From Ferocious to Fido?

The Under Appreciated Challenges of Breeding Domestic Animals and Plants

Here we are again. We are in NatGeoland in 32,000 BC. We are about to be offered a profound scientific treatment of the origin of the domestic dog in the NatGeo special, And Man Created Dog. Wolves, we are told, had taken to hanging around human camps, picking up food scraps. This is a characteristic—peculiar it seems—to Lupus NatGeocus. An unseen predator approaches the camp and the wolves go on the defense. One is fatally injured, leaving a cub behind, to be adopted by a human. A few frames later and lo, we see a human with, yes, a very dog-looking dog. From this we are to infer that after a thousand years (or so), man has successfully bred the many varieties of man’s best friend from the wolf. End of profound scientific explanation.

32,000 BC was chosen because the skull of a Saluki dog has been discovered and dated to 31,000 BC. This gives the apparently brilliant Stone Agers of NatGeoland 1,000 years to breed wolves into dogs, Salukis, in fact. One wonders if the Nat-Geo mythological imagery is just more disinformation. Have the program consultants entertained even one teensy thought of the difficulties here?

The Domestication Problem—Plants

Two equally profound problems emerge here: accounting for the origin of domestic animals—dogs, cows, cats, sheep, etc.—and for the origin of domestic plants—wheat, tomatoes, corn, potatoes and so many more. Both of these categories were supposedly developed by the primitive denizens of the Neolithic age perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 (though now modified to 32,000?) years ago. The subject of domestic agriculture, though, provides the quickest insight into the brilliance of the primitive people.

Many domestic plants apparently started with wild ancestors. In “many,” we include common vegetables, which have absolutely no known starting point. But, leaving the “missing ancestor” problem aside, the difficulty of modifying the originally wild ancestors into the currently domesticated varieties is, itself, enormous. These wild grains, as they stood then, were useless to us. Their seeds were hard, like nutshells, inedible, and simultaneously extremely small—like salt crystals—ungraspable by human fingers. This means that wild plants needed their seeds expanded, greatly softened in texture, and overhauled at the molecular level.

To modern botanists, this is not a problem. It requires only the time and patience to carry out hundreds (or more) of generations of selective crossbreeding. This suggests that there was available human time and patience, over many generations, to work with a perfectly useless plant that would, in the experimenter’s lifetime of struggling for food to survive, put nothing edible on his table. Also required was a bit of vision, in fact, a lot of vision. Some human ancestor had the brilliant foresight, or model, in each case to see what some useless wild grain or plant could become. Further, as researcher Lloyd Pye (Everything You Know Is Wrong) points out, such crossbreeding would have required doubling, tripling, and quadrupling the number of chromosomes in wild grains. Wheat and oats were transformed by a six-fold increase from an ancestral seven chromosomes to forty-two. Sugar moved from ten to eighty, an eight-fold increase. Peanuts, potatoes, and tobaccos were expanded by factors of four. In each case, someone had to foresee the future result and then ensure that the program was carried forward by numerous succeeding generations of experimenters.

Assuming that these Neolithics had no knowledge of DNA, nor of chromosomes, no labs, no gene-splicing, the only available methods would have been generations of selective crossbreeding. Yet, despite this ancient creative outburst, in the last 5000 years, no useful plants have been created by this method. Though, in 1837, the Botanical Garden in St. Petersburg, Russia, did launch efforts by this means to transform a wild rye into a new domestic version, the program is, to this day, still a work in progress. The rye maintains its fragile stalk and tiny seeds, underscoring the transformational problem.

In the wild, seed covers (glumes) and the tiny stems that attach them to the stalks (rachises) must remain strong and durable during the growing season. Wind and rain must not take the seeds off the stalks prematurely. At maturity, though, they need to become brittle so that a mere breeze can shatter and scatter them, assuring their widespread propagation. This feature also makes harvesting virtually impossible. Thus, in addition to enlarging, softening, and nutritionally modifying these plants, the Neolithic version of a Monsanto research PhD had to perform the complex transformation wherein the rachises were simultaneously made strong enough to hold the seeds during harvesting and brittle enough to be collected via threshing (a harvesting process which implies another invention). The glumes needed to be tough enough to withstand threshing and brittle enough to shatter during this process. This requires a totally different, extremely precise, adjustment for each form of wild ancestor.

This neolithic la-la land of the botanist, populated by virtual Einsteins, generations of experimenters and a process never since replicated, is matched only by one other equally mythological region—in NatGeoland, where wolves become dogs, wild cats become tabby cats, and our vast array of domesticated animals appears in ways equally miraculous.

The Domestication of Animals

There is a very small percentage of difference in the genetic structure of wolves and dogs, or between cattle and their precursors in the massive, ancient aurochs. But one must be aware of the misleading character of this statement. The difference between humans and gorillas is considered to be around 1-2 percent. Yet given the size of the genome, even a two-percent difference comprises 30 million chromosomal base pairs. This is a massive keyboard to play upon to achieve vast physical changes via genetic alteration. To boot, this human-ape distinction hides a difference of 46 chromosomes for the human versus 48 for the ape. The only known way to achieve this is by splicing two of the 24 base pairs of the ape into one, making 23 base pairs or 46 chromosomes. To obtain this splice by chance would have been quite, yes, miraculous.

One of Fido’s key features is a remarkable sensitivity to human cues, gestures, and body language. In this dimension, experiments have shown that the dog exceeds the generally far more intelligent chimpanzee, grasping easily, for example, from a human’s gaze toward a box that the box might hold food; while the chimp, though noticing the gaze, remains clueless as to its significance. Wolves, extremely intelligent, are also much inferior to dogs in this regard. This gives every indication of the existence of a special neural “module” that supports this ability to recognize and grasp human facial expressions and cues. It echoes, on the converse side, of theories wherein the autistic individual, again suffering from insensitivity to normal human social cues, appears to have damage to a neural module or structure that supports this. It is difficult to imagine “selecting” via breeding for such a complex neural structure, just as it is difficult to imagine “selecting” for chimpanzees over generations such that we eventually achieve a chimp equal to a dog in sensitivity to human cues. Such complex neural modules have to be constructed from equally complex genetic programs of gene structures and modulating switches, just as would be required for a mammalian eye, a reptilian claw, or an avian beak. This is one of the great differences at issue as we move in “evolution” from the wolf to the domestic dog given only selective breeding as our method.

Until relatively recently, the consensus was that the domestication of animals took place in the same period as plants, 5,000-10,000 years ago. In 1997, however, after a study of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of dogs, UCLA professor, Robert Wayne, determined that the mtDNA difference between wolves and dogs is only 0.2 percent, but, again, this is yet in reality a vast keyboard on which to play to arrange structural differences. Further, Wayne announced that dogs had split off from wolves 135,000 years ago. This is strangely coordinate with another extremely early date, namely the origin of Indian cattle, thought to be 117,000 to 275,000 years ago, or on average, 200,000 years. Evidently, our Stone Age precursors were extremely brilliant from the outset, the “outset” being yet another strange, coordinate date—200,000 years ago—the date that mtDNA studies of humans determines to be the origin of the African “Eve,” the progenitor of our race.

A 2002 study by Peter Savolainen, analyzing the mtDNA from several wolf populations around the world and 654 dogs put the date “safely” back to the original consensus time of 15,000 years ago, with East Asian wolves being the source. Yet, Wayne’s conclusion also lurks, with no explanation of its demise. This is not to mention the 31,000-year-old date we saw used by NatGeo, a date which gives the distinct sense that the current theoretical age of the dog’s origin is only limited by what skeletal remains will be found next in what geologic “strata” (see Atlantis Rising, #70, on problems with our dating methods). In other words, there is little real clue. The current consensus at 15,000 years must hold enough time to achieve the many modifications of wolf architecture unto dog by, again, the simple procedure of crossbreeding. The same 15,000 years must hold the time needed to produce, again via crossbreeding, the nearly 400 breeds of dogs, with all their remarkable differences—Bulldog, Greyhound, Collie, Chihuahua.

The standard centerpiece for proof for this possibility is a Russian experiment by Dimitri Belayev on the domestication of foxes. Begun in 1959, it still continues today under Lyudmila Trut. After only ten generations, the researchers achieved a very domesticated fox, entirely submissive to humans. Further, it had developed a smaller size, shorter skull, floppy ears, a coat with white patches, and a white-tipped tail. The presence of lower adrenalin levels due to the new, safer environment for the foxes is seen as the key factor in this transformation, adrenalin being entwined with a genetic pathway related to this set of physiological changes. The well-known apologist for evolution, Richard Dawkins, uses this quick development over ten generations of foxes to encourage us to easily imagine, with even more time available, the changes from dinosaurs to birds, or apes to men. Nevertheless, little more of significance has occurred in the foxes (hundreds are involved) after another 40 years. Trut herself, in her paper (1999) on the experiment, expresses a strong concern on how we account for the emergence of the hundreds of breeds of dogs in but several thousand years. There is a long way to go from a floppy-eared fox to a bulldog. That little has occurred subsequent to the first ten generations gives the distinct sense that if carried out even longer, the experiment would become exactly opposite of the vision of Dawkins—it will become an impossibility proof.

Cattle, too, are considered to have been domesticated 8,000-10,000 years ago. Here the ancestor was the mighty aurochs. These were heavily concentrated in Europe, the last dying in 1627. The male aurochs stood nearly six feet high at the withers. It was monstrous and fierce, in Julius Caesar’s words, “a little below the elephant in size” (Gallic War, Chapter 6). It was so dangerous and aggressive, it was considered a badge of great courage to slay one. In the light of the standard domestication thesis, where our all-powerful Neolithics take an aurochs under their custody and begin the long process of domestication, it is interesting to note Caesar’s statement: “But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed.” One wonders then at the probability of our ancestors even attempting this domestication scene, just as one wonders if our Neolithic ancestors would really have been that willing to take a gamble on adopting a member of the fierce and powerful wolf family.

The current view, as noted, holds that all domestication was brought about by simple crossbreeding, by ancestors still in the Stone Age 5,000–10,000 years ago. To be consistent, the method must be applied to all cases—even to the cheetah. This is the favorite example of Lloyd Pye (Everything You Know Is Wrong). The cheetah is the most easily domesticated of the great cats. There is no question it was actually one of the first of the domestics, with a history stretching back to early Egypt, India, and China. No reports exist of it harming a human. With its long slim legs, enlarged heart and nasal passages, and aerodynamic head, it appears to have been designed as a hunting companion, no less so than greyhounds or Labradors. In fact, it appears to have the genes of a dog as well as a cat. Cheetahs sit and hunt like dogs, have the fur of a short haired dog, hard paws of a dog, and contract diseases unique to dogs. Of the fifty cheetahs subjected to genetic testing, all were virtually genetically identical. This homogeneity is only observed in lab rats and other species genetically altered in labs.

To escape the implications of this, cheetahs are held to have undergone a “bottleneck.” A bottleneck occurs when a wild population, otherwise normally very genetically diverse (as are wolves, lions, etc.) suffers a very steep decline with only a few breeding pairs left alive, forcing a restricted gene pool. Unfortunately for this explain-it-away escape route, there is no record of any near extinction event that singled out cheetahs, as opposed to lions, tigers, jaguars, or any other great cat.

There is a large gorilla in the room in all this, a huge “that which cannot be said.” All these massive differences in genetic architecture in plants and animals could not have been achieved by crossbreeding via patient experiments by Neolithic farmers and hunters extending uniformly, unbroken, patiently, across human generations, wars, cataclysms, and other events for thousands of years. They could only have been affected by the methods of gene manipulation, splicing and cutting as we see in our labs today. In domestication, we may well have a phenomenon coordinate with a general thesis, such as Zecharia Sitchin’s The Twelfth Planet, despite whatever details are considered in dispute. This thesis, as is well known, argues that historical record of the Sumerians explicitly states this to be the case: Humans, domesticated animals and domesticated plants were the work of the “gods” in the “house of fashioning” thousands of years ago.

By Stephen E. Robbins

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