Over at the blog Social Evolution Forum, University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin recently posted a two part discussion on the cultural evolution of pants.
In part one of his post, he makes the central argument that the reason men in switched to wearing pants, as opposed to the prevailing trends of togas, skirts, or kilts, was because of horses. He notes that thousands years ago, none of the prevailing civilizations (notably the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and Egyptians) wore pants. Rather it was the horse riding barbarians that wore pants. In the second part of his post, he continues to cite examples of pants wearing cavaliers throughout Asia and North American. This story was picked up by Slate and The Atlantic, with latter ending their coverage of the story with the rather poignant note that,
What all these examples suggest is that technological systems — cavalry, bicycling — sometimes require massive alterations in a society’s culture before they can truly become functional. And once it’s locked in, the cultural solution (pants) to an era’s big problem can be more durable than the activity (horse-mounted combat) that prompted it.
This shows that cultural norms are difficult to break, but once they are broken, they are more likely to stick around. Which brings about an interesting story related to horses. Turns out that following the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) Bureau’s spring meeting this June in Lausanne, Switzerland, the FEI announced that it “will not forbid participation of clones or their progenies” in international competitions.
The response to this announcement has lead many to believe that there will be an increase in gene-banking championship horse samples. While this may be a viable option, cloning a horse is an expensive process. According to Horse & Hound (yes that exists), there are two big companies that offer horse cloning, ViaTech in Texas, and Cryozootech in Sonchamp, France. Both companies welcome the news, but said that rather than producing copies of the world’s top horses, cloning’s real value is from allowing the genes of top horses that have died or been gelded to be available once more. The Chronicle of the Horse (again, this is an actual thing), note that currently no cloned horses competing, but several clones are on their way. And recently, Eurodressage announced that two clones of the Grand Prix dressage stallion Jazz were recently born in the United States, and may well likely be competing in the near future.
The cloning of horses for sport is not entirely new, in 2003 thoroughbreds began to be cloned and in 2006 show jumping horses were being cloned, and in 2011 polo horses started to be cloned (what took so long!). Estimates place genetics as accounting for 30% of the animal’s performance, so duplicating a champion horse doesn’t guarantee the result will be a champion horse as well. Will the acceptance of cloned horses in sporting events lead to the widespread adoption of cloned animals (and maybe one day humans) in sporting events and indeed daily life, just as pants were eventually adopted as the cultural norm? What a brave new world we live in, wherein we can even contemplate these questions.