Eugenics is alive and well!

There was a programme about dogs the other day (BBC Horizon programme, The Secret Life of the Dog) which asserted that all the breeds we have today are descended from the grey wolf. The programme then described various experiments which demonstrated how it is possible to get from a grey wolf to a dachshund, for example. The answer is eugenics. And one ongoing experiment in Siberia highlighted the possibilities of eugenics by using a parallel species – the silver fox.

A batch of foxes were bred in captivity and the individuals who demonstrated the least aggression were selected for the subsequent breeding stock. This process was repeated for many generations until the aggression was bred out of them. Eventually something fascinating happened; the foxes became as tame as domesticated dogs but also developed striking differences to their wild cousins. For example, their fur colour changed dramatically and varied enormously within the domesticated breed. For some reason the normal constraints of species design were loosened and allowed the foxes to develop into different breeds with marked characteristics.

In a different experiment in Hungary they attempted to rear first generation grey wolves in a domesticated environment alongside domesticated dogs. Whilst the wolves were in the juvenile phase of development they just about managed with a domesticated environment but as soon as they started to mature they became uncontrollable (for a domestic setting) and had to be returned to a captive pack of wolves.

My point is this. Like it or not, we are the products of a subtle eugenics programme. The industrialised system we have is not the evolutionary default setting for ‘wild’ humans. We have been selectively bred to encourage certain characteristics. For example, the entrepreneur is a breed of pit bull dog which aggressively attacks and kills competition, the merchants and brokers are a breed which take bets on the outcome of any dog fight, and society as a whole is a breed of easily trained, passive and obedient working dog.

You are also more likely to partner with someone from the social circle (for social circle read, breed) that you inhabit and thus produce offspring that is likely to have those dominant characteristics of that social circle. Once the process has been set in motion it is self perpetuating and greater extremes of each breed will be encouraged (imagine what the best basketball team will look like in the future), so if your system is designed badly to begin with, ridiculous looking and practically ‘useless’ breeds will appear.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming anyone. There is no mad scientist in control. We just do what we are bred to do – the grey wolf in the domestic setting could easily point to the behaviour of the animals in the domestic setting and claim that it is unnatural and therefore its behaviour is more acceptable than that of the domestic animals.

If I pursue this analogy to any sort of conclusion then I would surmise that the breeding programme cannot be altered from within the programme, it is simply too big for any individual breed to have an impact. The actual breeding programme itself has to stop and our love of particular characteristics within breeds must be given up, otherwise we are in danger of producing such specialised breeds, for example the dachshund/multinational, that we are unable to adapt to the slightest change in circumstances.

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