How Mean Have We Been to Dogs? 

How Mean Have We Been to Dogs?

I guess this piece in Slate is an example of what people object to on the site: the snarkiness, the easy superiority. The piece is called "FrankenFido."

Jack Shafer insists on exposing the claim that a study of "man's best friend" is going to find cures for human illnesses.

The reason we targeted the dog genome for decoding is that it's useful for genetic research. The reason it's useful for genetic research is that dogs are neatly divided into breeds, each of which is plagued by specific diseases. And the reason dogs are divided into diseased breeds is that we made them that way. Dogs are the world's longest self-serving, ecologically reckless genetic experiment, perpetrated by the world's first genetically engineering species: us.

I've written on some of this myself. (See here, here and here). There has been too much inbreeding for the good of the dogs. Partly this has been done to maintain "show standards": the overall look or phenotype of a dog can't vary. But partly this has always been an excuse for maximizing profits by, in effect, experimenting to find out what look the public finds cutest, and then breeding for that look. To allow some puppies to "look funny," for the sake of genetic diversity, cuts into profits.

So inbred dogs have diseases, characteristic to particular breeds, from which many of them suffer terribly. But doesn't Shafer go too far?

As I understand it, the really focussed and determined inbreeding, on a large scale, has been a phenomenon of the last hundred and fifty years or so. The shift from rural to urban living was clear. Many of the people left in rural areas weren't happy about this: they were no longer where the action or wealth was. As dog lovers, they were worried that almost all distinct breeds might cease to exist; dogs were working breeds, bred and trained to perform tasks in rural areas. Many dogs seemed too big and/or temperamental to live comfortably in the city.

There was a chance to save a diversity of breeds, that was also a marketing opportunity. The shows have always been part of this: Vienna until World War I, London to this day, and more recently New York as well--along with hundreds or thousands of smaller shows. "This" is what a breed must look like--even though this look has only been established in the last century or so. It is cuter than the old working breeds; it still acts like it has the working personality (although it probably does no work except for shows).

City people are able to feel they are part of an ancient way of life. Purebred dogs--the inbred ones--receive much better care than mongrels--setting aside the fact that they are more likely to get hereditary diseases.

This is not just a case of mean old human beings taking what they want in tyrannical fashion--although that is definitely part of the story.

How did the first dogs get domesticated? Out of all the attempts to domesticate wild species, most have been failures. Dogs are derived from wolves that had something different about them. Probably because of a lack of certain hormones, they didn't act as quickly as others on "fight or flight." They acted more submissive; they strained to pick up cues from human behaviour.

Taking advantage of these qualities, and breeding dogs with more and more sophistication, shows our empathy for the dogs as well as our intelligence and, yes, our desire for control.

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