What Happens When An Artist Thinks Like a Scientist? Better Chicken

The chicken you eat comes from birds that only live for 5 years and are susceptible to disease and inbreeding. Thank goodness Koen Vanmechelen bred a better one.

Sometimes it takes an artist to show scientists what they’ve been missing.

Koen Vanmechelen is that artist. For the last 20 years he’s bred his own chickens as part of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP). That might seem strange to you and me, but not to Koen. He mixes DNA the way other artists mix colors, and uses his chickens to demonstrate cultural and genetic diversity. Besides, chickens are one of the most common animals on the planet. There are 65 million of them. They produce 60 million tons of eggs that we use for everything from food to medicine production. That makes chickens “the most important animal in the world,” to Koen, as he told me over Skype. They never fail to surprise him: “Chickens are like a mirror for human culture,” he said. And he’s right.

That’s also why they’re in so many historical paintings. Wall painting at the Boulevard Saint Laurent, Montreal, Quebec Province, Canada, North America. Credit: Guenther Schwermer/GettyImages

Like humans, chickens are descended from a single species. The ancestor of the vast majority of the world’s chickens is the Red Junglefowl, which lives at the foot of the Himalayan mountains. From that one chicken came hundreds of different kinds, each uniquely adapted to their local environments and “reflecting the cultural characteristics of their regions and communities,” as the CCP site puts it. It’s a beautiful example of diversity.

But there’s a dark side to that much localization: genetic inbreeding, which we also see in humans. Over time, gene pools within highly localized, isolated communities become too narrow to sustain, rendering the population infertile. “Diversity is at the root of health,” geneticist Olivier Hanotte explained to me over Skype. “Genetically speaking, we know it’s bad to be inbred.” Particularly when chickens have been bred based on their productivity and efficiency.

In order to counter that effect and reverse the cycle of genetic erosion, Koen crossbred chickens from different countries to increase their genetic diversity and resilience to disease. He chose a different breed every year to demonstrate that “if we find combinations, then we make evolution,” as he told me.

He’s right about that, too.

CCP Genetic Tree.jpg

The genetic crossbreeds of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. Credit: CCP

Each successive generation of chickens was more resilient than its parents. “The chickens lived longer, were less susceptible to disease, and exhibited less aggressive behavior,” the CCP site reports. “Chickens from industry have 4 million bits of genetic code,” Koen told me “My chickens have 40 million. In my 19th generation chickens, the fertility tripled from 30-90%. Their [genetic] diversity increased enormously.” He admitted that the chickens’ “immunity is difficult to prove” but their lifespans have also increased: “now my chickens live for 15 instead of 5 years.”

All of those benefits have been backed up scientifically. “Using SNP genotyping and whole genome sequencing, it has been proven that the CCP shows significantly higher diversity compared to purebred chicken and remarkable increased potential for gene transcription and expression,” the CCP site reports.

Encouraging as that is, that genetic diversity hasn’t been tested in the real world -- and that’s where Olivier comes in. Olivier found Koen via a Google search and was immediately intrigued by him and his project. “Koen is thinking as a scientist,” he told me. “He wanted to reconstruct the entire diversity of domestic diversity. Despite his training, he is actually thinking as a scientist. As an artist, he can actually do things that we can only imagine as scientists.” Koen agreed with that. “I think it’s very natural to work together in this way,” he told me about collaborating with a scientist. "For me, that's art. For the first time in history, we are able to have access to all kinds of different people. If we have to generate new knowledge, we have to make this combination.”

The two are teaming up this year for the Planetary Community Chicken (PCC) project, which will bring Koen’s genetically superior chickens to different communities and test their immunity and biological sustainability in real-world conditions. “The introduction of a new ‘global gene’ to the local flocks breaks the cycle of genetic erosion that can result from local inbreeding and industrial mono-cultural production,” the CCP site explains. “The desired outcome is to breed a stronger chicken that lives longer, and that, as a result, could offer longer-term economic and social stability to farmers.”

super chicken 2.jpg

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“Compared to other chickens adapted to single local area, it is quite possible his population of chicken can adapt to a very large diversity of environment,” Olivier told me. “Commercial chickens will never survive in the real world. They die rapidly. Koen's population will be hardy, but not breed so quickly. [Right now, the] crossbreeding that farmers do is breed local with commercial, [but Koen’s chickens] will produce more and continue to survive. That's the step Koen wants to move to.”

Koen is hoping to test with Olivier at his research site in Ethiopia by the end of the year. He’s also planning to bring the PCC to Zimbabwe, Siberia, Belgium, Cape Town, and Detroit -- which is where he’s at right now. He’s displaying his 20th generation crossbreed at Detroit’s Wasserman Projects until the end of the year. He’ll be crossing his 19th generation Mechelse Cemani chicken with the American Wyandotte, a chicken named for a Native American tribe local to the Great Lakes near Michigan. That’ll produce the 20th generation Mechelse Wyandotte -- which, since it carries DNA from 20 different breeds, will grant it the biggest DNA pool of any chicken on the planet.

Koen’s excited to see what will happen. “I want people to understand that life only exists because the other senses that you exist,” he told me. “Together we can reach a completely other goal than to just be on your own.” Olivier is excited, too. “There is a mystery in chicken,” he told me. “The more we explore the chicken the more we discover, and the more we discover we know extremely little about it. Koen's work is helping to understand this mystery. But I think it is just the beginning.”

Check out the mystery for yourself at Detroit’s Wasserman Projects from September 22 to December 17. You’ll never see chickens the same way again.

Credit: Wasserman Projects/YouTube

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

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