Cultivating cuteness

Opinions-GeneticDo humanity’s attempts at breeding adorability go too far?

By Natalie Serafini, Opinions Editor

It seems modern society is all but completely addicted to adorability. We all know that a large portion of the population has declared their hopeless devotion to cats, and that trends in preciousness overtake the Internet in waves (sloths, teacup pigs, Ryan Gosling, etc.). We cultivate cuteness through memes, videos, pictures, and—although this is not in the least bit new—engineering lovability. I say that this isn’t new because breeding for specific traits is something that’s been done to death. This is most evident in the existence of various dog breeds: bloodhounds were developed for hunting, bulldogs were born for bull baiting, and pugs were bred to be the pups of royalty. Much as I feel prepared to support any and all examples of sweetness, the fact that humanity’s attempts at genetic engineering have faltered so frequently gives me some cause for concern—even when this “engineering” is simply pushing for specific characteristics. Is the breeding of animals for our “Oohs” and “Ahs” another example of human selfishness and arrogance?

Generally speaking, animals that are made to be cute aren’t spliced together with other genes, nor is their DNA altered… perhaps with the exception of South Korean scientists’ attempts in 2007 to create glow in the dark cats (although that was for “science”—not feisty, fluorescent felines). Instead, animals are bred to encourage a specific trait, whether that characteristic is strength, speed, or the ability to make a heart melt. In selective breeding, the individual animals that show a supposedly favourable genetic mutation are paired with other individual animals showing a similar mutation. In this way, the mutation pervades, with hopes that a helpful new breed will result. This is how the world was graced with the scrunched-up faces of pugs: as mentioned above, they were bred to recline in the laps of royalty, who apparently had a keen appreciation for wrinkly faces.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that push for cuteness, except when our tampering starts to go haywire. Pugs are prone to hemivertebrae, or deformities in the spine, because of their curly tail. Teacup pigs have replaced pot-bellied pigs as the favoured swine because of their miniature size, but they’re reported to suffer from such issues as heart deformities and digestive system abnormalities.

Basically, we aren’t as smart as we think we are. Not that humans aren’t intelligent, but once we start trying to manipulate the physical characteristics of animals, we get in over our heads. We don’t completely understand DNA, and the little that we do doesn’t really qualify us to tamper with it. Even where breeding for specific traits is concerned, we’re pretty terrible at knowing what characteristics to encourage, or when enough is enough. Perhaps manipulating DNA will help us to understand it better, but is that even the best way to go about learning?

Sure, humans might be gaining understanding about how to encourage specific traits in animals and plants, and maybe someday this knowledge will result in a league of super-humans with super strength, speed, and intelligence. Yet based on how terrible humanity seems to be at manipulating nature and the environment—like the fact that our involvement in nature has put us on a steep hill called climate change, or that our use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics tends to aggravate rather than ameliorate situations—I’d say we should be cautious in our cockiness. True, we haven’t produced any monsters through selective breeding, but I don’t think any being can really understand what genetic mutations are good or bad—especially in extremes.

It’s difficult for me to argue that we shouldn’t breed for specific traits, because I like cute things and I cannot lie. Although I don’t think we’re all that clear on what we’re doing when we pursue selective breeding, we have made some strides in understanding through trial and error. The concern shouldn’t be to definitively say yay or nay to selective breeding, or even to genetic alterations. The concern should be to know what we don’t know and be aware of that as we meddle. There’s no way to exist divorced from nature, and we’re already irreparably entwined. Instead, we can be more purposeful, less arrogant, and maybe find a way to produce adorable things without bringing sick teacup pigs into the world.