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In 1859 English naturalist Charles Darwin returned from a five-year voyage with his soon to be famous conclusion that humans and apes had common ancestors. His ship was named The Beagle. Genes had not been discovered yet, so Darwin knew nothing about them. But he could see how many traits were passed along from parents to offspring. One of the first to review his book said it should be left to theologians as it was “too dangerous for ordinary readers.” Many theologians attacked his ideas as heresy.

Darwin said that environments change and some living organisms adapt to the changes better than others

Those plants and animals that have traits better suited to the new environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing their characteristics on to their offspring. Over time, the more advantageous traits become more common. Darwin chose the term natural selection to contrast with “artificial selection,” or selective breeding.

In 1925, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a state law

The state of Tennessee said it was against the law to teach any theory that disagreed with what was in the Bible. Outraged Fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan volunteered to aid the state in prosecuting John T. Scopes for his heresy. Famous attorney Clarence Darrow joined the defense and the stage was set for the Trial of the Century.

The sleepy town transformed itself into a street carnival with vendors selling hot dogs, lemonade, bibles and toy monkeys

A famous chimpanzee named Joe Mendi was on tour across America performing human-like tricks. Joe arrived at the courthouse wearing a plaid suit, white spats and a brown fedora. Joe posed for photographs, played a miniature piano and sipped colas at the local soda counter.

Ridicule and insults took over from reasoned discourse at what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial

Darrow humiliated Bryan again and again by forcing him to make ignorant and contradictory statements that disgraced his fundamentalist beliefs. Five days later, Bryan died while taking a nap.

Even those who deny the notion of natural selection know there is much evidence that artificial selection is all around us

Take a look at dogs that were purposefully bred by humans for doing different types of work. Ancient tablets tell us dogs have worked as herding animals for thousands of years. Shepherds steer livestock herds in the right direction by blocking, nipping at heels and barking.

Pointers are specialists at finding game

Their name comes from stopping and pointing their muzzles at the game and holding the pose until the hunter moves into range. The best performers were selectively bred to produce better and better pointers.

Retrievers fetch the game

It comes as a surprise to many that one of the oldest retriever breeds in the world is the Standard Poodle. Poodles originated in Germany, where they were called “rough water dogs.” In France, they were called “duck dogs.”

Duck hunters along the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. bred big and hardy dogs to fetch downed birds. In 1878, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever was the first retriever recognized by the American Kennel Club.

Labrador Retrievers were great working dogs, but somewhere along the line they developed personalities that made them more appealing than most other breeds. The more playful, affectionate and friendly Labs became companion dogs and Labs are now America’s most popular breed.

Setters

Some of the retrievers didn’t behave like the others. When they found their quarry, they would “set” instead of point, freezing into a fixed crouch. Some of retrievers had longer hair and breeders began to select for coat and coloration, including the Irish setter and the English setter. Nowadays, Pointers and Setters are signs on toilets in rustic neighborhood bars.

The American Kennel Club cares only about purebred dogs

In the 1800s, wealthy English landowners became less concerned about the work a dog could do and more interested in how it looked. The U.S. jumped on this fad of choosing dogs solely for their appearance and the Westminster Kennel Club Show was started in 1877. There are now nearly 400 or 500 different breeds of dogs, depending on who’s doing the talking. Today almost all dogs are bred for their looks.

Artificial selection for appearance has an ugly side the AKC doesn’t like talking about

By breeding for longer hair or shorter legs, other characteristics are passed along. Some of those characteristics are hereditary problems that lie dormant until you start tampering with the gene pool. Purebred dogs have more problems than mixed-breed dogs because the gene pool gets smaller and smaller. There are more problems with tiny dogs than big ones as breeders try to create fluffier and cuddlier pets. Common problems sound like the lists you hear announcers read on those pharmaceutical ads on television: irreversible damage to the heart, lungs, organs, eyes, skeleton, skin and more. The AKC has only one standard for breeding – the dog must be at least eight months old.

My grandfather was a fireman

Like many others, his station house had a Dalmatian that rode to the fires on the engines with the firefighters. We called them firehouse dogs. In the days when horses pulled fire engines, Dalmatians would run alongside and defend the horses from dogs that tried to spook or attack the horses. Legend says Dalmatians originated with Romanian gypsies, but no one really knows. By the 1600s, Dalmatians were England’s favorite carriage dog, taken along as showpieces by nobles, merchants and anyone who wanted to look fashionable.

Fast forward to Cruella DeVil

The 1996 remake of the animated 1961 Disney film was a box office success. Americans bought Dalmatians in record numbers. AKC registrations for purebred Dalmatians went from 8,000 a year to 40,000 a year.

Before the movie’s release, the Humane Society of the United States had placed advertisements in all the major newspapers

They warned theatergoers that Dalmatians require a tremendous amount of time and energy that families with small children are unlikely to have. Dalmatians need to do lots of running and when they don’t get it, they get skittish and aggressive before becoming hyperactive and destructive. They snap and bite and not many of them like children. Modern Dog Magazine describes them as “animals with high exercise demands and willful personalities.” No wonder the big increase in Dalmatian sales was followed by a huge increase in people getting rid of them.

A study by the University of Bristol says films starring dogs boost a breed’s popularity for as much as ten years
  • Dalmatian sales increased dramatically when the animated Disney film 101 Dalmatians was released in 1961 and again when it was re-released in 1985 and 1991.
  • Lassie Come Home. This 1943 film was followed by a 40% increase of Collie registrations.
  • The Shaggy Dog. This 1959 Disney movie was followed by a doubling in Old English Sheepdog registrations.
  • Big Red was a popular Disney movie released in 1962 . Soon after, the Irish Setter was a Top 10 breed in AKC registrations. Within ten years, there was a wave of Irish Setters that had become blind by the time they were one or two years old.

Disney officials shrugged off the criticisms, citing the Humane Society statistics that say somewhere around 10 million dogs and cats are sent to shelters each year.

Once upon a time, the mating of cattle was an in-person experience for both parties

Then someone figured out artificial insemination and since then, sires’ semen could be sold to impregnate thousands of heifers around the world. The dairy industry has always been interested in cows that produce more milk and so for many years bred animals for that purpose. Farmers buy semen from top-ranked bulls and breed even better bulls by mating top performing males with the most productive females. Researchers have found that all the Holstein bulls today trace their family trees back to only two bulls: Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation and Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief. The resulting offspring are more genetically similar each successive generation. One hundred years ago, the average Holstein dairy cow produced 4,000 pounds of milk each year. Last year the average was more than 23,000 pounds.

Inbreeding is the process of mating genetically similar organisms

The whole idea of inbreeding is to reduce genetic diversity. It is very common in plants and animals and rare among humans, who call it incest. When inbreeding occurs, normally recessive traits appear more frequently and many of these are bad ones. The laws of most states prohibit marriage between human relatives because it increases the likelihood of many human disorders among offspring.

Sperm from Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief produced 16,000 daughters, 500,000 granddaughters and more than 2 million great-granddaughters. The Chief also introduced a lethal gene into the Holstein cattle population that was responsible for an estimated half million spontaneous abortions worldwide.

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