Among the reeds and roots of India’s flooded rice paddies lives a small, freshwater fish. It is covered, face to fin, in horizontal black-and-white stripes, giving the minnow its name: the zebrafish. The fish are striking — and hardy — which has made them popular pets. Over the decades, the fish have spread beyond the shallow, silty waters of the Indian subcontinent to show off their racing stripes in living rooms around the world.
But today, these fish — at least, the original, black-and-white model popular among generations of aquarium keepers — are beginning to seem like relics from a simpler, bygone era. Thanks to biotechnology, the zebrafish has gotten a modern, Technicolor upgrade. By plucking pieces of DNA from jellyfish, sea coral and sea anemones, and popping them into the tiny, tropical fish, biologists have created zebrafish that glow in electric shades of red, orange, green, blue, and purple. In late 2003, a small Texas company called Yorktown Technologies began selling these animals, which they dubbed GloFish. They became America’s first genetically engineered pets.
GloFish are now available at pet stores throughout 49 American states (all but California), selling for $5 or $6 a pop. Two years ago, I bought six of them, along with a special tank designed to bring out their vibrant colours. I was enchanted, watching the fish dart around the aquarium in a neon blaze. But I also found myself confronting some thorny ethical and philosophical questions.
GloFish are not the first animals that we’ve modified for our own aesthetic pleasure, but the fish mark the beginning of a new age, one in which we can directly manipulate the genomes of our creature companions to make them more alluring. Now that biotechnology is giving us new ways to reshape animals, it’s critical that we stop to think through our long history of animal alteration and to consider: what makes an animal attractive? And how far should we allow ourselves to go in the pursuit of animal beauty?
Over the course of history, we have often treated animals as raw material, mounds of clay that can be sculpted and shaped into whatever forms suited our own needs. In many respects, the domestic dog is our masterpiece. Starting with the gray wolf, and using nothing more than selective breeding, we created a whole new universe of creatures. Among the 400 or so dog breeds that exist today, there are canines with round, floppy ears (the basset hound) and pointed, erect ones (the German shepherd); dogs with smooth, silky coats (Afghan hounds) and rough, wiry ones (Airedale terriers); pooches with long, graceful legs (the Italian greyhound) and short, stubby ones (the corgi). Thanks to our careful breeding, the dog is now the most morphologically diverse species on Earth.
The explosion of dog types and characteristics was initially fuelled by the search for differentiated dogs that excelled at one specific task, whether it was hunting, herding, or guarding. That began to change in the late 19th century, with the birth of kennel clubs and the rise of dog shows. Sewallis Shirley, who established the world’s first kennel club in Britain in 1873, was a wealthy British aristocrat who kept hounds and gun dogs and used them to hunt. But the dog organisation he founded, and the ones that followed, helped turn dogs from working animals into ornaments. Kennel clubs, which were established to help standardise the hodgepodge of existing breeds and keep track of canine pedigrees, also helped to organise canine competitions. Some of these events, such as field trials, were tests of a dog’s ability to perform a certain job, but the most prestigious and popular contests were ‘conformational shows’, in which individual dogs were judged based on how closely they matched the idealised versions of their breeds. Critically, these breed standards, which are set by individual breed clubs in conjunction with kennel clubs, were – and are – based not on how well a dog rounds up sheep or retrieves dead birds but on the animal’s physical appearance.
The establishment of breed standards that focused purely on looks meant that championship dogs no longer needed to be capable of performing the tasks for which they were bred. Instead, they merely needed to look the part. Dog shows are like the Miss America pageant without the talent competition. Or the interview. Or the evening wear. It’s all swimsuits, all the time.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/how-far-should-we-go-in-shaping-animals-for-aesthetic-pleasure