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Behavioral Genetics 101 (or here, have an essay about domesticated foxes and other things I won’t shut up about)

Why don’t we have pet lions? Why do we raise cows and pigs for food, but not hippopotamuses or moose? How did animals as physically diverse as bulldogs, greyhounds and chihuahuas all originate from wolves?

These questions may sound elementary, but all have incredibly complex answers that may be found somewhere in the realm of behavioral genetics, a field of study that examines the role of genetics in human and animal behavior. This highly interdisciplinary field draws on elements of biology, statistics, psychology and even history, and is often associated with the “nature versus nurture” debate. For the purposes of this case history, we’ll be focusing on animals, and specifically on their domestication.

Mapping the constellation of traits that determine domestication is one of the leading questions in animal behavioral genetics. Domestication is the process through which animal populations are selected at the genetic level to display traits that benefit humans in some way. It differs from taming, which is simply a process of animals becoming accustomed to human presence,in that changes in the genetics, physiology, and behavior of the animal all occur. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a domesticated species is defined as a “species in which the evolutionary process has been influenced by humans to meet their needs” (Convention).

In the 1950s, a group of Russian scientists led by Dmitri Belyaev set out to investigate the origins of domestication in an animal that had never been selectively bred for it before: the silver variant of the red fox,Vulpes vulpes. His team spent decades breeding silver foxes, starting with a population of animals that showed the least fear of humans and then breeding only the individuals who responded most positively to people. More than half a century later, Belyaev’s team now manages a population of foxes whose behavior and appearance has dramatically changed (Trut).

You can see the results of the Belyaev fox experiment in the Youtube video below. The first foxes in the video are a group that has been deliberately bred to contrast the domesticated group – these “minus” foxes show extreme hostility towards humans. The “plus” foxes, animals selected for tameness and affection, can be found at 1:55. Note that their behavior is dramatically different from both the “minus” foxes and even that of a control group – these animals actually seek out human contact, wagging their tails and licking their handlers to show affection. Intriguingly, these animals display different physical characteristics as well – a wider range of coat colors, white patterning, floppy ears and curly tails – all traits typically associated with domestic dogs.

Though the results of the Belyaev project are quite obvious, the actual mechanisms of how these behaviors were achieved remain something of a mystery. The expression of genetic traits is notoriously hard to predict. A “master suite” of genes present in all animals and responsible for the shared, domestic characteristics would be the holy grail of domestication studies. The idea of a domestication gene has been explored by a number of scientists, but the challenge of identifying such a gene or genes, should they exist, is formidable. Even if domestication is the result of only a few changes in an animal’s genetic makeup, the range of behavioral and physical differences that can be observed between wild and domesticated animals is so vast that locating the genetic source of these changes seems nearly impossible. As authors K. Dobney and G. Larson point out, “The cascade initiated by those few genes is likely to be so complex that identifying the highest level ‘domestication genes’ becomes, at best, highly problematic” (Dobney and Larson).

Even high-tech gene alteration procedures yield frustrating and often baffling results. In “knockout” experiments, for example, specific genes are chemically prevented from performing their normal functions. The knockout experiments have shown that blocking different genes can have unexpected effects on behavior. In a series of these trials performed on mice, researchers deactivated genes involved with learning. The result was a group of super-aggressive mice that showed little to no fear response and would fight until they died of exertion. Another experiment deactivated the gene that produces enkephalin, a brain opiate involved in pain perception. These mutant mice unexpectedly had a heightened sensitivity to noise and demonstrated extreme anxiety (Grandin and Deesing).

“The bottom line conclusion from several different knockout experiments is that changing one gene has unexpected effects on other systems,” writes Temple Grandin, a renowned animal behavior expert. “Traits are linked, and it may be impossible to completely isolate single gene effects. Researchers warn that one must be careful not to jump to a conclusion that they have found an “aggression gene” or a “maternal gene” or an “anxiety gene.” To use an engineering analogy, one would not conclude that they had found the “picture center” in a television set after they cut one circuit inside the set that ruined the picture” (Grandin and Deesing).

To confuse matters further, behavioral genetics currently cannot determine how much of an impact humans had on the process of creating the domestic animals we know today. Emerging historical evidence suggests that domesticated animals actually helped tame themselves, adjusting to life around humans long before people actively took part in any sort of genetic selection. According to Greger Larson, an expert on genetics and domestication at Durham University in the United Kingdom, most early animals like dogs, pigs, and assorted ungulates were probably managed unintentionally by humans long before they became domesticated in any traditional sense. Domestication “implies something top down, something that humans did intentionally,” he says. “But the complex story is so much more interesting” (Ratliff).

As with many other fields of scientific inquiry, behavioral genetics raises a dozen new questions for every one it answers. A definitive answer to any of these will have powerful implications across the board – after all, human behavior has both shaped and been shaped by the presence of domesticated animals since before the dawn of agriculture. To understand domestication and behavioral genetics is to understand more of human history, a concept that continues to capture the imaginations of scientists and non-scientists alike. With a world of knowledge left to be discovered in behavioral genetics, perhaps one day we’ll get to have those pet lions after all.

Works Cited

Dobney, K., and G. Larson. “Genetics and animal domestication: new windows on an elusive process.”Journal of Zoology. 29.2 (2006): n. page. Web. 25 Sep. 2012.
Domesticated Fox Experiment. Dir. iCyFlaMeZ96. Youtube, Film. 24 Sep 2012. <>.
Grandin, Temple, and Mark Deesing.Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals. San Diego: Acedemic Press, 1998. Web.<>.
International.Convention on Biological Diversity. 1992. Web. <>.
Ratliff, Evan. “Taming The Wild.”National Geographic. March 2011: n. page. Web. 24 Sep. 2012.
Trut, Lyudmila. “Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment.”American Scientist. 87.March-April (1999): n. page. Web. 25 Sep. 2012.

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C’mon, WordPress, I just wanna get into the HTML on this theme and actually make it pretty.

While I’m working on making this blog look a little nicer, have a collection of links about other kinds of style:

  • The Sartorialist, for all your intensely classy street fashion needs.
  • F Yeah Urban Tribes: more street fashion, but of the profoundly weird urban subculture variety. (There’s a little mild profanity, but  it’s part of Tumblr’s linguistic structure.)
  • The Art of Manliness has a simple, great guide to updating your wardrobe for anybody who dresses on the more masculine end of the fashion spectrum.
  • Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, if you’re looking for a little light reading from the loveliest person in the fashion world.
  • Andy’s excellent post on fashion as art.
  • And on a completely different note, the Chicago Manual online.  (Sorry.)

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Study Break

The technologies for extracting and using fossil fuels are really freakin’ cool. You can levitate masses of burning coal and limestone on cushions of air! You can shave the insides of mountains down with a massive razor-like machine! You can heat up crude oil and send the results up through a tower and get all sorts of different products condensing at different levels, from butane down through jet fuel and paraffin and asphalt! There are phase changes and heavy metals everywhere! It’s beautiful.

I don’t say that facetiously. It’s a testament to human ingenuity and power and efficiency and it’s so, so neat. I love it. I’m allowed to in this context. I’m studying for a test in a class that’s designed for mining engineers, not environmentalist wannabe writer-things like myself. Turns out it’s incredibly refreshing to see the other side of an issue that’s painted as The Great Evil in so many of my classes.

I’d go on about shades of gray and inherent complexity and how us-vs.-them mentalities screw us all over and so on, but it’s after four in the morning and I’ve still got fuel cells to diagram.

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Testing, testing, 1-2-3.

Earth from the moon.

I heard we needed a little content on the newly-renovated motherblog, so here’s a nice picture of home.

If you can see this from the motherblog, leave a comment and tell me your favorite thing about space. If you don’t have a favorite thing about space, leave a comment and I’ll tell you why you should.


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Linguistic adventures

Just started teaching myself Italian for study abroad purposes next semester. Some thoughts so far:

  • The first lesson in this program teaches you introductions, numbers, and how to order a drink. Clearly it’s got its priorities straight.
  • Gendered languages must present interesting issues for people outside the binary. Everything in Italian is either masculine or feminine and I wonder how people would work around that, or if the language even allows them to.
  •  At least gender is somewhat sensibly assigned via spelling, unlike German, which just makes no freakin’ sense. (I wind up calling everything ‘die’ out of exasperation. My vocab and comprehension auf Deutsch aren’t bad but my grammar is atrocious to the point of comedy.)

This will be an exceedingly interesting experiment. The BBC program we’re using is very engaging and I’m enjoying it so far. CM meets tomorrow so we’ll see what everybody else thinks too.

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I apologize pre-emptively for the contents of this post.

Sometimes the stress of impending exams causes one to procrastinate in new and horrifying ways, like taking an already abominable song and bastardizing it further. With apologies to Kelsey and Thomas and absolutely no apologies to LMFAO, allow me to present, to the tune of Party Rock Anthem:


Finals Week Anthem

Paper writers in the house tonight

Holy crap, we’re gonna run out of time

If I don’t finish I might lose my mind

We’ll be cramming ’til December one-five.


At my desk, staring at the clock

Eight term papers, what a shock

Three exams at 7:45

Don’t know how I’ll stay alive

Where’s my book? I gotta read

Chapters one through fifty-three

All due next week, man this blows

My agenda overflows.




Yo! I’m chugging pints of coffee like a drain

The caffeine’s jacked my brain

What a pain, sounds insane

(It’s finals week!)

Yeah, okay, no more whining or moping

Gonna pass all my classes — 

At least that’s what I’m hoping.


Get up, get down, throw your textbooks on the ground,

Get up, get down, throw your textbooks on the ground.


(Chorus x 2)


Shake that.

Every day I’m studying.



…I’m done now, I swear. Nothing to see here, move along.


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A little dissent before breakfast

Can’t say I’m thrilled to hear about the caps being imposed upon the CMs, or really how the entire process is being handled. I understand why these restrictions were put in place — fifty people will not fit in the Mythbusters colloquium one way or another, for example — but in practice all they seem to be doing is making people unhappy.

I believe that limitations set in stone are not the way to approach the creative and flexible world of CMs. Highly structured CMs have never had to happen before — in my mind, they’re meant to be as much about bonding with a group of peers who share your interests as they are about their laid-back, casual style of presenting new information. That’s not to say that they’re not “real classes.” Heck, I learned more practical life skills in Main Campbell’s Apocalypse Planning Contingency CM last year than I did in most of my other academic courses. What distresses me now is the number of freshmen and transfer students who are still new to this process, and are now stressed out over something that’s meant to be fun.

I suggested a drop-add period might be wise to instate, as people’s schedules are bound to shift over Christmas break and it would be awful for them to have something that conflicts with their colloquium but no other options because the sections that might work for them have been previously filled. And there are the unfortunate souls who missed the 7:00 window (sometimes by just refreshing a page too slowly) and might be stuck in a course they’re totally not interested in, with no options to force-add or trade. Perhaps instead of hard limits to the number of students in a class, the CM leaders could opt to accept a limited number of additional students (20 in total might make a nice high-water mark) if they’re comfortable leading that many and they feel like their class would lend itself well to a slightly larger group. While Classic Russian Literature would probably work best with a smaller number of people to facilitate intense literary discussion, for example, something like the Mythbusters CM could handle more people as they’ll just be watching an episode and demonstrating experiments together.

Hopefully we’ll get this process figured out. I’m leading the Tea CM this semester, and I’ll be sure to ask the students I’m working with how they feel about this process, and see if we can’t generate some solutions together for the next time sign-ups roll around.


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To-do list for this blog:


+ Post more.

+ Set up an RSS feed to keep up with my friends’ posts, as they are tedious to track down otherwise.

+ Get my sidebar looking all pretty-like.

+ Try adding more multimedia elements.

Yesterday I taught a couple of people some tricks regarding post visibility and publishing dates for their own blogs, which was nice. I like being helpful. I still can’t help but think, though, that these processes would be so much easier on a non-Wordpress site.

Apropos of nothing, have a song that’s been stuck in my head. I’m baffled as to why one can’t actually embed video on this site — if anybody knows how to resolve this issue, let me know.

Jockey Full of Bourbon — Tom Waits


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Don’t blink.

Well, I’ll tell you one thing about this week’s episode of Doctor Who — I am never going to be comfortable around stone angel statues again.

This went a long way toward making me feel better, though.

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Here, have a poem, you science majors.

The Sciences Sing A Lullabye

by Albert Goldbarth

Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you’re tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
Quit tapping your feet. They’ll dance
inside themselves without you. Go to sleep.

Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean. Go to sleep. Let darkness
lap at your sides. Give darkness an inch.
You aren’t alone. All of the continents used to be
one body. You aren’t alone. Go to sleep.

Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow,
Zoology says: on rainbow-fish and lithe gazelle,
Psychology says: but first it has to be night, so
Biology says: the body-clocks are stopped all over town
History says: here are the blankets, layer on layer, down and down.

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