Wednesday, November 30, 2011


In a blog post of 9 August 2010 entitled Sophia's future companion at Gamone [display], I explained that the elegant name Fitzroy, which I would give to my young Border Collie a year ago, was in fact the surname of one of my ancient ancestors: a bastard son of King John.

The term Fitz means "son of", and roy is Old French for "king". The bastard Fitz who was my ancestor—often specified as Richard Fitzjohn Chilham—is mentioned briefly in this delightful book:

Well, I often get around to imagining my dog as a descendant, not of a king, but of a wolf. So, I often call him either FitzLoup (in French) or simply FitzWolf. These reveries started recently in my imagination when I thought about an amazing story told by Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale [pages 29-31] and then repeated in The Greatest Show on Earth [pages 73-76].

It's the story of an experiment carried out by the Soviet scientist Dmitri Belyaev [1917-1985] using a beautiful domestic animal, the Russian Silver Fox, bred for the fur trade.

[First parenthetical remark. What a horrible idea: killing such a glorious animal just to be able to transform its skin and fur into a coat.]

[Second parenthetical remark. The geneticist Belyaev was a man whom we might admire a priori, since he was sacked because he disagreed with the quackery of the Stalinist agronomist Trofim Lysenko.]

Belyaev's experiment was aimed at studying the concept of tameness in successive generations of his foxes. The basic experimental procedure consisted of offering food to fox cubs and trying to fondle them. According to their reactions, the young animals were classed in three categories:

(1) The wildest cubs would either flee or act aggressively, maybe by biting the experimenter's hand.

(2) Certain cubs would accept the food and the experimenter's caresses, but grudgingly, as it were, with no apparent enthusiasm.

(3) The tamest category of cubs would, not only accept the food, but exhibit a positive reaction to the experimenter's caresses, by wagging their tails and crouching down in front of him.

Only fox cubs in this third category would be used for breeding the next generation. And so on…

Not surprisingly, this breeding strategy produced cubs that were tamer and tamer. But the experiments resulted in consequences—we might say side effects—of a totally unexpected kind. The new generations of tame foxes started to look somewhat different to their relatively wilder genetic cousins. In a nutshell, the tame foxes started to look like Border Collies! Truly, it was magic… but simply genetic magic! While the silver foxes were being bred uniquely for tameness, their genes "threw in for free"—as it were—a whole host of genetically-connected features that were apparently linked rigorously with tameness.

Nature speaks to us with her eons of accumulated wisdom: If you want a tame fox, then what we have to offer you is a dog-like fox! Nature might have added: Take it or leave it! Me, I say enthusiastically that I'll take it, because my marvelous tame wolf is Fitzroy… whose fur warms me for a delightful instant when he jumps up onto my knees in front of the fireplace.

Often, I'm overwhelmed when I observe at close range the intense human-like gaze of Fitzroy, which has infinitely more profundity and meaning than the dumb expression of less-introspective animals.

Fitzroy is surely just a few magic chemicals away from being capable of discussing Dawkins with me… but that minor metamorphosis is likely to necessitate a few million years, to say the least, with all the risks of the long road. Frankly, Fitzroy and I tend to agree (not to mention the tacit approval of Sophia) that, for the moment, it's best we stay put.

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