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Pseudo-Darwinian theories and restoring extinct species

File:Aurochs liferestoration.jpg

In “Heavy breeding” (Cabinet, Spring 2012), Michael Wang recounts the effort to bring back the extinct Eurasian wild ox, ancestor of modern cattle. He is most informative on the subject of why, exactly. Way more was at work, it turns out, than a desire to atone for assumed human guilt in the matter (like bringing back the extinct passenger pigeon or something):

(The above illustration is a life restoration of an aurochs bull and cow based on skeletons and primitive cattle anatomy (31 March 2012) by Dfoidl, courtesy Creative Commons)

This conflation of biological and aesthetic destiny coincided with a strain of Nazi thought that sought to apply pseudo-Darwinian theories in support of a racialized conception of the state. In this mode, the zoologist Konrad Lorenz identified parallels between the changes he observed in animals as the result of their domestication and what he saw as the deleterious genetic effects of civilization. Among the traits shared by domesticated animals and city dwellers were a supposed increase in phenotypic variation (novel coloration, for instance), neoteny (the retention of juvenile features, as in the short face of a Pekinese), atrophy of the muscles, and an increase in sexual activity and fertility. These traits were not only dangerous signs of degeneration; they were also aesthetically displeasing. In his 1940 article “Durch Domestikation verursachte Störungen arteigenen Verhaltens” (Domestication-induced disorders of species-typical behavior), Lorenz presented a series of images of Roman sculptures, comparing the “beautiful” (an Olympian) with the “ugly” (a satyr or, even, a bust of Socrates). These art-historical valuations were extended to wild animals and their domestic counterparts: wolves and dogs, boars and pigs, mouflon and sheep, jungle fowl and barnyard roosters. For Lorenz, the wild ancestor (the photographs of which were mostly acquired from Oskar Heinroth, Lutz Heck’s associate at the Berlin Zoo) were consistently deemed the more beautiful. This aesthetic response, Lorenz theorized, was also an inborn survival strategy.

Curiously, the more or less recreated Aurochs sort of survived the debacle of World War II, only to become irrelevant because “Current nomenclature no longer distinguishes the aurochs as a species distinct from domestic cattle,” noting “Ultimately, the Hecks’ biological methods were inadequate to their task—for the aurochs was not a species, but a symbol.”

By the way, yes, that was the Konrad Lorenz we didn’t hear about in Darwinized biology classes – the unrepentant Nazi, as Michaael Ruse sets out.

Unclear why Ruse cares so much, as he thinks ethics is an illusion. Maybe his brain just randomly works that way. But other people’s brains randomly worked differently. In that case, Ruse really has no case against the Austrians’ honouring Lorenz by naming an institute after him. Different neurons accidentally process such matters differently. But some brains’ pleasure centres are spiked by processing the illusion of moral superiority, irrelevant to reason or critical judgement. Maybe it helps them pass on their selfish genes?

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