Friday, March 13, 2009

The Science of Breed Discrimination

It is often said that some breeds are genetically prone to aggression. A dog's behavior is determined by genetics. Human beings, however, are intelligent, sentient creatures who have free will. Dogs, of course, are also intelligent and sentient creatures, but being 'lesser' animals, different genetics apply to them...somehow.

Of course, genes are genes, whether in humans or canines. So, when politicians start banning breeds under the rationale that some breeds are more inherently vicious than others, they engage in breed profiling. If these same politicians were to say, on the other hand, that black people need to be eliminated because they commit the majority of crimes, that would be racial profiling. Racial profiling is wrong. Breed profiling is, however, somehow thought of as different. Dogs are not people, after all.

Dogs are not people, that is obvious, but humans, especially those called politicians, are perhaps a bit too arrogant and naive. If the argument is sound that some breeds of dog are genetically predisposed to aggression, then the argument is equally sound that some ethnicities within the human species are genetically predisposed to aggression. Dogs may be dogs, but science is science, and science is both objective and universal.

Sir Francis Galton, born in 1822, was the first scientist to study heredity and human behavior systematically. Since then, the science of behavioral genetics has advanced. There are several indications that behavior is genetic.

Behaviors can be altered in response to changes in biological structures or processes. For example, a brain injury can transform a shy, quiet person into a loud, aggressive jerk, and doctors routinely treat behaviors caused by mental illness with drugs that affect brain chemistry. Geneticists have even created or abolished specific mouse behaviors by inserting or disabling certain genes.

In humans, some behaviors run in the family. For example, mental illness tends to cluster in families.

Behaviorial similarities run across similar species. Chimpanzees are humanity's closest relative, sharing 98 percent of oru DNA. The two species also share behaviors that are very much alike. For example, both are highly social creatures. Both nurture, cooperate, demonstrate altruism, and even share similar facial expressions.

Recently, the science of behavioral genetics has shown that many human personality traits that most people see as a product of will are, as it turns out, products of genes. Novelty-seeking, for example, shows a strong genetic influence. In fact, studies demonstrate that certain behaviors such as alcoholism are related to growth hormone release. Another study looked at 124 unrelated subjects and showed that "higher than average novelty seeking test scores were significantly associated with a particular exonic polymorphism, the 7-repeat allele at the locus for the dopamine receptor D4 gene." ( What that means, basically, is that novelty-seeking is likely linked to a particular genetic variation in humans.

Genes affect a variety of human behaviors, whether or not individuals like to believe they do. Dog behavior is also influenced by genetics. In fact, humans share more of their ancestral DNA with dogs than with mice. Dogs and humans are so genetically alike that scientists study disease in dogs to learn about disease in human beings. ""When compared with the genomes of human and other important organisms, the dog genome provides a powerful tool for identifying genetic factors that contribute to human health and disease," according to Dr. Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Scientists also have evidence that genes influence aggression. Researchers at the University of Virginia, for example, published information indicating that sex chromosomes (those X and Y shapes of DNA in our cells) influence maternal and aggressive behavior in humans. Emilie Rissman, PhD, a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia remarked on her research, "It is our hope that these data could lead to the discovery of new genetic bases for aggression and parental behavior in other animals, including humans."

So, beware. If you believe that certain breeds of dogs should be exterminated because they are genetically prone to aggression, then it follows, logically, that certain human races or even genders are more prone to aggression than others. In other words, if you support breed profiling, then you must, according to science, also support racial profiling.

Welcome to the brave, new world.

Author D. Capp holds an M.S. in medical science (biochemistry and genetics), a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and a law degree.

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