Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Animal Domestication and Implications

I was utterly fascinated by this National Geographic article on the domestication process and what it means.  Some of the more interesting ideas require a little reading between the lines...

These foxes treat any human as a potential companion, a behavior that is the product of arguably the most extraordinary breeding experiment ever conducted.
Previously I've read the theory -- which I find plausible -- that not all animals could be  domesticated, no matter what you did with them.  Some are too skittish, some too vicious, some won't breed in captivity.  (This project actually hit breeding problems, with otters.)  But it's usually broken down into "animals that are relatively easy to domesticate, so they have been" (like wolves into dogs) vs. "animals that are impossible to domesticate, no matter what you try" (like cheetahs, and boy did some people try historically).  This experiment makes me think it's more of a spectrum.  We've already picked the low-hanging fruit.  But if we get a stepladder, apparently we can domesticate species that we would not have thought possible -- and get impressive results within the span of a human lifetime.  That's awesome.

Domesticated animals are known to share a common set of characteristics, a fact documented by Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. They tend to be smaller, with floppier ears and curlier tails than their untamed progenitors. Such traits tend to make animals appear appealingly juvenile to humans. Their coats are sometimes spotted—piebald, in scientific terminology—while their wild ancestors' coats are solid. These and other traits, sometimes referred to as the domestication phenotype, exist in varying degrees across a remarkably wide range of species, from dogs, pigs, and cows to some nonmammalians like chickens, and even a few fish.
Some of this was new to me, though I believe I've read that book of Darwin's.  What I remember is the tendency toward neoteny: larger eyes and heads, other features made smaller, and traits of infancy (attention-seeking, malleable learning, certain vocalizations) extended into adulthood.  The other traits make some sense too, though.

Now here's a cool idea: consider applying this in your speculative fiction.  The more advanced a species is, the more likely it might be to display traits like these.  (The article argues that some of this applies to humans too.)  Furthermore, these are good traits to apply to domesticated animals in other worlds.  Those details will make the critters "seem right" without necessarily cluing the reader as to why.

Driving those changes, Belyaev postulated, was a collection of genes that conferred a propensity to tameness—a genotype that the foxes perhaps shared with any species that could be domesticated.
Suppose that this hypothesis is true.  When did that potential evolve?  This really makes me want to replicate the experiment with a wider range of animal types.  I think it's awesome that some of the traits appear in chickens and fish, not just mammals.  I'd love to test it with reptiles.  There are certainly people breeding pet snakes.  I have to wonder if anyone is breeding those for charm, not just interesting colors.  How early did Gaia put a networking chip into animal species?  If we can map the breadth of its appearances, then we can guess at a common ancestor, which gives us a rough time estimate.

Out of 148 large mammal species on Earth, why have no more than 15 ever been domesticated? Why have we been able to tame and breed horses for thousands of years, but never their close relative the zebra, despite numerous attempts?

See above discussion of suitable vs. unsuitable animals and their traits.  I think it was the book Guns, Germs, and Steel that had a really good exploration of the possibilities.  I remember one with zebras: the unpleasant habit of biting people and not letting go.  With cheetahs it's breeding: they can be trained to hunt, but just do not want to kindle in captivity.  One African king had a stable of several hundred cheetahs, and went down in history because his keeper somehow got a litter of kittens out of them.  One  litter.  Some things I'd consider prerequisites: an animal must have something humans want from it, must be controllable so as not to wreak havoc, and must reproduce in captivity.  I also suspect that malleability is key: if a species doesn't improve, and it's not already at a useful level of connection, it won't last.  It'll get abandoned as the otters were.

Domestication, by contrast, is not a quality trained into an individual, but one bred into an entire population through generations of living in proximity to humans. Many if not most of the species' wild instincts have long since been lost. Domestication, in other words, is mostly in the genes.
Now this is an exaggeration.  It's true in terms of an animal's potential for human interaction, and perhaps appearance.  But it's neglecting the junk drawer, and that's dangerous.  Many domesticated animals remain fully functional as wild -- or more properly feral -- survivors.  Housecats, medium to large dogs, horses, goats, rabbits, pigs, and even goldfish  are all downright notorious for going feral.  They can take care of themselves just fine if dumped in a survivable environment.  What's even more interesting: they quickly shift back towards wild appearance.  Feral dogs in the woods soon resemble wolves or coyotes.  Feral pigs quickly become thinner and hairier with longer snouts and tushes: like wild boars.  Now if you pick up the descendants of those animals, they remain relatively easy to tame with human contact: wild kittens can be socialized, and so can wild horses.  But they haven't lost their instincts, just tucked them out of immediate view.  *ponder*  For that matter, it doesn't take much of a push for humans to lose their domesticated behaviors.

The prohibition on genetic studies had thawed since Stalin's death in 1953, and Belyaev set up shop in Siberia at the newly minted Institute of Cytology and Genetics. Still, he was careful to frame the study only in terms of physiology, leaving out any mention of genes. Trut recalls that when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arrived to inspect the institute, he was overheard to say, "What, are those geneticists still around? Were they not destroyed?"

Two thoughts here: The first is simply that politics controlling science will stifle or distort your science, so is an idiocy to be avoided.  We got lucky here; the project and its fascinating data survived.  We're not usually that lucky, and it costs us.  Do not want.

The second is that humans influence our own development, some cultures more than others.  When we send all the strongest and most aggressive young men off to kill each other in wars, when we kill the smart slaves and breed the tall sturdy ones, when we use ambulances and neonatal care to save individuals who would otherwise die, when we launch a technological wave that suddenly makes geekiness sexy -- we are changing who reproduces and how much, therefore, which traits get passed on.  There's a theory that right-handedness is prevalent because a right-handed warrior would carry his shield in his left hand: over his heart.

We often don't think about this, but it is a real part of human history, sometimes with really ugly results.  But it can be fun to play with in fiction.  One thing we've established in Torn World is that the Empire licenses everything, including reproduction.  That culture also frowns on violence.  So if you have a history of violence, it might be harder for you to qualify for a child license.  Over time, that has a subtle influence on what gets passed on.  The Northerners do it differently, and haven't had nearly as long to adapt to their environment -- but they have a very gregarious and communal culture.  Everyone is encouraged to participate and reproduce, but people with loner inclinations are still at a disadvantage.

So in a mirror image of the friendly foxes, the kits in the aggressive population are rated according to the hostility of their behavior. Only the most aggressive are bred for the next generation. Here are the evil twins of the tail-wagging Mavrik, straight out of a B-grade horror film: hissing, baring their teeth, snapping at the front of their cages when any human approaches.
While I understand the scientific value of a counterpoint group (and I hope they have a control population somewhere too) I'm a bit leery of this. Deliberately breeding for hostility seems like begging for trouble. I really hope none of these foxes ever get loose. Someone into horror fiction, however, could adapt this experiment to something more formidable than foxes and have all kinds of fun with it.

Once those genes are identified, the researchers can test whether the ones influencing behavior are also behind the floppy ears and piebald coats and other features that characterize domesticated species. One theory among the scientists in Novosibirsk is that the genes guiding the animals' behavior do so by altering chemicals in their brains. Changes to those neurochemicals, in turn, have "downstream" impacts on the animals' physical appearance.

This will be riveting to follow, and see how it turns out. Note the implications for writers: if the same genes have emotional and physical impacts, that would be stronger grounds for using them in other worlds.

If Belyaev and Trut are correct, the self-selection and then human selection of less fearful animals carried with it other components of the domestication phenotype, such as curly tails and smaller bodies. In Andersson's view, that theory understates the role humans played in selecting those other traits. Sure, curiosity and lack of fear may have started the process, but once animals were under human control, they were also protected from wild predators. Random mutations for physical traits that might quickly have been weeded out in the wild, like white spots on a dark coat, were allowed to persist. Then they flourished, in part because, well, people liked them. "It wasn't that the animals behaved differently," as Andersson says, "it's just that they were cute."
This is typical of scientists: gravitating to either/or rather than both/and. The universe allows, and frequently practices, multiple answers to the same question. We already know that the cute factor is a valid influence: humans frequently do select for novel traits in anything they are breeding. They'll even make daft choices like breeding animals with birth defects because some other aspect is cute, or sacrificing flavor for shipping resilience in fruit until it's hardly worth eating.  What would be new is if we could prove something else as an active influence, if selecting for tame foxes causes them to show spots even if the breeders select for temper not color.  So then we'd have these two different factors interacting and reinforcing each other. 

I've played with this in fiction before.  Frex, my Torn World character Nleimen is a geneticist, and her story "Squiggles and Squares" is really about how humans like to perpetuate unusual traits in domesticated animals.  For her it's the squiggle mouse (with a curly coat similar to a Rex cat).  For her friend Tosh it's the square-paint horse (what is sometimes called cobwebbing or giraffe patterning here).

They identified a mutation, in a gene known as TSHR, that was found only in domestic populations. The implication is that TSHRthereby played some role in domestication, and now the team is working to determine exactly what the TSHR mutation controls. Andersson hypothesizes that it could play a role in the birds' reproductive cycles, allowing chickens to breed more frequently in captivity than red jungle fowl do in the wild—a trait early farmers would have been eager to perpetuate. The same difference exists between wolves, which reproduce once a year and in the same season, and dogs, which can breed multiple times a year, in any season.
We've already touched on the importance of replicability in domestic animals. If they can't breed in captivity, they're out. If they can boost their breeding, however, they boost their appeal. Sound familiar? Humans are almost the only species that has sex for fun and bonding; it's very rare in the wild. Humans are also rather rare in having a cycle rather than a season, and being sexually receptive most or all of the time. (Some prey animals, such as mice or rabbits, are perpetually receptive so they don't die out; but it's still not a common trait.) This has been remarked on in science fiction occasionally, and is worth exploring further.

The results, while preliminary, suggest that selecting against fear and aggression—what Hare calls "emotional reactivity"—has created foxes that are not just tame but that also have the doglike ability to engage with humans using their social cues.  "They didn't select for a smarter fox but for a nice fox," says Hare. "But they ended up getting a smart fox."

This is tremendously useful for science fiction writers, because it implies a possible correlation between intelligence and niceness or at least social responsiveness.  So, there may be a feedback loop: the more amiable and cooperative a species is, the smarter it gets, and that speeds its evolution over time.  Also consider the impact on anthropomorphic fiction: it might be rather hard to produce a furry slave that would be both  amiable and dumb enough to control easily, especially if you want it to breed true.  Selecting for a sweet, sexy fox could accidentally give you a fox smart enough to object to slavery and stage a revolt. 

And, wowie! now I have to wonder if they applies to artificial intelligence too.  If the domestication pattern is hardwired into the genes, it may be merely biological and thus irrelevant to technolife.  But if it's deeper -- if it's part of the code for the universe as a whole -- then it could affect technolife as well as biolife.  (I suddenly wonder if this is why my silicos sprouted souls.  The humans weren't trying to produce a smart computer, or an emotional one, but they were trying to produce a nice one that could interface easily with humans.)  So that has all kinds of fun territory to explore.

This research also has implications for the origins of human social behavior. "Are we domesticated in the sense of dogs? No. But I am comfortable saying that the first thing that has to happen to get a human from an apelike ancestor is a substantial increase in tolerance toward one another. There had to be a change in our social system."

BZZZT!  This passage indicates that someone is working with shallow and/or outdated information.  It presupposes that apes or apelike ancestors were less tolerant, more aggressive, etc.  However, recent decades have revealed that chimpanzees and gorillas, along with some other apes, are far more social and nonviolent than most people realize.  And that's before you get into bonobos, who customarily solve conflicts by making love not war.  This really makes me want to compare bonobo gene maps to domesticated animal gene maps to human gene maps.  If we could identify factors common to all three, THAT would be hugely useful.

So there you have it: an article about an interesting scientific experiment, and what some of its social or practical implications might be, and how you can make use of this if you're a breeder or a writer.  Have fun.
Tags: fantasy, reading, science, science fiction, torn world, wildlife, writing

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