Outcrossing and essentialism

August 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm 13 comments

Paul Bloom believes that we find pleasure in the essence of things. He proposes that human beings draw meaning from the origins of things, that we are essentialists who assign value to the things around us as much from their provenance as by how they look, sound, taste, smell or function.

Bloom’s ideas on art, essentialism and our sense of pleasure may explain the obsession many fanciers have with the idea of eugenically pure blooded dogs. The idea that the smallest fraction of racially impure blood in a dog’s pedigree is far worse than breeding an entire race genetically damaged (but pure blooded!) dogs has always struck me as wildly irrational.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam via Wikimedia Commons

But after listening to Bloom’s ideas on essentialism I realized that most dog fanciers see the¬†original development of a breed as a unique and specific creative act — like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In their eyes any genetic addition to the original bloodline is tantamount to forgery. If Bloom is right, I may have different feelings about outcrossing because I see the creation of dog breeds simply as the result of a specific tendency and style in breeding. As an art movement rather than a specific work of art. This is an important difference because if we understand a breed as an art movement instead of a specific work of art, outcrossing is an acceptable way to refine individual art forms within the greater movement.

The essentialist hypothesis may also help explain why people are so intensely opinionated about breeding dogs because, according to Bloom, when we experience a thing in what we feel to be its essence, we find a deep sense of pleasure in it. And – when we believe that we have been fooled into experiencing a thing as being genuine when it is not, we feel a deep sense of revulsion. So while I see an LUA Dalmatian as a logical bit of experimentation within an art movement, those who see dog breeds as art forms are likely to view it as an abomination.

Entry filed under: dogs, science. Tags: , .

He isn’t too ordinary Happy Solstice!

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Christopher@BorderWars  |  August 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I think that the revolution in personal genomics (the ability to test your deep paternal and maternal ancestry for under $100) will do much to change perceptions on blood purity and ancestry. It certainly did in my case, as the information I found is entirely distinct from the *culture* I inherited from close family.

    I think the same thing is at work with dog breeds… time and ignorance of history allows people to assume that the close culture is the only culture. That it has always been this way.

    How many people would be adamant about breed blood purity if they only knew how decidedly unpure their breed really is? And how it’s probably much younger (especially in terms of stud books) than they imagine?

  • 2. Jess  |  August 1, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    IME, typically with the people who feel the need to tell me how very awful, greedy, or just plain stupid I am for crossbreeding, the objection is very much based in creation mythology. Of course ‘my’ breeds are very old, as types, older than most ‘breeds’, so they carry a lot of mythological baggage. I have been told, quite seriously, that Salukis have been PURE since 7000 BC, and we know this because there are pictures of dogs that look Saluki like on the Egyptian tombs (even though our Western idea of ‘Saluki’ is based on a small number of dogs from a hundred years ago, a snapshot in time.) The Afghan people usually keep quiet, interestingly enough.

    Younger breeds also have a creation mythology, where the dog is created by the combination of different types and magically becomes something else (when it breeds true, it takes on another form, transformation.) Mythology is just another form of religion, and not only does religion have no requirement to make sense, it has built in provisions for the punishment and reviling of unbelievers.

    I think the objection to crossing breeds has less to do with the breed as ‘art’ (that is what showing dogs is about, separating the wheat from the chaff within the breed, emphasis on minutiae) but with magical thinking, the breed has come from ordinary (mixed) origins and transformed into something pure and different (purebred.) Thus the emphasis on ‘improving’ the breed, or continuing the transformation (differentiating it from other breeds.)

  • 3. H. Houlahan  |  August 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    A good transcription of an unselfconscious essentialist in one of my old blog posts, here:

    http://cynography.blogspot.com/2008/09/standard-issue.html

    “Traditional reasons are that, tradition. Standards were made by the people who created the breeds and they stated their reasons for doing so. Standards include appearance and function.

    I didn’t write the standards and I wasn’t there, those are some of the reasons given.

    I happen to appreciate their efforts. I see little point in mocking them for living in their times and doing what they thought best.

    Without them, we wouldn’t have those breeds. When people start breeding outside a standard to suit themselves, you stop having identifiable purebred dogs. Eventually you can’t tell purebred from mutt, or byb junk.”

  • 4. Andrew Campbell  |  October 11, 2011 at 12:44 am

    Craig Koshyk’s new book ‘Pointing Dogs: The Continentals’ does a great job, whether deliberately or coincidentally, addressing many of these issues. One need only look through the book and wonder how exactly different or unique a Danish pointer, a French pointer, or a German Shorthair Pointer really are. His chapter on the Vizsla and its mythical nine centuries of lineage is nevertheless still a sensitive treatment of folks seeing what they want to see in their dogs — even though the historical facts clearly confirm what both Craig and Christopher (above) have stated. And as he details, the Vizsla is a great example of various factions trumping form at the expense of function and in fact others prioritizing function if not at the expense of form, then at least to a level that I have to wonder if ‘improving the breed’ to this degree is in fact creating a very different kind of working dog. I haven’t resolved the essentialism issue in my head, just yet, in part because irrespective of when outcrossings were done with the red-dogs, it now seems possible to have form, function, and a relatively healthy gene pool.

    All best
    Andrew

  • 5. Kevin Behan  |  January 3, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    For me the essence of a breed has always been its function, with form being predicated on that. Of course fashion and fancy easily perverts this and if an outcross returns a breed toward its function, then in my mind it is returning toward its essence. So I think it’s possible to embrace an essence about a breed without getting hung up on the prestige of a pedigree or the notion of a pure and pristine blood.

  • 6. barry knister  |  August 15, 2012 at 10:52 am

    This discussion brings to mind a great story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark.” It’s about a scientist who becomes obsessed with removing a small, inconsequential mark on the face of his beloved. She dies as a result, and so a source of pleasure, love and beauty is lost to an egotist’s obsession with perfection. Certain kinds of political nuts share this attribute: they are obsessed with ideological purity, and resist any effort to introduce reality. Think Ayn Rand & Co, or orthodox Marxists. They are, simply, puritans.

  • 7. Christopher@BorderWars  |  August 15, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    @barry knister – That’s not a fair assessment of Marxism or Objectivism. I think you’re confusing hypocritical, cobbled together, non-self-consistent political ideologies that lack foundation on fundamental principles–the sort of thing we have created with a cynical two party system in which political parties are guided by polling and electioneering–with being “reality” focused.

    In regards to Objectivism in particular, it is the antithesis of Marxism and Puritanism specifically along the axis of freedom. Almost every issue the public has with fundamentalism in regards to statism, Marxism, Puritanism, etc. has to do with authoritarianism, i.e. the ability of others to enforce their will upon you. Objectivism has no such problem and an extreme fundamentalist objectivist wants you to leave him alone and will leave you alone.

    Likewise, we criticize other forms of fundamentalism as being irrational, demonstrably false, unfalsifiable, or contrary to scientific evidence. Objectivism has no such basis in hypothetical utopias, sky gods, or divine doctrine.

  • 8. metisrebel  |  August 16, 2012 at 8:53 am

    Since “lofty intellectualism” isn’t something I do very well, let me speak plainly.

    Creating mutant purebred dogs is about controlling money. Simple economics.

    It isn’t about “purity” or aesthetics. It’s about selling fashionable dogs regardless of any benefit for the dogs or potential owners in terms of canine health.

    One breeding pair of purebred dogs can easily produce more than 40+ puppies. Add that stud to another female and produce 40+ more.

    Each of those puppies are worth $1,000+. It costs less than $400 to call a friendly vet in for each litter to give them shots and a “puppy wellness test” meaning they quickly rub their hands over the dog and sign a statement that all the limbs are intact.

    Many high end dog breeders don’t hate puppy mills on principle.–that’s just good advertising. They don’t like the competition. They’re breeding the *exact same defects* into their own dogs.

    The more mutated the dog, the more “unique” the look–the more status. The more status a dog has, the more money can be demanded. And who created that status? It wasn’t the mutt lovers.

    Tobacco companies sold their product that they knew full well carried severe health implications for the purpose of profit. They made smoking fashionable.

    Breeders can claim anything they want as the *reason* to continue breeding defective dogs. The fact is–successful breeders with loads of client-buying dogs are profiting.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with profiting from a good working line of dogs because the breeder has been cautious to choose good stock by enhancing the working characteristics of his/her line.

    There IS something morally abhorrent in claiming to “love dogs” while knowingly breeding sick animals to create a clamour for fashion then profiting from it.

    It’s even more sickening hypocrisy to claim, “It’s for the good of the breed.”

  • 9. barry knister  |  November 10, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Those who gravitate to designer dogs seek to make themselves interesting, to themselves and others, through objects. The same need that leads some people to insist on Luis Vuitton luggage or Rolex watches is what lies behind their other choices. Like handbags and time pieces, dogs for them must be costly, so as to reflect the owner’s own “worth.”

  • 10. barry knister  |  November 11, 2012 at 9:33 am

    To Christopher@BorderWars:
    You seem to have missed my point, and your defense of Rand’s putative “philosophy” convinces me of this. As the name suggests, puritans are by nature conspiracty theorists. It’s not enough to take care of things in one’s own backyard; it’s necessary to be in constant and vigilent surveillance mode relative to everyone else. The reasoning for this is that non-believers are toxic, capable of spreading non-puritan beliefs. They need to be “outed,” exposed and denounced. Grover Norquist’s tactics are a case in point, and a visit to the letters-to-the-editor page of the Naples (Florida) Daily News will also show what I mean. But in the end, puritans of any stripe–religious, political, psychological–cannot tolerate a mixed system that makes room for deviation from the party line. This is because they can’t make room for flaws in their own system. As I said before, this is true of doctrinaire Marxists, and no less true of Rand’s disciples. If it isn’t perfect, then the belief system falls apart for them. That’s why the word “compromise” is potty-mouth talk to Randians. Compromise equals pollution of the party line, and must not be allowed.

  • 11. Donald McCaig  |  December 14, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Dear Janeen et al,

    Provocative. Some of the show breeders I’ve spoken to were clearly making “art for Arts sake” aesthetic judgements.

    When Walsh wrote the first Collie standard, he had obviously bothered to look at some living dogs people called “Collies”. While his description is slightly faulty, it is a straightforward attempt to define a breed by actual samples. His attempt was analogous to ordinary language theorists who abjure definition and ask, instead, “Well, how is the term used?”

    Walsh’s subsequent standard was radically different, nonobservational and platonic. Instead of describing more-or-less uniform dogs of a particular dog breed, the new standard posited a platonic “idea”. Which is, roughly, how conformation standards are used today.

    The change happened very quickly, within (as I recall) ten years. Records of the early Dog Fancy were destroyed in the Blitz and there aren’t many candid memoirs. Alas, I don’t expect to know how that change from “what is” to “What ought to be” happened.

    Donald McCaig

  • 12. metisrebel  |  January 11, 2013 at 6:52 am

    I have to agree, Barry. With so many wonderful mutts available at low cost and less health disadvantages, it seems too many have dogs as fashion accessories.

    Two of my pet peeves are pugs and bulldogs. They can’t breathe, making them lazy. This is an excuse so owners don’t actually have to spend the time to exercise them. Therefore, they should buy cats.

  • 13. barry knister  |  January 12, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Interesting. I thought people who lived with pugs and bulldogs were worried about their own looks. How could they not look great, when in the company of such beasts?

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