I missed the deadline for Cause Exploration Prize submissions. However, I am not bothered about the prize, I just want to put forward the case for focussing some attention on the domestication of zebras. Here is the case in a nutshell - other should please feel free to take the ideas and develop them as they wish. 

  • Horses (and similar animals) have been a major source of power for agricultural, industrial and transport uses throughout human history. I focus on transport but similar considerations apply to other uses of horses.
  • In the event of a disaster which made mechanised transport impossible then humans would likely return to the use of horses, especially for transport. Fortunately, there is a reasonably large number of horses and people who know how to train, manage and breed horses (e.g. farms, the British Army).
  • Horses are ill-suited to conditions in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., tsetse fly). In the event of mechanised transport becoming unavailable to humanity as a whole or to sub-Saharan Africa in particular then humans there would not be able to fall back on the horse as an alternative.
  • Zebras, however, have evolved to endure conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. If the zebra were domesticated then its power would be available to people living there. 
  • The domestication of the zebra therefore represents an insurance policy which would mitigate the worst effects of a disaster rendering mechanised transport unavailable in sub-Saharan Africa. The thought process here is similar to the well-known recent suggestion that coal deposits should not be exhausted in order that re-industrialisation can take place if needed: if humanity is returned to pre-industrial conditions then the more resources available to humanity at that time, the better. 
  • The domestication of the zebra is likely nowhere near as difficult as has been widely reported, e.g. in Guns, Germs and Steel. Here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etV8YAnyjcE is a link to a video of a woman confidently riding an evidently tame zebra. (The YouTube channel from which this comes, 4hoovesnstrips, shows more examples.) 
  • This http://messybeast.com/history/working.htm is a link to a set of resources showing the successes that colonial powers and hobbyists had in domesticating zebras in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before mechanised transport became more cost effective than continuing the domestication project. Examples include:
    • Multiple photographs of men and women riding zebras.
    • A photograph of a zebra being ridden by a man while jumping a fence.
    • Excerpts from books written around the turn of the 20th century explaining how to break in zebras. E.g. “Of all asses, the mountain zebra (see Fig. 122) is the most difficult to break; as he is sulky, stupid, and has an almost immovable neck. I have found the Burchell’s zebra, which is more nearly akin to the horse than any other ass, comparatively easy to break.
    • Examples of zebras used for pulling carts or carriages. Some examples are no more than aristocratic japes or publicity stunts, but others include mail coaches and similar commercial enterprises.
    • Zebra hybrids bred in German East Africa used to pull gun carriages.
  • Modern gene-editing techniques are likely to make it even easier to develop tame zebra varieties suitable for human use than the older selective breeding and training techniques. 
  • The domestication of the zebra, so long as presented as beneficial to the animals themselves, is likely to be a reasonably popular project. A large number of people like horses and animals that look like horses. Many 18/19 year olds would be happy to work on a zebra farm in southern Africa in their gap year at their own cost. 
  • Related: bringing back the quaggas would appear to be sensible. There are indications from the material at the link above that quaggas were likely even better candidates for domestication than zebras.





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I am not convinced by this particular proposal, but there is a creativity & genius to it that makes me want to see a list with 100 such ideas.

Thank you. I'm happy to be expanding the universe of ideas for people to work on, and perhaps stimulating some new thoughts too.

Out of interest, what is your objection to the proposal? I think of it as similar to having seedbanks: of course we hope they will never be needed, but if they are needed then people will be very glad we put the work in, and it's not a high cost project.

Out of interest, what is your objection to the proposal?

It is oddly specific. If I was looking at helping people after civilizational collapse, I may end up at something like ALLFED. If I was looking at helping people after global catastrophes in specific regions, I might look at which specific regions are easier to help. If I was looking at helping people after catastrophes in Sub-Saharan Africa, I would look at which catastrophes are more likely to happen there (famines?). And if I was looking at ways to help Sub-Saharan Africa after civilizational collapse, I would make a list and then choose the best one, rather than go to this proposal directly.

I see that point. My take is that it is a low-hanging fruit (it's a fun kind of project that may attract many people who would be put off by something more like a new vaccine) that is likely overlooked because of the reputation that zebras have in the West. But one of my hopes in putting this forward is that someone might take it and run with it, perhaps adding it to something your list of best policies for Sub-Saharan Africa. 

>100 such ideas

here's another with the same vibes


Mine is much less radical than that one! But have you seen the film Downsizing? Highly recommend it. Intelligent (and entertaining) exploration of these issues. I reviewed it here: http://furtheroralternatively.blogspot.com/2018/05/four-film-reviews.html .

Probability that this is useful = Prob(that you can domesticate these zebras) * Prob(that a disaster happens that knocks out humanity's ability to make mechanised vehicles while this set of zebras exists) * Prob(that that disaster doesn't also kill these zebras) * Prob(that the humans find and figure out how to use the zebras) * Prob(that these zebras meaningfully increase industrial progress)

Upvote for creativity

Thank you for your comment. 

My way of looking at it is a little different. I've put comments in square brackets next to your points below. 

Prob(that you can domesticate these zebras) [Agreed. I think this is a high probability.]

* Prob(that a disaster happens that knocks out humanity's ability to make mechanised vehicles while this set of zebras exists)  [Not quite. Perhaps we have mechanised vehicles but they are prohibitively expensive to run. Or we have other calls on our metal resources, e.g. they are needed to deal with some threat from space. Zebras are useful when mechanised transport is not available for any reason. ]

* Prob(that that disaster doesn't also kill these zebras) [I agree the zebras have to survive, but if we are thinking of some loss of industrial capacity then there is little reason to think that zebras would be at risk. Or we can imagine some catastrophe that harms life in the heavily industrialised areas of the world in which horses mostly live: having domesticated zebras would then be big a bonus for humanity. Or imagine a disease that kills horses: again, domesticated zebras would be a bonus.]

* Prob(that the humans find and figure out how to use the zebras) [I am envisaging that people live with these zebras in Africa in the same way they live with horses in Europe and North America. The knowledge of how to tame, train, ride, feed and breed horses is pretty widespread. We would have the same for zebras.] 

* Prob(that these zebras meaningfully increase industrial progress). [No. The point is that they would be used for transport (and other horse use-cases) in the same way that horses were prior to industrialisation. That is a good in itself irrespective of whether it aids industrial progress. Of course transport aids trade and the exchange of ideas so it is likely to help, but I don't put much weight on that.]

The essential point is simply that humankind has found value in having domesticated horses for thousands of years, and the potential of bringing that value to sub-Saharan Africa can be bought at modest cost. 

Setting aside the ethics of animal exploitation for a second

Africa already has Sanga cattle, that are resistant to trypanosomiasis and have been used in subsaharan Africa for thousands of years.

What benefit would zebras have over Sanga cattle?

If it’s just speed ( with cattle being stronger and more useful for most manual labor) , does that really increase efficiency in production, or does it just make them more useful for warfare?

I don't think you can ride cattle.

Also, speed is an advantage in all kinds of communication/communication. E.g. bringing doctors to the scene of an emergency, transporting items with short shelf lives. 

Why zebras rather than donkeys, which are native to Africa and whose population is increasing there? https://thehorse.com/features/beasts-of-burden-africas-working-horses-and-donkeys/

Good question. Couple of thoughts:

(1) Donkeys are already domesticated. More species that can be used = more options.

(2) The donkey was available in the 19/20th centuries and yet people aimed to domesticate zebras then. Various reasons, I suspect: disease resistance, speed, perhaps strength. There have been roles for both donkeys and horses in places that have both.

Expanding our exploitation of animals is a moral step backward.  This does not seem like the kind of project EA people or organizations should be supporting.

Domestication isn't the same as exploitation, as wild animal welfare advocates will attest to. Dogs and cats and horses probably live better lives than all other animals.

I think this is a good point in itself to distinguish domestication from exploitation (and I upvoted it for this), but I think it doesn't necessarily address what the comment about exploitation is pointing at.

I believe that the argument is that any use of animals in an efficient way will lead to industrialization of breeding, farming, etc. and it's hard then to align incentives to make the results net positive for both humans and other species. At least I believe we have an extremely poor track record here.

That's fair but I don't think horses pre-1900 were treated in terrible ways. In particular the incentives for treating farm animals are VERY different from the incentives for treating service animals, whose usefulness depends on their continued health and quality of life.

Some were treated well, some badly pre-1900. But in the near future domesticated zebras would be essentially pets, as horses are today, and would have great lives . They are not needed for work now - we have mechanised transport - but they might be needed in the future.








This is all from wealthy countries

Even in wealthy countries it’s not easy to be a horse, the fact that they, like all domestic animals are legally commodities, mean there interests will not be respected

This is not to mention the ubiquity of spinal alteration in seemingly well cared for horses, or how nearly all horses are ridden before There growth plates fuse



Or the congenital defects , intentional or not, caused by purposefully breeding to maintain breed characteristics

I honestly imagine these zebras being used as beasts of burden in poor countries would tbe treated even worse.

The comparison is between wild animals and animals in captivity. There is reason to think that the latter have better lives overall (the ready supplies of food and protection from predators provided by humans being obvious examples). 

I would consider being sacrificed to gods, being eaten* , and fighting mens wars for them terrible treatment.

  • even after Christians stopped eating horses, It’s not like they were allowed to live a long retirement ones useless
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