Breeding Personality
January 5, 2012 5:41 AM   Subscribe

If personality isn't supposed to be genetic, then how are pet breeds able to be differentiated by personality?

From what I've understood of human cloning, just because you clone a specific person doesn't mean you clone their personality, attitudes, and temperament, since a lot of that comes from environment and upbringing. Does the same thing apply to pets like cats and dogs? I keep hearing about a certain pet being "affectionate" or "social" or whatever, and I'm wondering how you'd breed for such a thing. Is it genetic?
posted by divabat to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is the old nature vs. nurture debate. Some part of personality is genetic, some part is environmental, and the debate will rage on as to which is more important. But certainly, both play a part. You might like this recent post from the blue about twins, as it covers this topic.
posted by molecicco at 5:46 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Who says that aspects of personality aren't genetic? I think it's widely accepted that certain personality characteristics are absolutely genetic. Heck, anyone who has been around kids from birth to adulthood can tell you that certain distinctive personality characteristics are present practically from the moment children emerge from the womb and persist into adulthood.
posted by slkinsey at 5:50 AM on January 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

You'll find this article about the 40 generation domestication of Russian Foxes interesting. They WERE, in fact, able to breed for personality.
posted by HuronBob at 5:54 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One thing to keep in mind is that human beings are less shaped by genetically preprogrammed behaviors (instinct) and rely more heavily on learned behavior than any other animal. That is why a dog or a cat can be raised in isolation from others of their species and still come out seeming essentially cat-like or dog-like in their behaviors. Even they may be somewhat poorly socialized and lacking in certain skills like hunting, they will still be able to communicate with other cats and dogs, cats will still instinctively chase fast-moving objects, dogs will still instinctively follow interesting smells, etc.

A human raised in isolation from other humans will be much more profoundly impaired, because so much more of what it means to be human, in general, and to be a specific human, is acquired through learning and experience rather than genetic preprogramming.
posted by drlith at 5:59 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Dogs and cats are quite a bit less complex than humans when it comes to that. That's why you can also breed dogs to want to herd goats or dig through burrows. While you can breed a human to be a certain color you can't really get near what their brain does. That's more locked-in.

But you breed for it in dogs and cats the same way you breed for anything else. This female dog is happy and outgoing, let's mate her with this male dog who is also happy and outgoing. Their babies are probably also going to be happy and outgoing, unless something terrible happens later on. Just like you could breed dogs to have a really long tail, which the puppies will have until something terrible happens that may damage their tail, etc.
posted by bleep at 6:00 AM on January 5, 2012

Twin studies have shown that many, if not most, aspects of personality have a genetic component.

If you cloned a human, you'd likely get someone with a similar temperment, baring very strong environmental imputs that were not shared; major traumatic events, for example. Even then, the most basic aspects of our personalities are believed to be well in place early in childhood. Given that twin studies have consistently shown a link between genetics and personality, breeding dogs for behaviors is on solid, if not perfectly understood, ground.

From the Wikepedia article on personality and genetics: Most studies on personality genetics rely on twin studies, which compare identical and fraternal twins. Twin studies consistently indicate moderate genetic influence—heritability estimates for most traits are about 40% and are not influenced by the environmental factors shared by twins.[7] The estimated heritabilities for the personality measures were much lower than those obtained in studies of identical and fraternal twins, which suggests that twin studies have exaggerated the degree of genetic variation in personality.
posted by spaltavian at 6:02 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also with noting - AKC-type info about dog breed personalities is mostly fairy tales. Certain dog types are more likely to be this way than that, but even within types there's plenty of variety in innate attributes and the way any given dog has learned to express those attributes.

And as has been noted, dogs have limited ways to express themselves, especially to stoopid humans.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:40 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Dog breeds were developed for specific tasks, which has a strong effect on their personalities. Terriers, for instance, were created to make themselves useful by hunting and killing rodents on their own. An aggressive, independent personality is obviously helpful in rodent-hunting. Retrievers, on the other hand, were created to accompany their owners while they hunted, then make themselves useful by fetching back the felled bird. The retrievers that excel at that generally are dependent and eager to please.

Beyond these broad types of personality traits which are very much predictable by breed, though, much of an individual dog's personality develops in response to significant experiences. A rescued Labrador I once owned had been teased by the little boys in the family that ended up abandoning her. Even several years later, she was unusually submissive, avoided little boys, and was very reluctant to let anyone (even me) touch her tail.
posted by DrGail at 7:58 AM on January 5, 2012

For what it is worth, my two labrador retrievers are totally different in personality. One is outgoing, friendly, and fearless; the other is very shy with humans he doesn't know well and fearful. But they both have typical "lab" characteristics in that they will jump in water at every opportunity, they are pretty impervious to pain and tiredness and cold when there is something they want to do, and they have a strong retrieving drive. I've always assumed they share a breed "baseline" set of genetic traits but that their differences come from a combination of different breeding and different backgrounds.
posted by Cocodrillo at 7:58 AM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: If we look at it from the perspective of natural selection, learning takes time, energy, exposure to the the proper stimulus/ has a certain "cost" that needs to be mostly outweighed by the benefits of learning on the organism. To simplify, animals are all on a spectrum that looks like this:

Instinctive behavior--------------------------------------------------------Learned behavior

Humans are on the far right side of that spectrum, with primarily learned behavior. Dogs, not as much. A fly would be on the far left side of the spectrum.

You might as well ask "if personality isn't genetic, why do flies all act alike?" Different animals, different evolutionary path, different brains, different behavior.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:38 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, to be clear, I don't think this is a stupid question or anything--it's actually a really complex question that touches on a lot of fascinating stuff, including personality psychology which is still in its naissance.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:50 AM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: Another thing that seems to be not quite apparent from the discussion so far: the fact that dog breeds have been segregated for hundreds of years of not more. Human populations are far more heterogeneous than even what we would call a mutt.
posted by Blue_Villain at 9:02 AM on January 5, 2012

It's a interesting question and there is some serious research on canine behavioral genetics (I don't think they're far enough along to have any definitive answers yet, though).

Here's an ongoing program at UCSF: The Canine Behavioral Genetics Program. They ask dog-owners in the general public to send samples from pets who meet certain behavioral criteria.

In 1995 I saw a delightful talk at the Exploratorium by Jasper Rine, a geneticist at UC Berkeley who described his work on canine genetics and behavior. He doesn't seem to be working on this any more, but maybe the program at UCSF descended from it.
posted by Quietgal at 9:50 AM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: In domestic animals, people are/have been making choices about particular traits that make that animal useful in a specific environment (Arabian horse were bred for centuries to respond to distant movement across the landscape and alert the rider; when people buy them as first horses for their kids they get a reputation as "flighty" or "crazy"). Draft horses were bred to be around machinery, kids, chickens, whatever, and not bat an eye. You wouldn't make a breeding individual of an animal that did not have the desired traits for the job it was intended for; the animals aren't just allowed to breed willy-nilly and see what happens.

No one has been selecting humans for particular traits for umpteen generations, nor are the expectations of human behaviour the same as domesticated animals.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:32 PM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: I came to say something similar to oneirodynia. When any animal is domesticated, it is bred for certain traits. When you think about it, some traits can be broken down into things that are more easily understood to have strong genetic origins, of which many seem to revolve around fear and aggression. For example, "affectionate" in practice means having low aggression and low fear for starters, and low fear can then allow for increased curiosity, which is a component of socialability, and so on. Fear and aggression are easier to think of in terms of chemical responses than something like "socialability," which in turn makes it easier to see why genetics plays a role in something so nebulous as "personality."

Even in humans, someone predisposed to be aggressive or anxious will be further predisposed to other personality traits as a result. It's just more pronounced with animals because we breed them for specific traits and aptitudes for specific tasks and environments. You can still get the opposite trait if you raise them differently because experiences can teach an animal to be meek instead of aggressive, or that rewards come from being affectionate instead of anxious. When someone says a certain breed of animal is some way, it's really just a statement of how they tend to be. For example, I have a Congo African Grey parrot and people usually say they are anxious and not cuddly; however, mine is anxious but VERY cuddly around me, and fairly cuddly around my husband. Amazon parrots have a reputation for being mean, but tons of people raised theirs such that they are friendly, etc. Many birds and mammals can be very affectionate if you get ahold of them young enough, regardless of what their genetic tendencies may be. (I can't speak to other animals.) But at the same time, in species particularly disposed toward aggression it may be difficult or impossible with certain individuals. For example, tigers are enough of a hunter naturally that some aggression may remain no matter what, while some big cat trainers do manage to get some individual big cats to be cuddly with them.

If you're thinking to get a cat, dog, or bird, I would say the odds are good you could raise them to be cuddly as long as you put in some introspection for your own behavior and how it influences them, and it would just be easier with some breeds than others. But the genetic influence is there.
posted by Nattie at 4:31 PM on January 5, 2012

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