Virtual Immortality

Chromosomes getting pulled apart.

In a lecture titled Some Practical Problems of Immortality, game developer Ernest Adams tackles the issues of dealing with the notions of immortality we get from fiction.

He designates “Virtual Immortality” as:

By virtual immortality I mean those things that we tell ourselves to comfort us when faced with the prospect of our own deaths.

One type of virtual immortality is immortality through children. People who have children are often comforted by the fact that they’ve passed their genes on, that there will be someone who will remember them after they die.

The other type of virtual immortality is immortality through fame, through having done something that causes people to remember you.

The culture of dog breed is rife with both concepts. I suspect that breeders who inbreed to set a look that is so distinctive as to be a signature have a healthy dose of arrogance which puts ego before the dogs.

So too are the “show mills” and owners of the winning trial dogs who are severely over-bred. They do this for ego, not for the good of the breed. No one with the breed in mind would behave this way.

Jock Richardson didn’t have a crisis of conscience after he cashed the 10th check for studding out Wiston Cap and he didn’t quit after the 100th check. He cashed over 388 such checks and Wiston Cap sired over 1,900 registered puppies. I assume that the only thing that stopped Wiston Cap from impregnating as many bitches as possible year round until his death was probably a venereal disease that made him sterile. At some point nature says ENOUGH long before human-kind figures this out. His progeny stopped abruptly several years before his death.

Wiston Cap wasn’t in the dark ages, he lived in the 1970s and his owner died only 10 years ago. Would we praise a repeat performance today or would we condemn it?

No one owns “the breed” and altruism doesn’t exist, so individual ego, self aggrandizement, and desire for immortality through fame trumps the greater good. People whose greatest accomplishment in life is in their dogs do exist and asking them to take their last bow before they have to be dragged kicking and screaming, or in most cases whimpering, from the spotlight, is unseemly. We don’t criticize these people, we put their dogs on our logos and name awards after them. We give them glowing obituaries and make sure that any mention of the breed includes at least one or two homages to their dog. Everyone seems to know that Wiston Cap carried the gene for a red coat color, but no one seems to know that he also carried CEA.

This allowance for fame isn’t unique to the dog world. No one told Elvis or Madonna or Cher to shut the !@$% up and free up the airwaves for someone else. Instead we keep these geriatrics alive by indulging their countless reinventions, plastic surgery binges, and discounting the evidence of their actual death. Cher, I’m looking at you.

In sports we’ve humored the endless extension of Brett Favre’s career until he tried to prove his youth and hipster status by sexting pictures of his junk to a cheerleader.

In politics, we’ve watched Fidel Castro preside over Cuba while we in the US have seen fit to try on Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama for size.

We hear incessantly that “dogs are not children,” but we see the same vicarious immortality seeking behavior from breeders that we do from parents. “My lines” is code for “my family” and it’s clear that big breeders of all sorts are seeking to enshrine their kennel name in the breed.

Ironically in dogs, breeders who seek to permanently leave their mark on the breed more often hasten the breed’s demise than contribute to its “immortality.”

If breeders really wanted to lengthen the life of the breed, they’d behave in a manner which protects genetic diversity.  But this is hard to do. But unlike inbreeding which enshrines a half-dog worth of genes in the breed, preserving diversity can also be seen as establishing a practical immortality.  What is closer to immortality, having a bunch of half-versions running around or having your entire genome preserved across several offspring?

What would it take to achieve this practical immortality?  For purpose of this exercise let’s define practical immortality as the quality of having so many children that 99.9% of your DNA is collectively preserved among them such that some future scientist could reconstruct a near clone of you from your DNA as it is preserved in your children.  Not 99.9% in any one child, but a distributed copy.

How many children would you need to have to expect 99.9% retention of your DNA?

One child holds 50% of each parent, so if you only have one offspring, there’s 50% of your DNA out in the wild that could be used to reconstruct you.  Now before you say that all you need is one more child to make 50% into 100%, remember that this would require the one in a bazillion chance that the two siblings would actually share no DNA.  On average, siblings are 50% related so each new sibling only gives us half of what we’re still missing and the other half is likely repeated genes that we already have.

So, after capturing 50% in one child, we’d expect another 25% from a second child and another 12.5% in a third child. This quickly converges to over 90%, but capturing that last bit is hard. It takes 10 breeding offspring to capture 99.9% of the parent’s DNA.

 Luckily, the tens of thousands of genes we have get mixed and passed on in a somewhat chunky manner, grouped together instead of perfectly and individually shuffled every time.  That’s why certain traits become “linked,” even though they are different genes.  If they are close together on the chromosome, they often travel together.  This chunky mixing means that we’ll theoretically reach 100% which the mathematical model never does.

The lesson here is that preserving genetic diversity is hard.  It requires a breeding ethic in which you don’t only select just one offspring from a parent to carry on the legacy.  This isn’t hard for males, but few females have more than one significant offspring.   Popular sires have no problem creating multiple distributed copies of themselves in the gene pool, but it’s a rare female who has 10 registered children who all have sustained lines.

We don’t have to breed 10 puppies from each litter though, as long as we have breed a diversity of puppies in the past.  If a sire and dam both came from litters where just a few of their brothers and sisters were bred, the genetic diversity from the grandparent dogs will be preserved in those cousin lines and the need to preserve those genes in this litter is greatly diminished.

This is why preserving genetic diversity is a community endeavor.  No single breeder can accomplish this.  No  line of dogs can be a universal outcross.  No one litter can by itself can capture enough of the genome.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.