Darwin Awards II
"Unnatural Selection"

C h a p t e r  6  S t o r i e s

Animals: Pall of the Wild
( Excerpt from Chapter 6 )

Discussion: Dogs and Darwinism

Dogs are a species we have been breeding, and inbreeding, for 12,000 years. They are a study in genetic heritability. We find in dogs that you can selectively breed for:

Physical traits (coat color and size).
Personality (intelligent terriers, docile retrievers).
Specific behaviors (herding dogs and guard dogs).

Dogs branched off from the wolves in the not-so-distant past. As we evolved from gatherers to farmers, we began to collect in settlements, and wolves collected on the borders. Animals that were particularly useful-for example those that brought killed game to the camp, or fetched slippers-were rewarded with scraps of food. Those that were dangerous were killed or driven away. People kept their favorite dogs alive through lean times. Thus an artificial selection was applied to the animals surrounding our villages.

We have taken the dog genome and selected for particular traits, and in doing so created dog breeds-inbred lines with less genetic diversity. Each dog breed represents a subset of the entire genome. Saint Bernards are large, muscular, and furry. Golden retrievers are golden brown, docile, and prone to spinal degeneration. Sheepdogs try to corral sheep, children, and grocery carts. One variety of guard dog barks when a stranger is a mile away, another when the stranger is twenty feet away. Guess which is quieter in your backyard!

A genetic defect common in large breeds of dogs provides an example of the dangers of limiting genetic diversity. Large purebred dogs such as German shepherds are prone to hip dysplasia, a degenerative nerve disorder that gradually paralyzes the spinal nerves beginning at the tail. Mongrel dogs occasionally come down with the disease as well, but far less frequently than susceptible breeds.

It is a small, inbred gene pool that sets the stage for a greater incidence of this dangerous genetic illness. Mongrels have more genetic diversity and fewer instances of the disease-causing allele than purebreds. Breeders are currently trying to reduce the incidence of hip dysplasia by not breeding those dogs suffering from this defect.

We also bred out traits such as aggression and violence. Today, dogcatchers and city restrictions on vicious dogs continue to eliminate dangerous behaviors. Put down a vicious animal, and you eliminate its vicious contribution to the dog genome. It is a community effort to limit the spread of dangerous dog genes-though, admittedly, dangerous dogs are often trained now rather than born as there is an unfortunate trend among a limited number of dog breeders to favor ferocious behavior in fighting dogs. But, overall, breeders select well-behaved dogs.

In short, our many dog breeds represent thousands of generations of genetic manipulation. Reshaping the dog genome-playing God with Dog-is a commonplace hubris that few question.

We learn from dogs that many canine personality traits are inherited, so surely human personality is also linked to the genome. We are born with the capacity for speech; other complex systems may well have a genetic basis. Might we also have innate confidence, ruthlessness, optimism, and a tendency to ignore authority? We haven't defined the full extent of genetic influence on personality, in humans or in animals.

Though we haven't defined the exact proportion of nature versus nurture when it comes to personality traits, most have a clear genetic component. How quickly we have selected for specific traits in dogs! If we wanted to, we could do the same for humans. Can you imagine breeding out violent aggression in man, as we do in dogs? Humankind condemns the notion, known as Social Darwinism, that humans can be selectively bred to become a better species. Our society forbids taking such ideas into the realm of reality, as happened during Hitler's abhorrent ethnic cleansing campaign.

We find similarly repugnant other practices which affect the gene pool. The unsavory idea that Homo sapiens murdered intelligent cousins in our rise to ascendancy reeks of selective breeding. And we have nearly universal prohibitions against incest and cannibalism. Our cultural taboos parallel our need for genetic diversity, thus the very ethical notions that we hold in such great regard may themselves be genetically determined!

The evil aspect of selective breeding lies in the imposition of the idea on unwilling victims. But most of us feel no particular grief when a person inflicts genetic improvement on himself by eliminating his genes through his own foolish actions. So enjoy the following Darwinian examples of self-selection-with animal assistance!

C h a p t e r  6  S t o r i e s

Hornet Challenge
Fish Gag
Sheep Sleep
Doggone Foot
Cactus Tales

Polar Bear Lesson
Feeding the Dolphins
Horsing Around
Lobster Vasectomy
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