I just love it when I discover that we share things with others. That we are not the sole custodians of our genes is cause for celebration, don’t you think? Nature has not at all been chary with us –rather it has chosen to re-gift all along the phyla, wrapping and unwrapping genes as the mood or need arises. But, of course, what is sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander.
Let me explain. Have you ever wondered why most dogs are so friendly? They are sort of like little kids in their gregariousness and naïve trust. Wolves –dogs’ big brothers, if you will- on the other hand are more like adults. Wolves raised in captivity can be friendly, but usually not obsequiously so. They are polite, but do not fawn –they are their own wolf, so to speak.
To be clear, my knowledge of wolves is largely gleaned from textbooks and such wonderfully enlightened novels as the Philosopher and the Wolf, by Mark Rowlands… Okay, and then there were the Aesop’s Fables –not to mention Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen) in the Brothers Grimm story. Anyway, you catch my drift –I have never been personally acquainted with a wolf. But dogs are a different story. Ever since I can remember, I have had a dog. And ever since I can remember, I have also been enamoured of their attentiveness. A child is usually impressed with fawning –more especially if he is the fawnee. Even as an adult, I still find I tolerate being excessively appreciated, although I am suspicious of anything other than a canid, from past experience.
After all these years, and all those dogs, I have to admit that I never gave it much thought, however. Dogs are supposed to be friendly; it’s one of those inscrutable Laws of Nature –immutable only in that if it breaks down, the dog goes to the Pound for somebody even less scrutable to adopt. But after a certain number of years, one is supposed to think the unthinkable, aren’t they? Once the heavy burden of work with its tiresome anonymity is lifted, and once the expectation of monoglottal tribal fealty is unfettered, one is free –nay, expected– to critically reexamine other dogmata (sorry) and reassign any of its fleeting significance to another box. I usually do this when I’m walking my dog.
It was then, while the dog was engaged in excited conversation with another, albeit smaller and presumably alternately-gendered poodle, that I noticed a dog article from the BBC on my phone app: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-40655634 It is embarrassing to be caught reading a phone on a park bench while your dog is ostentatiously, and shamelessly mounting another, so I merely glanced at it and retrieved the dog. It was the proper thing to do, I think. Thus, it was only when I looked at the story that night that the full significance of the subject matter sunk in.
It reported on an article published in Advances in Science (http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700398.full) that suggested a genetic explanation for why most dogs are friendly. It would seem that the idea for the study came from the genomic profile of the overly-gregarious attributes of people who suffer from a rather rare genetic condition called the Williams-Beuren syndrome (WBS). The researchers found ‘that hypersociability, a central feature of WBS, is also a core element of domestication that distinguishes dogs from wolves. We provide evidence that structural variants in GTF2I and GTF2IRD1, genes previously implicated in the behavioral phenotype of patients with WBS and contained within the WBS locus, contribute to extreme sociability in dogs.’
Or, as is mentioned in the introduction to the article: ‘Empirical demonstrations remain robust that dogs display exaggerated gregariousness, referred to as hypersociability, which is a heightened propensity to initiate social contact that is often extended to members of another species, when compared with wolves into adulthood. Hypersociability, one facet of the domestication syndrome, is a multifaceted phenotype that includes extended proximity seeking and gaze, heightened oxytocin levels, and inhibition of independent problem-solving behavior in the presence of humans. This behavior is likely driven by behavioral neoteny, which is the extension of juvenile behaviors into adulthood and increasing the ability for dogs to form primary attachments to social companions.’
Actually, as illuminating and intriguing as the finding is, I have to confess I find it disappointingly reductionist. Yes, I suppose it is important to know how things work; maybe some genetic defects in systems like this could be targeted with a CRISPR/Cas9 kit in the future -cut-and-paste stuff like we use in our word processors. I would certainly not wish the syndrome as it presents itself in humans on anybody. But are we really so sure those genetic changes reflect the full scope of canid behaviours? Was the dog who slept on my bed each night and waited outside the school for me when I was a child, just an exaptation of a borrowed gene?
Maybe it’s the why in all of this that puzzles me. Do genetics have to explain the reason we have always seen ourselves as so unbridgeably different from other animals? As so unique? That of course we have made better use of our genes? Do we all boil down to just a few highly coded proteins and this is what makes us different from a stone, say, or even a plant?
It loses something in the translation, doesn’t it? Although, when all is said and done, it is possibly something we will learn to face. Our dreams will turn to binary walls, and slowly shifting colourless blocks. And we will well and truly know… But perhaps not really understand. Or feel.
Maybe all of the magic would be lost. Is it really important to know with certainty where the geese go when they fly off into the fog? Or would that be the time for sitting on the bank of the pond where they floated just a moment ago, and listening to their fading calls as they slowly disappear into the thickening mist? A time for wonder, not knowledge? A time to consider Time itself…?
Not always, of course, but sometimes.