As things stand today, there are countless species unsuited to assume a place in human society—as any parent of a teenage boy will tell you. But fear not. While it’s too late to do anything about Junior’s surly deportment, dubious hygiene, and barbaric dietary predilections, advances in genetic engineering promise to vastly broaden your pool of potential pets. In theory, anyway.
True domestication goes beyond the mere taming of an individual animal, and reaches deep into an entire species’ hard-coded DNA. It’s a generations-long handshake between humans and animals—each side gets something valuable out of the arrangement. Your dog receives food and shelter; you enjoy companionship, protection, and a very close relationship with your local carpet-cleaning outfit. Your horse gorges on free hay and carrots; you cross the prairie cowboy-style, or impress the ladies with your polo prowess. Your swine get disgusting slop; you get delicious bacon. Talk about a deal. Human-supplied perks stack the deck for species’ survival, too: Domesticates tend to reproduce faster and survive at higher rates than their wild counterparts. Thus the dearth of dire wolves, versus the proliferation of darling dachshunds.
But not just any old beast can make the jump to humanspace. “The vast majority of mammal species have been impossible to domesticate,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning author and UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond. In his book , Diamond argues that to be domesticated, animals must possess six characteristics: a diverse appetite, rapid maturation, willingness to breed in captivity, docility, strong nerves, and a nature that conforms to social hierarchy. Melinda Zeder, a zooarchaeologist and anthropology curator emeritus at the Smithsonian, puts the prerequisite more succinctly: “What you want is an animal that doesn’t freak out when a human is around.” Which is likely why early attempts to domesticate the notoriously skittish gazelle (seriously) didn’t succeed.
Still, careful selective breeding, ideally of animals that move at less than a mile a minute, can make significant inroads. In one ongoing experiment that began in 1959, researchers in Siberia led by the late Dmitry Belyaev bred only the most docile silver foxes (a variant of standard red foxes, not George Clooney and his ilk). Fifty-odd generations later—the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms—they’ve managed to produce a population of affectionate silvery-hued canids that wag their tails and readily put up with people. Russians, even.
The Siberian team recently sequenced the fox DNA, and is getting closer to pinpointing the specific genes responsible for friendliness. If scientists can ever isolate the genes—which may vary by species—that control Diamond’s six traits and combine that knowledge with techniques like artificial insemination, many of the barriers to domestication should disappear. “Knowing what genes control the behaviors that you’re interested in manipulating is the future of domestication, for good or ill,” Zeder says. “Once you begin to apply gene editing, eventually we would be able to domesticate almost anything.”
Just because we could doesn’t necessarily mean we should, however. Domestication in the true sense is irreversible, and leads to a variety of permanent changes in the animals affected—including, notably, accelerated reproduction. So, unless you want to see a crash—yes, a “crash”—of feral rhinos trampling your petunia patch, or old ladies tossing bags’ worth of stale termites to overly friendly aardvarks in the park, it might be wise to exercise a little restraint.
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