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The ethics of animal aesthetics
July 30, 2014 7:00 AM   Subscribe

From toygers to GloFish This author says harm to the animals and risk to the environment are more important factors than means the of modifying an animal's appearance. So "docking" the tail of a horse or dog is worse than making a GMO pet. Surprise, genetically modified GloFish are already on sale in pet stores. (Previously.)
posted by Lorem Ipsum Wilder (26 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
This ‘cute response’ might have helped spur the creation of toy dog breeds and explain why we’ve pushed some breeds to have bigger heads and eyes, and shorter muzzles. More recently, our love of all things neotenic might be responsible for the development of dwarf cats or tiny teacup-sized pigs. (And also, perhaps, the proliferation of videos and pictures of adorable animals on the internet.)

I think the neotenic response is part of it, but I think the other part is that more people live in dense urban areas, where large dogs are often impractical as pets. Some of these toy dogs are essentially fragile cats that bark. (Although in my experience, they're 1000x more spoiled than cats.)
posted by desjardins at 7:27 AM on July 30 [4 favorites]


I don't get the appeal of GloFish (and their nasty garish accessories). There are so many amazing varieties of colorful, shining, even glowing natural fish species in the aquarium trade that look much better.
posted by Foosnark at 7:30 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


...for freshwater aquariums?
posted by nzero at 7:33 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


For those who haven't read the article yet, and of course for the loud many who never intend to, I'm not sure that this really a fair summary. While the author spends a lot of time repeating biotech buzzwords, they don't ever get around to describing how the ethics or environmental concerns of genetically engineered pets might be any different from conventionally breed ones except in that people are paying attention. Really this whole article is yet another example of Betteridge's law of headlines, where any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.

There are seriously no even remotely plausible ways in which GloFish could cause harm to the environment in a way ordinary zebrafish wouldn't have a much, much easier time doing; they're just as tasty and they fucking glow. They are however, an amazing tool in science education that children and grown-ups can take home and care for. As genetic systems get developed in more critters, the tools get more reliable and powerful, and the genetic structures we can construct get more intricate, it will only be more important for the results, as well as the genetic literacy to understand them, be shared.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:42 AM on July 30 [5 favorites]


Blasdelb: First, thanks for mentioning Betteridge's law. I've played this game with news for years without knowing it had a name.

As for the summary, this is what I was referring to (and I suppose I could have quoted it): "It doesn’t bother me that GloFish are ‘artificial’. What matters to me is that the intervention itself — one fluorescence gene injected into single-celled embryos, followed by simple breeding of the resulting fish — has no known ill effects on the animals. The fish seem to be healthy, and if evidence emerged to the contrary, I wouldn’t hesitate to change my position. As it stands, I find GloFish far less ethically troubling than the deformed and crippled goldfish we’ve created through such ‘low-tech’ methods as selective breeding." It seems that you take the article as more critical of genetic modification than I did.

But now that you mention it, I do think extreme caution would be wise, especially where the uses are merely aesthetic. Glowing fish don't seem that likely to displace the originals if they escape. However that is not the end of an inquiry. The human track record with just moving species -- ones that weren't modified -- between geographical locations shows that it's very hard to anticipate what will happen. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think we yet understand the science well enough to know what collateral changes we might cause.

Under those circumstances, the existence of GloFish in a lab doesn't seem that objectionable, but the justification for spreading them around the globe seems weaker.

To me, it's important not to view genetic modification as bad and everything else as somehow natural and therefore okay. If, for instance, bulldogs were GMO, I think the outrage about the breed's medical problems would be greater.
posted by Lorem Ipsum Wilder at 8:11 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


Yes, the headline is terrible, but I think the article itself is pretty reasonable. It explicitly says that the fish are believed to be safe, and that the argument that they're "unnatural" is silly at best:
...independent experts eventually ruled that these fish posed virtually no environmental risk. One of the most common objections to the fish, however, was simple — that they were unnatural. Some opponents even claimed that viewing GloFish might cause ‘aesthetic injury’.

The ‘unnatural’ argument has been used to condemn all sorts of cosmetic modifications, from fantastical fish to dyed dogs. But we should not make the mistake of equating ‘unnatural’ with ‘unethical’. This fallacy — that what is natural is good and what is unnatural is bad — seems to be everywhere. After all, few of the pets we keep today could be called ‘natural’ — our dogs, cats, fish, and birds are products of years of human sculpting.

When meddling with animals, it’s not some fuzzy notion of what’s ‘natural’ that should give us pause — it’s the effects that our actions can have on a creature’s welfare.
I actually find it pretty hard to believe that the person who wrote the headline has read the article. Tension between editor and author, perhaps? I know Bettridge's Law was coined for a reason, but this seems like a particularly egregious example.

I tend to err on the side of paranoia and the precautionary principle when talking about releasing GMOs into the wild. But these genes are really well characterised, have activities that are fundamentally pretty boring, and don't provide any survival advantage. Given access to a time machnie, my instinct would definitely be to say "don't sell them", but now they're out of the bottle... meh.

Disclosure: I work in a gene therapy lab and, as such, am pretty certain that I must be a GMO by now. Among other things, I'd bet good money that bits of me fluoresce green under UV light.
posted by metaBugs at 8:16 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


desjardins: Your point about increased demand for smaller breeds due to urbanization seems sound. Though I don't know that smaller size also necessitates juvenile proportions. I wish the article addressed that.
posted by Lorem Ipsum Wilder at 8:19 AM on July 30


Lorem Ipsum Wilder - If, for instance, bulldogs were GMO, I think the outrage about the breed's medical problems would be greater.

I'm sure you're right about that. It feels like it's related to the trolley problem... a new evil is generally perceived as being worse than a pre-existing one. It's amazing what you can justify by calling it a tradition.

On an unrelated note, my biotech startup millions will be made by engineering Serengeti animals to be about 15cm (6 inches) tall. Tiny wildebeest skittering around your kitchen floor! A family of diminutive hippos playing in your bathroom sink! Towering over them all, a giraffe that comes up to your knee! Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn't mortgage your grandmother's teeth for them. Plus, for various reasons, interbreeding with their wild-type cousins isn't likely to be a problem.
posted by metaBugs at 8:26 AM on July 30 [8 favorites]


My Jack Russell Terrier has a docked tail. Don't blame me, he came from a shelter. One of his charms is that his tail is nearly always wagging, so sad that it's just the stub of his tail. Dog breeds have been ruined in ways that make for sick, crippled dogs. It's cruel, inhumane, stupid. Maybe the glofish is healthy, but there's some risk with every piece of meddling with nature. Killer bees, for example Most unintended consequences, like the poor bulldogs who can barely breathe and have to support that big head, have consequences for the individual, but unintended consequences will always team up with Murphy's Law.
posted by theora55 at 8:27 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


metaBUGS: Wasn't that a Geico commercial?
posted by theweasel at 8:30 AM on July 30


On, excuse me, Direct TV commercial.
posted by theweasel at 8:32 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


metaBugs: My grandmothers' teeth are off the table! :-)
posted by Lorem Ipsum Wilder at 8:36 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


I don't get the appeal of GloFish

Me neither, since they're not really GloFish, rather Day-GloFish. They're not actually phosphorescent, they only fluoresce under UV light.
posted by Rash at 8:37 AM on July 30


On an unrelated note, my biotech startup millions will be made by engineering Serengeti animals to be about 15cm (6 inches) tall.

Check out the amazing work they're doing at the Heyward Foundation.
posted by griphus at 8:37 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


metaBugs: But holy crap yes, tiny wildebeest sound like fun. Maybe really tiny is the way to reintroduce extinct species. Who wouldn't love a teacup wooly mammoth? It also prevents the Jurassic Park problem.

More seriously though, I'd still recommend being careful.
posted by Lorem Ipsum Wilder at 8:38 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


"Me neither, since they're not really GloFish, rather Day-GloFish. They're not actually phosphorescent, they only fluoresce under UV light."
In what way is this not that much cooler? The glowing requires no energy from the science fish, and is only a vague hue in the absence of your lamp! Not only do these critters demonstrate badass concepts of molecular genetics, but also photochemistry, whats not to love?
posted by Blasdelb at 8:44 AM on July 30


...for freshwater aquariums?

Yes.
posted by Foosnark at 9:10 AM on July 30


And honestly, those aren't the best photographs, and there's a lot to be said for schooling behavior enhancing the beauty of fish. Also there are crazy awesome color varieties of neocaridina shrimp. And even the humble guppy and related livebreeders come in all kinds of intense colors and patterns.

I much prefer a fish with bright stripes or fins or color patterns or metallic reflective scales over one that's a solid color.
posted by Foosnark at 9:15 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


I think the next major biotech marvel will be talking cats. The creator of such will be hounded out of civilization.
posted by happyroach at 9:22 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


A family of diminutive hippos playing in your bathroom sink!

Nature already supplies that.

(not real)
posted by squinty at 10:21 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


I would hope that we'd use this to fix some of the things that we've screwed up by breeding dogs for appearance before we use it to further modify appearances. Being able to tailor the coat color of a litter of puppies is nice but I'd MUCH rather know that they won't be prone to inherited eye or heart problems.
posted by VTX at 10:40 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


The goldfish mutations argument doesn't fit in as well. "Fancy" goldfish happen eventually when you raise goldfish, IIRC. The mutations don't survive in the wild.
posted by plinth at 10:43 AM on July 30


I don't get the appeal of GloFish

But have you considered Glowing Sushi? Yeah. Try understanding the appeal of that. It'll make understanding the appeal of GloFish as pets seem like child's play.
posted by pajamazon at 11:11 AM on July 30


Yes.

None of those glow.
posted by nzero at 11:40 AM on July 30


I think the next major biotech marvel will be talking cats yt . The creator of such will be hounded out of civilization.

I see what you did there.
posted by briank at 12:09 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


"Me neither, since they're not really GloFish, rather Day-GloFish. They're not actually phosphorescent, they only fluoresce under UV light."

In what way is this not that much cooler? The glowing requires no energy from the science fish, and is only a vague hue in the absence of your lamp! Not only do these critters demonstrate badass concepts of molecular genetics, but also photochemistry, whats not to love?


I don't know, Blasdelb -- perhaps you'd be willing to spend a few days naked and w/o sunglasses under primarily UV illumination of a wavelength and intensity appropriate for making these fish glow brightly under ambient lighting conditions and get back to us on that.
posted by jamjam at 3:35 PM on July 30


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