (and provides pictures), and the parallels with dogs are quite amazing. These foxes like being around people, they want to be petted and have their bellies rubbed; they wag their tails and follow people around. You can get a ball and play catch with them. They also look a little bit different than wild foxes, with rounder noses, fuzzier fur and even sometimes floppy ears. Interestingly, they don’t quite bark; their vocalizations are “remarkably similar to human laughter”.

And ordinary people have taken foxes home from Novosibirsk as pets. You can get a Novosibirsk fox from Florida-based company called the Lester Kalmanson Agency Inc., which imports foxes for those who want to keep them as pets. However, each fox costs $8,900, because of the delivery costs from Siberia. Too bad, because they do look pretty cute — check out the pix on the Agency’s web site. If the pet fox were to catch on in America, however, you could imagine that local breeding rights would eventually be sold, such that they could be produced domestically, cutting the overall cost down and thus expanding the market for pet foxes.

How did Dr. Belyaev and Dr. Trut come up with these interesting creatures? Remember that they started this project way back in the 1950’s, when stem cells and gene maps and DNA modification techniques were unheard of (DNA itself was only discovered in 1953). They had to do it the old fashioned way — via selective breeding. They started with some wild foxes, and when a “vixen” (the cool but totally official name for a female fox) would have a litter, they would somehow corral the pups (they no doubt wore a lot of protective layers of clothing and gloves). They would watch the little foxes for a while, to see which one was least aggressive and most calm in the presence of human beings. They would then breed the “more refined” progeny (being careful to avoid inter-breeding), and then repeat the process with the resultant litters. Slowly over time, the succeeding generations of foxes because more and more mellow and cooperative around humans.

The dog-like Novosibirsk foxes of today are the result of 58 generations of selective breeding. The Institute of Genetics is now using modern gene analysis and manipulation techniques to further this research and enhance the breeding technique. Oh, that brings up an interesting point — these scientists did not start and continue this 60+ year effort to give human beings a new type of house pet. They did it to scientifically study and better understand the process by which animals have been domesticated throughout human history, and to gain insights on the biological processes and mental and behavioral patterns of the animals involved. Unfortunately, the overall effort in Novosibirsk is running low on money, and is struggling to keep itself going.

One insight from this experiment is that the process of domestication via genetic selection takes place faster than expected. It probably took ancient humans a lot longer to convert wolves into Jack Russells and beagles, but that was partly due to the fact that hunter-gathering tribes did not know much about animal breeding 12,000 years ago. The fox-to-dog process took place in a mostly undirected, helter-skelter fashion. When you intentionally carry out selective breeding, and now add in the information gained through genetic mapping (and even use this information to accelerate the breeding process through gene modification), you might be able to change a species quite a bit in a matter of decades. Well, not the entire species, but a selected portion thereof.

After reading an article like this and thinking about all the problems in the human race today, I myself can’t help but wonder if somehow, this sort of thing could be . . . Yes, I know, I am talking about the forbidden topic of eugenics. The ethical alarms start going off right away whenever an idea like the one I was just having goes public. I know that the Nazis totally embraced the same idea. There have been eugenics experiments in the past, usually through harsh methods such as forced sterilization. A big problem with any eugenics effort is the huge potential for political manipulation. Eugenics would be the ultimate tool for any ideological group — imagine if a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders could carry out a eugenics effort (funded by either the Republican or Democratic National Committee) to develop the willing populace that they need. If eugenics were enforced by an elite, highly educated group to develop a new breed of super-intelligent humans, what happens to the regular “dummies”? How will the new breed of “super-men” deal with the inferior left-behind rabble? Slavery? Sterilization? Euthanasia?

And even if the experiments were benevolent in nature, say they only focused on characteristics of empathy and benevolent cooperation and had nothing to do with strength, intelligence, looks, or healthiness, assume they made no discrimination by race and no elimination of those with genetic disease traits, they may not be all that effective. Humans have many in-born gene traits, but they also have a lot of unwritten potential at birth (the nature versus nurture issue), and whatever progress that you could make by picking out those progeny with positive traits could be overcome by the effects of an unfavorable environment during childhood. In order to build a race of more cooperative, more “domesticated”, less tribal and war-prone humans, you would need to both select for positive traits AND provide a positive, caring environment for at least 15 years for each infant candidate.

Unlike foxes and wolves, humans are inherently social creatures. We were able to breed foxes and wolves to become more social, more like us. But as to making ourselves into something better, our best shot is still through environmental improvement and not gene selection experiments. We still need to build a better world, a fairer world, a world without poverty, a world of cooperation and empathy and opportunity. Difficult as that may be.

Still . . . I can’t help wonder, what if the perfect eugenics experiment could somehow be pulled off, just like the Siberian geneticists seem to have pulled off the perfect fox eugenics experiment (from the human point of view, anyway — I’m not sure what the average wild fox would think about it). Despite our behavioral sensitivity to social and environmental conditions especially in our youth, there is still evidence that our genes might have some “alleles” that make us behave more like tribal chimpanzees than Franciscan friars when under pressure. We still seem to naturally gravitate towards aggression and to my-group-versus-your-group thinking whenever we encounter challenging circumstances, and essential resources become scarce. We tend to give up on cooperation and flip to self-interest too quickly under stress.

Could a eugenics effort carried out under perfect circumstances lead to a kinder-and-gentler human society? The only way I could imagine something like that working would require science fiction. Imagine that a group of UFO’s arrive from an intelligent but benevolent world somewhere far off in the galaxy. This would be a nicer version of “Independence Day“, something a bit more like “Arrival.”

Suppose these spaceships sort of hover around while letting us get on with our doings; and unknown to us, they are watching our youth, looking for prime candidates for their experiment in building a better, more cooperative human race. Once they find the right child, they kidnap that child, using something like a Star Trek transporter. The parents wake the next day to find the child gone. OR, if these aliens are really nice, they will simply copy the child and leave the original behind (the Star Trek transporter could do that, recall what happened to Commander Riker in The Next Generation). Imagine that these aliens have identified a habitable but mostly empty earth-like planet waiting somewhere out there, a planet that has not yet been stripped and depleted of its usable natural resources (like what humans are gradually doing to our Earth). Once they have collected a group of “star children” of sufficient potential for “domestication”, they transport a batch of them to a colony somewhere on this “New Earth”.

Our God-like aliens make sure that the conditions are generally kind on this planet, sort of a Garden of Eden scenario. They mostly let the inhabitants do what they want, except that they make sure to maintain control over who can and who cannot have children in this “New Garden City”. Yes, they would be carrying out forced sterilization, although it could be done kindly, without anyone knowing. E.g. using their invisible energy beams, they would modify those who do not seem cooperative enough, such that they wouldn’t have children (I gather these benevolent aliens would still let them have sex; they wouldn’t let on that certain people have been selected to be fertile while others were “switched off”).

So, these aliens carry out this selective breeding experiment on a far-off planet in a gentle environment for a number of centuries. Over many generations, as the “new human species” becomes more and more cooperative, the aliens introduce various challenges to “toughen up” the group, i.e. let them hone their survival skills and technologies — but in the context of global cooperation and not via tribal or individual self-interest. Eventually this new species spreads out over the planet and become more and more technologically sophisticated. But they do it in a way that avoids warfare and injustice, and that keeps a proper ecological balance which avoids violent changes to the other life-forms on their planet, as well as maintaining the processes that renew their air, water, and energy resources. The aliens can proudly look down upon a planet inhabited by intelligent and civilized humans in a peaceful, ecologically balanced fashion.

RINGGGGGGG !!! ALARM CLOCK, end of that pipe-dream. Back to 21st Century techno-capitalist America under Donald Trump. Still . . . after reading the headlines this morning, I can’t help but wonder . . . is there any way to send a signal out to these aliens and ask them to please take me to that “New Garden of Eden” out in the heavens? Should I build a bonfire or set up an antenna somewhere? Maybe there’s a copy of me on that planet . . . living in a household with a pet fox, no doubt!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I’m not quite sure where to start on this comment. I’ve had dogs for a long time, since the late 1960s; my husband liked dogs. He wanted dogs; we had dogs. The dog we had when my husband died took to me and became MY dog. She was a sweetie of a Yorkie, perhaps about 8 pounds. Before that we always had dogs that were either large dogs (German Shepherd) or “medium” sized dogs, say around 40 pounds. When my husband died, I somehow wanted a dog but kept to small dogs as they are simply easier to handle.

    Since I’ve had dogs for a long time in my life, I’ve done a lot of reading about them and how they were trained by ancient humans. The story of training wolves, from which dogs evolved, to be helpful companions to humans is much like that of what it seems scientists are not doing with the fox. Early humans took the wolves that were more “attentive” to humans, probably for what they could get to eat from them (and anyone who knows dogs knows that food is what attracts them, whether they are hungry or not). It was a kind of self-selection on the part of the wolves who were willing to be near humans, as in a “Hey, these people will give us food and maybe even some shelter in bad weather; maybe we should be a little nice to them” type of thing.

    So the way the study is going with the foxes is not a surprise to me; of course, the young foxes most willing to “collaborate” with humans would be selected for further breeding.

    I also wonder what the animals that result might they be called. Fogs? Doxes? Or some entirely new name perhaps.

    From what I know of wolves and foxes, wolves are pack animals and social; wolves thrive in the social setting of the pack; wolves do not do well alone or singly. Wolves hunt in packs, raise their young in packs. And dogs too are generally happy (depending sometimes on the dog, if the dog doesn’t “take” to a person, I must admit) when the entire “pack” is home; i.e., the whole household. If one of the family is missing, the dog almost always will greet enthusiastically the missing one come home. Occasionally a dog will not care for an individual person and thus not care if he/she is there or not), but still the dog will not be completely happy unless the entire “pack” is home, all the members of the family are present.

    Foxes, however, tend to be solitary animals and thus tend to be more like cats, i.e., individual, non-pack animals, not “social” like wolves. Foxes, I think, are animals that thrive on “alone-ness”. Wolves hunt in packs; foxes hunt alone as I understand them.

    So it seems to me that there would be a big difference between wolves and foxes; and the resulting hybrid fox/dog combo would tend to be a very different animal than the dog as we know it now. I’m not sure I would like a dog that’s a “solitary” animal by nature. How would it react when something came up that it did not like? Thus, I would think that any such combo of dogs and foxes would tend to be more like cats, individual, independent, life lived on THEIR terms; not on the terms of the “pack”, not the same kind of dog we know now.

    As I said, I would tend to think that the fox/dog hybrid might be similar in habits to cats in that cats tend to remain predators and will go out and kill mice, birds, various other small animals it can find; it will bring them home almost as a “gift”. (My mother had cats and would tell stories of the cat bringing home a stunned mouse to lay at her feet, only to have the mouse come to its senses and run thru the house. My mother was NOT happy with the cat’s offering of food. Recently, a man I know who feeds a feral cat had the cat bring him a bird, much like domesticated cats bring “gift” offerings.) Dogs do not hunt and, if left to become feral, seldom survive. Cats, however, will survive and do well.

    Then too, I find it a bit of a stretch to move from fox/dog experimentation immediately to human eugenics. I’m not saying such eugenics is not a possibility (the recent movie “The Handmaid’s Tale which came out as a book some years ago and which I found unreadable for reasons that all these years later escape me) seems to be such a story of eugenics and women chosen for having the genes and/or proper personality to be bearers of other humans, while the rest of the females remain barren). Of course, your point about Hitler and his eugenics also would have eliminated most of the human race. Not a good idea, to say the least.

    Isn’t there a saying? If science can do it, it will, just because it can. So I have no doubt that sometime in the future (perhaps even now someone is experimenting, who is to say) someone will start experimenting on deciding which human traits are “best” and go from there. The problem there is: One person’s “best traits” are not those of another person’s.

    Then your point about how to instill ethics is a good one. At this point I think the experimentation on the fox/dog hybrid may be enough. I think the resulting animal would be a much different kind of being than the dog we have now. If the fox/dog breed would prove compatible living with humans, perhaps some people would prefer a “solitary” type dog. Yet people are so used to dogs as they are now, they usually acquire them just because they are “social” animals and happy to see one when one opens the door, greets one at the door. I might even add: There’s some happy about a dog wagging its tail when it sees you come out of a room or enter the front door. Nothing quite like it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 15, 2017 @ 9:28 am

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