Humans have developed close relationships with several different types of animal, domesticating them for food and for working purposes. But also as companions. the history for keeping domestic animals is long, and the changes that the animals have undergone from the original species are significant. Darwin discusses this variation in his chapter "Variation under domestication and under nature" and in a publication titled "the variation of animals and plants under domestication", linked here (http://darwin-online.org.uk/pdf/1868_Variation_F877.1.pdf). Our domestication of animals and how we can artificially select for certain traits just by breeding organisms with the desired traits together over several generations is an indication how heritable changes in phenotype can be selected for. This can be extended outside of domestic animal breeding. Natural selection is one of the mechanisms for driving evolution, with the selectors being a variety of things rather than human (they could be pollinators, predators, prey, competitors, parasites, hosts, immune defenses, resource availability etc.) and there is no end goal or evidence for intent behind the selection.
But intent IS there for artificial selection. The most obvious example being in our companion animals, horses, cats and dogs, with a whole host of breeds to chose from. It is amazing that from a common ancestor with wolves, we now have dogs ranging from Great Danes to Chihuahua's and a full spectrum of forms in-between, all through breeding for select traits. But in our domestication of these animals we also take on a responsibility for their welfare and the welfare of the breeds we have developed.
Welfare, in this context, rlates to the quality of life and the possible emotional well-being of the animal.The issue of emotions in animals is an interesting one, and an interesting challenge for scientists. An article discussing this and why it could be controversial is in this link (http://icb.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/6/883.full). Although it seems obvious that animals do have emotions, the scientific evidence for this is difficult to determine as they cannot express their subjective experience verbally, or in the same way humans do. Nevertheless, I see no reason why animals would not have the same basic emotions that humans have, and body language as well as learned behaviour would support that idea (if you have ever seen the change in body language and behaviour of an abused animal when they think they will be hurt or abandoned again, or the change into one that feels free to trust once more, it is very hard to deny their emotions).
Part of that welfare is to limit any suffering and pain the animal might have, and from my perspective to also provide a positive environment. And sometimes that can lead to hard decisions being made, as was necessary recently for one of my mother's dogs, Oscar, a cocker spaniel who suffered from Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia (AIHA), a condition where the dogs immune system attacks the red blood cells and can cause the animal a lot of pain.
This, combined with the chronic ear infections that cocker's are also susceptible to, resulted in the normally happy and bouncy dog being curled up in pain and not wanting to move for days on end. Attempts at treatment were made over the course of the past couple of years, with varying success. This last time the vets said there was nothing else they could do. So the decision was made to put Oscar to sleep rather than let him suffer any more.
Recent pictures (taken 3 months ago) of the cheeky dog are scattered about on this entry ( he was problematic to photograph as he would not stay still for long enough most of the time). He was 6 years old. In contrast, Scruffy (shown in the water with Oscar, above) is a healthy and robust 14 year old Springer spaniel. It shows how some of these inbred conditions can severely affect the well-being and health of the dog. Even in these pictures, Oscar looks a lot older than Scruffy.
The inbreeding of dogs and other animals leads to some really horrific genetic diseases. Oscar's case is not rare, 30% of cockers are estimated to suffer from AIHA. many of these genetic conditions associated with today's breeds stem from the irresponsible inbreeding that has occurred as a direct result of bad breeders making animals conform to a breed type. The video below is a very chilling documentary on this problem in dogs. It is not isolated to dogs either, but an occur in any of our domesticated breeds. the Siamese cat has undergone dramatic changes since the 60's, the cats head now being almost triangular. horses, cattle, rabbits etc have also suffered from similar breeding practices. That is not to say breeding for traits is a bad thing, but when those traits become detrimental to the animals welfare, should we not be re-examining what it is we are doing?
Incidentally, this video is a few years old now. As a direct result, the BBC stopped its coverage of Crufts, a prestigious dog show unless certain breeds were not permitted to enter the main competitions. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/7779686.stm) It seems that the Kennel club have also started to address some of the concerns (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peterwedderburn/100079637/crufts-2011-the-best-and-still-the-worst-of-the-dog-world/). Be warned if you chose to watch, it is distressing at times
Skeptical kinkster musing on whatever takes my fancy!