Wednesday 12 December 2007

You can take the fear out of the mouse but you can't take the mouse out of the cat's mouth

Very interesting video clip in an article from this morning's Guardian. Scientists in Japan have created a genetically modified mouse which has no fear of cats. They have eliminated the gene that recognises the smell of a cat as a source of danger, and thus something to be feared. So this piece is reported with a quite endearing little snippet of video of a curious mouse investigating this landscape of fur that really ought to send it shuddering to the nearest hole in the wall or deep deep behind the telly, and instead it goes running through the cat's legs, getting sat on by the cat, generally being very friendly and interested in the cat. Watch it, you'll probably enjoy it.

The cat, for her part, though the piece insists she has not been genetically modified to be friendly to mice, is preternaturally accommodating and courteous to the mouse, and it doesn't seem like the usual cat pretext of mouse-wooing prior to one of the slowest painfullest kills known to the animal kingdom (have you ever actually WATCHED the play of a cat and mouse as they dance their dance of death?). The cat in this clip, if anything, seems slightly concerned and embarrassed by the antics of her small sleek friend, electing to look tactfully away when the mouse gets particularly close and personal and probably provocative, because she's just not that sort of cat.

And then the confident, happy scientist shows up at the end to show us the unfortunate place that science and humanities can sometimes go when one of them takes the other roughly by the ears and makes it do something it doesn't really want to: he says, we can now genetically engineer other creatures in the animal kingdom to have no fear of their natural enemies. Punchline. Ba boom.

Well, congratulations. You've learned how to fast track the natural world to extinction. Things have NATURAL enemies for a reason. We eat each other in the natural world. That's just how things work. And that's why the mouse has an innate fear attached to the smell of the cat, because his ancestors have passed down that response as a common-sense gesture, to keep him safe, alive, to keep the mouse species on the planet. However, I have connections in cat circles who would be very keen to hear this kind of news.

I feel there is some kind of a super-sinister subtext in this little piece of scientific wizardry. Can you hear in the notion of genetically eliminating natural fear responses in "animals" , the suggestion that perhaps we can genetically modify ourselves, each other, or indeed, just herd up our enemies, once we've conquered them, and genetically modify them from their natural antipathy, to like us instead? Well now. This sounds like a VERY interesting potential solution to the thorny issues of terrorism, for instance. At any rate, that lab is sure to be given a few quid in sponsorship, to get a lot more adventurous.

But ultimately I suppose what I find most depressing is the implicit dilettantism in matters of elemental forces. There are different kinds of fear, and by far the most prevalent one on this planet is the natural kind, the kind of fear that is really a signpost for common sense and deep intuition; the fear that the healthy mouse experiences at the smell of the cat, the kind of animal fear that is also innate in humans, that gets triggered in situations that the human senses are dangerous or predatory. This is really common sense at work in its strongest physical expression. It's the death of naivete, it's evolution in motion, it's the natural world at work. Get rid of this stuff and the natural world won't know its arse from its elbow.

And then there are the kinds of fear that aren't based on the needs, tendencies and feeding appetites of the natural world. This kind of fear exists solely in the human realm. And it manifests in behavioural tics, that become encoded and enshrined in culture, becoming norms by consensus and wide practise. This is not the kind of fear that you can genetically modify out, quite so easily. And for the most part, it is totally and utterly useless. If anything, it inhibits life.

The video probably wouldn't have looked so cute with a normal cat, who would have dispatched the mouse with glee, of course. "We can make mice who get along with cats", says the scientist. Sweet. But can we make cats who get along with mice (without eating them)? Notice that it isn't the cat who is being genetically modified out of her predatory nature.

How far could this idea go? How about applying it to consumer markets, for instance? Genetically modify the herds of consumers as they are marketed to? This is also a cat and mouse game, a game of predator and prey. Marketing and advertising strategies have become incredibly sophisticated when you contrast them with the clunky ad strategies over the past fifty years, for instance, and the fact that marketing didn't even exist as a concept until relatively recently. But it's still a cat and mouse game, and the space left for its evolution is increasingly slight. It's the law of diminishing returns. Why keep mining that tiny tiny space that is the battleground of persuasion politics, when all you have to do is find a very pleasant, painless way to eliminate all resistance in the market altogether?

So here's my guess about how this kind of genetic interference is likely to impact on nature: the mouse is returned to a state of naivete, doesn't recognise the inherent danger in the cat, goes up to schmooze and make friends, cat goes hurrah, and begins the torture process, and how does the mouse respond at that point? My guess it would take at most a couple of generations for the mouse - returned to any natural environment even with this genetic modification- to spring back to its natural state again.

But this is the dynamic balance of the natural world that is being fucked with. My point is that once you start messing with one part of this dynamic balance, the whole thing gets thrown out of whack in ways that are probably exponential in proportion to the original interference. Just like the disappearing polar ice shelf, though let's keep our epic planetary themes to one at a time, today.

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