New breakthroughs in science and the field of biology have been almost a daily occurrence. Progress in genetic modification, stem cell research, and the art of manipulating genes for miraculous purposes is happening at an amazingly fast pace. But mankind’s talent for gene modification is not a new thing. We’ve been at it for thousands of years, unintentionally as well as intentionally. It’s a process we know as domestication.
It sounds a little crazy that cavemen knew a little something about genetic modification, manipulating wild plants and animals into exhibiting traits we consider valuable. It began when mankind shifted from hunter-gatherer groups into farming communities- the beginning of civilization. Allowing the most desirable crops to grow and pollinate encouraged their development towards being the fruits and veggies we eat today. Wild maize, for example, is tiny- the seeds are brittle, they fall off easily, and they don’t taste very good. The people of ancient Mesoamerica got rid of crop that was undesirable, while planting the seeds of corn that were larger, tasted better, or just looked more appealing. This long process led to lots of fruits and vegetables we eat today having much larger mass, reduced or nonexistent reproductive methods, and even having variety in taste and appearance.
The photograph below shows some of the interesting variety of color, texture, size and taste in modern-day corn.
This same process happened to almost everything we take for granted today- the huge red tomatoes on the kitchen counter, the prime rib cuts in the grocery aisle, the milk you had with your breakfast cereal. Animals we keep as pets, like dogs and cats, have gone from independent wolves and wildcats to being the loving and dependent companions we keep with us today.
However, the dark side of domestication is necessary codependency. It is extremely difficult for domesticated plants to survive on their own, due to losing some of the functions unwanted in farming (things like reproductive methods, or defenses, such as bad taste or thorns). These traits might be undesirable to humans, but are vital to the plant’s survival in the wilderness. Pets, too, are ill-suited for the wilderness. Animals like wolves are born with an independent problem-solving side, whereas dogs might look to a human to help them with their problems, or lack the skills to survive on their own. Some dog breeds are even bred with traits that are appealing to humans but detrimental to the animals’ heath. For example, bulldogs are bred with short legs, stocky frames, and droopy jowls. This trait has been encouraged in the breed which has led to lots of inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity. This, unfortunately, has led to some major health problems reappearing in the bulldog bloodline, such as cardiac and respiratory disease, hip dysplasia, heat problems, “cherry eye” – in which their eye might pop out, and require daily cleaning of their skin folds to avoid problems. These issues require supervision and medical care, and if a bulldog lacked an owner, it would most likely succumb to one of many diseases it is prone to.
While domestication has led to some things we consider staples in our lives- things such as delicious fruits, vegetables, pets, even fuel- it has been largely in our favor. This codependency has furthered human development and developed a variety of interesting and exotic subspecies. However, the irresponsible tampering of genes and the continued practice of inbreeding without considering the detriments to the species has led to weakened genes and harmful mutations. If we continue along this path, we will only continue to damage the gene pool of our companions. As we discover more about genetic modification, maybe we can repair the damage caused and continue to advance into the future.