Thursday, 23 February 2017

Silver Fox

Silver Fox

I gave a presentation to my peers the other day entitled, 'The Genetics of Dog Domestication’ and I’ve decided to share my abundant wisdom in a truncated form, minus all the pesky population genetics and statistics. 

The presentation was inspired by a video I watched concerning the ‘Silver Fox Experiment’. The experiment was initiated in the USSR during the late 1950s. Apart from the science, there is an interesting backdrop to the story. Read on and weep.

Soviet political ideology of the 30s, 40s and the early part of the 50s, considered classical Mendelian genetics and Darwin evolutionary theory as contrary to the tenets of Leninist- Marxist ideology. Instead, Soviet policy embraced Lamarckian theory which was thought to be more in tune with the needs of the proletariat. To understand Lamarckism a little digression is required (surely not, Flaxen!). 

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed a theory of evolution in the early 19th century which did not rely on natural selection in the Darwinian sense. His theory concerned the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The giraffe is generally used to illustrate the theory. Imagine a giraffe stretching its neck to reach leaves high upon a tree. The very act of stretching causes the neck to become longer. According to Lamarckian theory, the characteristic of extra neck length becomes passed on to the offspring. Thus the environment directly acts on the organism (acquired characteristics) and alters the genetic material. No rational scientist today would seriously consider Lamarckism as a mechanism for influencing evolution in this simplistic form. However, this pre-Darwinist theory was a serious contender in the day before the proposal of evolution by natural selection and the discovery of Mendelian genetics.
Lamarckian ideas became ingrained within Soviet science and it is estimated that Stalin executed, imprisoned and exiled more than 3,000 mainstream biologists. The 'new science' was heavily promoted by Trofim Lysenko (1928), a barely literate agriculturist. He claimed he could dramatically increase crop yield by exposing wheat seeds to extremes of cold and/or humidity. Lysenko's fantastic claims gained support from the Soviet elite as it promised huge increases in the food supply and provided hope for the alleviation of devastating famines caused by Soviet mismanagement of collective farms. Needless to say, the whole venture was a disastrous failure and only abandoned after the death of Stalin in 1953.  This sorry affair reverted Soviet biology back to the dark ages and was directly responsible for the death of millions by starvation. Digression endeth.

Science can not be organised according to political or religious dictates and dogma. In their quest to bend all aspects of society to the yoke of communist ideology the Soviets ultimately broke the back of Russian and Eastern bloc science. With our benefit of hindsight, we can appreciate that communism is a failed political system. In relation to society, it fails because it strives to stifle innate individuality and creativity. People are not part of a collective and rail against conformity and structured banality. Science cannot be structured or made to fit a political scheme or precept. Good science should be free from all interference, politics included. Of course, this represents the 'counsel of perfection' which can never exist in the real world. Even in so-called liberal democracies, political interference is rampant but not as blatant and as stifling as existed under the Soviet regime. Rant over.

Back to the silver fox  
Khrushchev began to reverse Soviet genetic policy in 1959 and in that year Prof Belyaev became director of the genetics research institute in Novosibirsk, Siberia. The worthy Professor collected prime fox specimens and began a selective breeding programme. He only chose individuals which exhibited ‘tame’ behavioural characteristics. He continued to select only those foxes which showed the least fear and aggression in the presence of humans. Within six generations he started to notice some interesting features present in the selected animals. As stated, the only trait selected for was tameness; physical properties played no part in the selection process. The animals became tractable, unafraid of human contact and contained all the qualities of behaviour expected in the domestic dog. Also, they exhibited other features which we would normally associate with the dog. Some developed curly, wagging tails and floppy ears. The muzzle became shorter and the coats became multi-coloured. By selecting for one trait a host of physical attributes also became manifest. This phenomenon is not unknown to geneticists and even has a fancy name- pleiotropy. All professions like to confuse non-initiates with fancy technical jargon and genetics is no exception- keeps the proles guessing. Anyway, the term simply describes the situation where one gene influences more than one seemingly unrelated trait.

It is known from genetic studies that the dog is descended from the grey wolf. It has been estimated from proto-dog burials, that the wolf first became associated with human populations about 14,000 years ago. The advantage of two intelligent species coming together in mutual harmony is rather obvious. The wolf would provide protection and act as a sentinel. More importantly, the wolf would greatly assist with the hunt and help to bring down fleet of foot prey. The wolf/dog, in turn, would receive shelter, protection and hopefully a regular and predictable food supply. The fact that both species exhibit an ordered social hierarchy would help to mesh the species into a beneficent mutualistic whole (Flaxen spouting bollix).

Tis sobering to contemplate that the white fluffy creature gently snoring and not so gently farting on my lap is fully capable of mating (a few mechanical considerations aside) with a wolf to produce viable offspring. Although the progeny is likely to offer you their paw before biting your leg clean orrrrrrffff.

The ‘silver fox project continues to this day and it is possible to purchase one of these stunningly beautiful creatures for US$7,000. I hear tell that the Pitts have adopted two and Miley Virus keeps one in her Beverley Hills condo. She also owns a ferret called Shagger. Nuff said.

Behold the wolf

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