What does Brave New World have in Common with…the Sport of Polo?
Okay, so I just brought up two things that absolutely do not go together:
The sport of polo
And Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World.
So, what the heck is the connection here?
So, here we go. First of all, understand that polo is an extremely demanding sport. It’s demanding on the riders…and the ponies. Note the bandages on the legs in the picture above: Those are to prevent ponies being injured if a player messes up and hits them with a mallet.
A polo match lasts one to two hours. You can’t expect horses to run flat out and make tight turns for one to two hours. Humans have much more stamina.
Thus, the match is divided into six seven and a half minute periods, known as chukkers or chukkas. Players switch ponies between chukkas. (Side terminology note: Polo horses are always ponies, regardless of their breed or size. Small Thoroughbreds are very popular).
This means that each player has to bring six ponies to the match. A team also brings a couple of spares, in case a pony is injured or proves to be sore. Now, I ride.
Changing horses on the fly is not easy. Each pony has a different attitude, temperament, stride length. Players are, of course, familiar with their ponies, but you still have to make that quick adjustment at the start of each chukker.
Enter Adolfo Cambioso, one of the best players in the world. In 2016 he showed up to a match with six horses named Cuartetera 01 through 06. A high profile match.
Basically, he cloned a mare named Cuartetera six times, making a batch of six horses that are genetically identical. (Clones may have different mtDNA and I’m unable to establish whether he also used the same egg donor, which would have made them completely identical).
Then he raised and trained the six fillies (polo players almost entirely use mares) the same way. Same food. Same training. If you follow the link you’ll note they have slightly different face and leg markings. This is because while the presence of face and leg markings in horses is genetic, their extent is partially determined by uterine environment. But otherwise…
Cambioso made himself a batch of horses that were as identical as possible in temperament, size, and way of going.
And his team, of course, won. By using nearly identical horses, he cut down or even out the small period of adjustment at the end of each chukka.
Polo has embraced cloned horses, and Cambioso is not the last to make a “clone batch” with which to play a game.
Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons
So, now you see where I’m going. In Brave New World, the lower castes are made in huge clone batches, although the “original” here is one of the batch. And the dystopian horror is the way these batches are, yes…
…raised, trained, and fed exactly the same way.
The book is full of disturbing images of 70, 80, 100 clones running factories.
Do Cambio’s polo ponies, themselves relatively benign, show a proof of concept of this?
Thankfully, I think we can stand reassured for two reasons:
- Humans are a lot more complicated than horses. While I think human cloning is entirely possible and will eventually be worked out, human personalities have much more variety to them. Hang out with horse people long enough and you will soon hear about how X horse rides just like Y horse, how horses fit into distinct types. Humans have personality types too, but do you really know two people who are the same? Furthermore, we have lots of batches of two clones out there being raised, fed, and taught the same way. Hands up anyone who has ever met a pair of twins that actually turned out the same with the same attributes? Didn’t think so. (And if you are a twin, you can speak to it even more).
- We already have 80 or 100 identical factory workers. They’re called “robots.” When Huxley was writing in 1932, R.U.R. had been out for 12 years and thus the word “robot” was in parlance in that context. But we didn’t have factory robots yet, and the robots of R.U.R. were, in any case, organic and alchemical rather than mechanical. There’s no reason any society would ever feel the need to breed humans in large batches to run factories.
Ah, but what about smaller teams. What about, say, a batch of clones that become a platoon? Star Wars did it, after all…
Hey, military types, does a good platoon have all the same attributes and abilities? No! While a clone batch might work very well together, they would lack the adaptability needed to be effective as a group of soldiers in modern warfare.
Maybe somebody will do it as an experiment, but I don’t think we need to worry that polo teams will somehow lead to Brave New World.
But it is quite intriguing to see it done with animals.