Keeping Cats Dumb While Mice Get Smarter

By Bill Hall

I am concerned as the keeper of cats that scientists now report they have genetically engineered smarter mice. They have done so without sufficient attention to the consequences that poses for the traditional balance of power.

It doesn't seem fair that one of two species in an adversarial relationship would be upgraded without doing the same for the other. The consequences in the animal world could be chaotic. Making mice smarter while leaving cats dumb is a scientific act as irresponsible as it would be to make fishermen smarter than fish.

Goodbye fish.

Granted, the moral questions are not quite the same if you make the fish smarter than fishermen. As a general rule, it is anglers who kill fish not fish who kill anglers. And of course, it is cats who kill mice and not mice who kill cats (perhaps until now).

But whether you are a creationist who believes these arrangements were made in six days or an evolutionist who believes they came into being over eons of time, you still have to concede that there is a balance of Nature threatened here. Without cats, mice would overrun the Earth. Without mice, cats could starve to death.

If the mice overrun the Earth, they are going to eat your dinner and mine. We will all starve to death.

However, once the mouse population rises to ridiculous levels, Nature will roll in a few mouse epidemics and kill enough of the fuzzy little rats to pare their population back to where it belongs.

So they're going to die one way or the other. The only question is whether it is the conventional cat-dinner way or by some extraordinary new epidemic created indirectly by wanton scientists who have genetically engineered a smarter mouse. Would that we could engineer a smarter scientist while we are at it.

The beauty of the old arrangement is that cats and mice were mentally in balance. Neither one was truly smart. But they were dumb in different ways. That maintained the balance.

I once witnessed a remarkable demonstration of that fact. A cat of ours was doing the usual cruel and inept job of eating a mouse. It was "playing" with the live creature out in the lawn. Actually, a cat in that outwardly vicious phase of its natural impulses is honing its skills by getting in a little extra hunting practice with the mouse prior to getting on with dinner.

But cats don't have great eyesight, no matter what the myths. They're color-blind beyond a short distance. And so if something isn't moving, they can't find it in all that gray. The next thing you know, that mouse had wandered back behind the cat. The cat was sitting there with a puzzled look on its face, looking this way and that for the missing mouse. And the cat was too stupid to turn around.

However, the mouse was too stupid to sneak away while the cat's back was turned. It was just sitting there in the grass, kind of forgetting that that large hairy thing right there was a mortal enemy.

At that point, our cat stood up for a moment and then sat back down -- directly on the mouse. Apparently the mouse sat still, finally recognizing that there was a cat near and that its large bottom was mashing the mouse into the turf.

The cat, not noticing that its bottom seemed warmer than usual, finally stood up, sighed and wandered off.

The mouse continued to sit there mashed down in the grass, not noticing that it no longer had a cat on its head.

Granted, that is a creature in need of a brain transplant or a genetic upgrade or some such improvement. But the same is true of the cat.

Indeed, the same is true of many creatures if pure intelligence is a total virtue and there is not some use for simpler minds as well. We can't all be Einstein. And this world wouldn't work if we could. Somebody has to do the simple tasks in life. If all brains were upgraded, who would do the mouse jobs? Who would do the cat jobs? Who would serve in the U.S. House of Representatives?

Genetic engineering is scary enough without tilting the brain scale too far in favor of one competitor or the other. If you make mice smarter than cats, it can be only a matter of time before you make dog owners as smart as dogs. And when that day comes, what a different world this will be.



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