Bulldogs, Transgenics, and a Robot

English Bulldogs aren’t what they used to be: which is a problem for folks who want the breed to survive. A team of scientists says that the British mascot’s bloodline is more than a bit too pure.

Other scientists developed MouSensor, mutant mice with open slots for plug and play genetic code.

Finally, a tiny robot with rat muscles that swims like a fish.

  1. English Bulldogs: Pedigree and Survival
  2. Mutant Mice and Transgenics
  3. A Rat-Powered Robotic Ray

Using Our Brains

Despite a youthful habit of watching more-or-less-dreadful B-movie ‘mad scientist’ films, my first impulse, on learning that we’ve discovered something new, is not fearing that we’ll offend God by using our brains.

Giving writers and directors of “Revenge of the Zombies,” “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die,” and the like, credit: their mad scientists were, arguably, crazy enough to animate powerful creatures — and then engage in shockingly inadequate safety protocols.

Or demand unswerving obedience without realizing that something/someone that’s smart enough to understand the orders is sharp enough to get upset.

Now that I think of it, scientists learned why “tickling the dragon’s tail” is a bad idea back in 1946. Taking crazy chances happens.

They weren’t the first to die while studying something new. Georg Wilhelm Richmann, for example, learned how an insulated rod reacts to a nearby thunderstorm. More accurately, other scientists did — by examining what was left of Herr Richmann.

However, like I keep saying, thinking is not a sin. (July 22, 2016)

Part of our job is learning about the universe, and using that knowledge. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 154159, 22922296)

Where was I? Scientists, mad and otherwise, using our brains, doing our job. Right.

Frankenstein and Free Will

Victor Frankenstein‘s do-it-yourself alchemy project didn’t end well, Shelly’s story was a great deal more thoughtful than “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” and I’m wandering off-topic.

H. G. Wells called “The Island of Doctor Moreau” “an exercise in youthful blasphemy.” I see his point, since Dr. Moreau was slicing and dicing live animals in an effort to make them human.

I’m an animal: as a Catholic, that’s something I must believe. I also must believe that I’m able to think, and can decide what I do. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 3538, 17041709, 17491754, 1804, 1951)

Genesis 1:2729 says that we’re made “in the divine image,” which doesn’t mean that we’re ‘lords of creation,’ free to commit any daft act we like.

We can, actually, since we’ve got free will; but we shouldn’t. I’ll get back to that.

“Tampering With Things Man Was Not Supposed to Know”

There’s a (very) old story about an elderly lady on an airliner, clearly uneasy about flying. “We should all doing what God intended,” she told her fellow-passenger, “staying home and watching television.”

Over the decades, I’ve heard ardently-expressed denunciations of new tech, like telephones: ‘kids don’t communicate any more, they spend all day talking on the telephone.’ (I am not making that up.)

On the other hand, we seem to have accepted an 18th century ‘affront’ to the Almighty: “metalline conductors,” lightning rods:

“I have read in the Philosophical Transactions the account of the effects of lightning on St. Bride’s steeple. ‘Tis amazing to me, that after the full demonstration you had given, of the identity of lightning and of electricity, and the power of metalline conductors, they should ever think of repairing that steeple without such conductors. How astonishing is the force of prejudice even in an age of so much knowledge and free enquiry!”
(Letter, To Benjamin Franklin from John Winthrop, 6 January 1768, via founders.archives.gov)

The basic question is whether humans should “…intervene in the created order, perhaps even modifying some of its aspects?”1

About 600 words later, the Pontifical Academy for Life finished explaining why following the orders given in Genesis 1:28 is okay.

Our “dominion” isn’t the sort of ‘we can do what we please’ attitude that made the London death fog and hydraulic mining possible.

For example, we can use animals for food or clothing, put them to work or enjoy their company — within reason. But we shouldn’t let them needlessly experience pain, or lavish attention on them at the expense of our fellow-humans. (Catechism, 24152418)

Our world is God’s property. We live here, and part of our job is taking care of the place. It’s sort of like being shop foreman or steward: with the power, authority, and frightening responsibilities that go with the position. (Catechism, 339, 952, 24022405, 2456)

The Hapsburg Disaster

Most — I suspect all — cultures practice a mix of exogamy and endogamy: marrying outside one group, but within another group.

The culture I grew up in, for example, thought marrying anyone closer than a second cousin was a bad idea. We’d gotten used to the Irish by then, and were getting around to repealing anti-miscegenation laws.

Can’t say that I miss the ‘good old days.’

Then there were the Habsburgs. They were an up-and-coming aristocratic family a thousand years back.

Somewhere along the line they started marrying their first cousins, or having an uncle marry a niece. On the ‘up’ side, they kept outsiders from getting control of Habsburg holdings.

On the ‘down’ side, all that inbreeding gave recessive genes a chance at self-expression — which may help explain why Charles II of Spain earned the nickname el Hechizado, the Bewitched.

He managed to not die for nearly 39 years; despite an impressive collection of physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities.

He was the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs. Descendants of the family’s Austrian branch are still around: Otto von Habsburg had seven children, 22 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren by the time he died in 2011.

1. English Bulldogs: Pedigree and Survival

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“English Bulldogs are loving family dogs. But as a breed they suffer from health problems”
(BBC News))

English Bulldog health problems prompt cross-breeding call
Paul Rincon, BBC News (July 29, 2016)

Crossing the English Bulldog with another breed is the best way to ensure its survival, scientists have argued.

“Due to centuries of selective breeding for physical traits, the Bulldog has become so inbred it cannot be returned to health without an infusion of new bloodlines, a genetic study suggests.

“The US researchers say the Olde English Bulldogge, a related breed from America, is a viable candidate….”

Don’t let the name fool you. The “Olde English Bulldogge” is the Leavitt Bulldog, and didn’t exist before the 1970s.

David Leavitt crossed English and American Bulldogs to get a breed that looks like the 1820s version, with the currently-preferred friendly temperament.

That’s a good thing, at least for folks who want to keep the British mascot around.

Predictably, some folks don’t like the notion of polluting the bloodline — and others are a tad more interested in keeping the breed alive.

“…Breeders differ widely on what should be done to tackle the illnesses. Some argue that any deviation from the breed’s standards would no longer make it an English Bulldog.

“Others argue that the English Bulldog has constantly evolved over the centuries and favour the introduction of new genetic material, known as outcrossing….”
(Paul Rincon, BBC News)

My attitude comes partly from knowing my family history. One of my ancestors, asked about the family connections of an unsuitable person who was sniffing around her daughter, replied “he doesn’t have family, he’s Irish.”

The kids got married anyway, which eventually resulted in my father, who married a five-foot-nothing black-haired Norwegian.

I married a Dutch-German-English-Swiss-whatever woman, so by now we’re close to reverse-engineering the Celts, and that’s another topic.

Bulldogs, Brexit, and the Munchkin Cat

Bulldogs go back at least five centuries, when they were called Bondogges or Bolddogges. Today’s Bulldogs wouldn’t be much good for bull-baiting; which doesn’t matter, at least in England, since it’s been illegal since the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 passed.

New York Province’s first English Governor used Bulldogs for a more practical job: a citywide roundup of wild bulls. The dogs were trained to hold a bull’s nose long enough for humans to get a rope around the critter’s neck.

Today’s English Bulldogs aren’t quite in the Spanish Hapsburg’s position: but they’re getting there. They couldn’t get an effective grip on a bull’s nose with those excessively-short jaws — which doesn’t matter any more.

But that short snout, broad-based tongue, and oversize palate, makes it hard for them to cool off, which can be a problem. Chondrodysplasia, a cartilage disorder that interferes with bone growth, is part of the English Bulldog’s heritage, too.

My personal preference in dogs, cats, and pets in general, is for those whose ancestry is like mine: mixed. That said, I understand that some folks are passionately dedicated to the purity of their pet Pug‘s pedigree. Or Bulldog’s, in this case.

I’ve met a few Bulldogs, like their combination of tough looks and laid-back attitude, and hope that the breed’s handlers decide that fixing its health problems is more important than strict adherence to a 20th-century look.

“…The feelings of individual English bulldog breeders about the health of their breed and what if anything should be done about it may ultimately be taken out of their hands. English bulldog breeders across the world must take seriously constitutional amendments on the rights of animals. The European Union has recently updated their rules on animal welfare in 2015.21 Although it was written specifically for farm animals; it holds that ‘animals’ have rights of ‘freedom from discomfort’ and ‘freedom from pain, injury and disease.’…”
(“A genetic assessment of the English bulldog” (2016))

That was written before Brexit passed, in June of this year. Whatever the legal issues are now, the practical one of keeping the breed alive is still in play.

Researching this post, I ran into dachshunds and Munchkin cats. As far as I know, nobody’s up in arms because low-slung dachshunds get more than their share of back problems. The Munchkin cat is another matter.

The Fédération Internationale Féline won’t recognize the breed, and says that the critters have a “genetic disease.” The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy says they’ve got “abnormal structure or development.”

That’s technically accurate, on both counts, but their short legs don’t seem to bother Munchkin cats. I didn’t dig into why they don’t balk at cats like the Sphynx, and that’s yet another topic.


2. Mutant Mice and Transgenics

(From SPL (Science Photo Library), via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Mutant mice become ‘super sniffers’
Helen Briggs, BBC News (July 8, 2016)

US scientists have mutated mice to turn them into ‘super sniffers’.

“The aim is to create a new generation of rodents that can sniff out drugs or explosives, with the scientists saying the experiment is a proof of concept.

“In the future, rats, mice, and perhaps dogs, could be genetically altered to track down certain scents, they report in the scientific journal Cell Reports….”

Mice already seem to be pretty good sniffers. They’ve got 1,035 protein-coding olfactory receptor genes, while we get by with only 387 — many of which we share with mice, which is why this research should help us understand how we smell.

Life is very modular on the sub-cellular level, so scientists can plug human ‘sniffer’ genes into the new MouSensor tech.

Since we’re not in the Animaniacs world, I don’t fear mousy plots to take over the world.

I do, however, need to think about the ethics of mixing human and non-human genetic coding.

Taking a line through movies like The Fly, Island of Lost Souls (1932 film), and The Island of Dr. Moreau, I could assume that MouSensor will inevitably lead to pain, death, and perturbed puma-women.

Since I’m a Catholic, I looked at recent discussions of bioethics and transgenics — specifically, putting human genes in non-human animals. Since the mice involved in this case will still be unequivocally mice, my main concerns will be for their welfare.2


3. A Rat-Powered Robotic Ray

(From Harvard, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Artificial stingray is ‘living robot’
Wilko Duprez, BBC News (July 8, 2016)

Scientists have designed a robotic stingray that could help our understanding of the human heart.

“The miniature robot, one-tenth the scale of the actual fish, moves using heart cells taken from a rat.

“Researchers hope the robotic ray will give new insight into the heart’s ability to pump blood and its potential implications in heart disease….

“The research is published in the journal, Science….

“…’It turns out the musculature in the stingray has to do the same thing as the heart does: it has to move fluids,’ said lead researcher, Prof Kevin Kit Parker of Harvard University, US.

The scientists reverse-engineered the marine animal to understand how it glides in liquid environments.

They then built a robotic prototype, which contains a gold skeleton and a single layer of 200,000 cardiac cells wrapped in a gel-like material similar to the gel used for breast implants….”

The robotic ray is tiny: 16 millimeters, about 5/8ths of an inch, long; takes an hour to move 9 meters, 29½ feet; and is not particularly maneuverable.

It’s not smart, either. Instead of a nervous system, scientists added an optogenetic molecular switch to the muscles. Shining a blue light makes it go, changing the light’s frequency slows it or speeds it up, more light on one side or the other makes it turn.

What they’ve got so far is a prototype that’s not so much remarkable for what it can do, as the fact that it works at all.

Studying it, and more advanced biological robots like it, may help scientists understand how our hearts work — and maybe grow replacement hearts, instead of waiting for a donor.


“…Parker regards his team’s miniature ray robot as a piece of art as well as technology: ‘Everyone is going to see something different’ in it, he says. ‘I’m looking at it and I’m trying to understand the heart—and impress my 7-year-old daughter.’ ”
(Elizabeth Pennisi, Science)


More of my take on life, tech, and being human:

1 From “Prospects for Xenotransplantation – Scientific Aspects and Ethical Considerations;” Part Two – Anthropological and Ethical Aspects, Preliminary issues; Pontifical Academy for Life (September 29, 2001)

2 Since the modified mice are still, basically, mice, my ethical concerns involve the critters; and possible environmental impacts:

  1. Concern for the well-being of genetically modified animals should be guaranteed so that the effect of the transgene’s expression, possible modification of the anatomical, physiological and/or behavioural aspects of the animal may be assessed, all the while limiting the levels of stress and pain, suffering and anxiety experienced by the animal
  2. The effects on the offspring and possible repercussions for the environment should be considered
  3. Such animals should be kept under tight control and should not be released into the general environment
  4. The number of animals used in experiments should be kept to a bare minimum
  5. The removal of organs and/or tissues must take place during a single surgical operation
  6. Every experimental protocol on animals must be evaluated by a competent ethics committee
    (Source: “Prospects for Xenotransplantation – Scientific Aspects and Ethical Considerations;”Bioethical Issues, 15 (Pontifical Academy for Life (September 29, 2001))


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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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10 Responses to Bulldogs, Transgenics, and a Robot

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Missing word: “Descendants of family’s Austrian branch are still around:”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

  2. 🙂 Oops. Right you are! Fixed, and thanks!

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