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Sep 15 2012

A curious bit of frivolity

There’s this game called Minecraft (oh, have you heard of it?) which is a kind of world-builder game — you gather resources like wood and ore and meat, and you craft stuff out of it. I’ve learned something odd about it.

You gather wool from sheep. You can make colored wool with dyes.

Nice revelation: you can dye whole sheep and harvest colored wool from them. That was unexpected: it grows back in the color you dyed it. That’s not physiological!

And then…if you dye a sheep and then breed it to produce more sheep, the color breeds true. Dye two sheep lime green, and you can generate a whole flock of lime green sheep.

I don’t know whether to be appalled or delighted. It opens the door to exploring rules of Lamarckian inheritance, except there doesn’t seem to be any room for any kind of selection or predation or variation in anything that affects survival or reproduction. Someone tell the game makers to get a biologist as a consultant, there are possibilities here!

(I hear I can breed wolves, too, but I haven’t tried it. Do they vary in any interesting ways? Can I select for sheep-eating wolves?)

59 comments

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  1. 1
    JohnnieCanuck

    Watch out for the religious sheep, the ones that are all woolier than thou.

  2. 2
    steve84

    What if you breed a red and blue sheep? Will the offspring be purple or does it follow Mendelian genetics?

    Maybe it’s DNA manipulation like with bioluminescent mice

  3. 3
    Keith Peterson

    We’re talking about a game where magic is reality, and Skeletons and Zombies exist.

  4. 4
    Brain Hertz

    If you breed them in view of bullrushes do they come out striped?

  5. 5
    LykeX

    I would guess purple. I imagine the wools follow the same rules as the dye, for reasons of simplicity.

  6. 6
    Pteryxx

    Last I heard, Minecraft sheep aren’t heterogametic – when you breed two different-colored sheep, such as white to black, the single lamb is either white or black, with greater odds of being the color of the first parent that you ‘activate’ for breeding. (Feeding them wheat makes them adore you; feeding *two* of them wheat makes them adore each other…)

    I don’t know whether this still holds true for *dyed* sheep. However I happen to have a bunch of white sheep and some wool dyes in my Minecraft farm… hmmmmm!

  7. 7
    Valindrius

    Oh dear, if the sheep generated this kind of reaction then I sincerely hope you don’t encounter a Mooshroom.

  8. 8
    joeschoeler

    The colors don’t mix when they breed. The offspring gets the color of one of the parents.

  9. 9
    zekehoskin

    I remember flocks of brightly colored sheep near Montreal, half a century ago. I’m guessing that dying before shearing had advantages, like metabolites binding in a way that ordinary dyes wouldn’t. Since I haven’t seen colored sheep since, my guess is that it was expensive, or maybe it turned out to kill sheep. Breeding true . . . don’t give Monsanto any new ideas.

  10. 10
    ibbica

    We’re talking about a game where magic is reality, and Skeletons and Zombies exist.

    Er, skeletons do exist IRL.

    They don’t typically move without muscles or an external force, but still…

    [/pedantry]

  11. 11
    ibbica

    I’m guessing that dying before shearing had advantages, like metabolites binding in a way that ordinary dyes wouldn’t.

    Nah, just lets farmers ID their sheep. And see them more easily, against snow for example. Sometimes, of course, it’s just for show or fun… But typically, live sheep aren’t dyed more than about 1/4″ into the wool. Better to dye it after shearing and sorting and all that.

  12. 12
    hyperdeath

    Damnit ibbica! I wanted to be the pedantic one.

  13. 13
    ibbica

    Damnit ibbica! I wanted to be the pedantic one.

    PFFT :P

    I only jumped on this one because I’m something of a skeleton fan…

    Actually, anyone here know someone who will prepare and mount skeletons for me? In Canada or the US maybe? Our kitties *should* have quite a ways to go yet, but I’d much rather end up with their skeletons displayed like museum specimens than just let them rot away, or worse, try to have them stuffed or freeze-dried (creepy!).

  14. 14
    John Pieret

    Can I select for sheep-eating wolves?

    Wouldn’t be more interesting to select for wolf eating sheep?

  15. 15
    andrew

    Can I select for sheep-eating wolves?

    I think wolves actually stopped eating sheep when they changed the game code to (mostly) stop sheep from spontaneously generating.

  16. 16
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Oh dear, if the sheep generated this kind of reaction then I sincerely hope you don’t encounter a Mooshroom.

    Or a Creeper.

    But, OTOH, Minecraft does have squid.

  17. 17
    sc_f4cebc21814f034943dbc3c625515aea

    I haven’t played in a while, but back when they introduced wolves into the game, the wild ones (you can tame them) would chase sheep.

  18. 18
    Zeno

    Good to hear you have time for this, PZ!

  19. 19
    No One

    I want sheep with tentacles…

  20. 20
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Someone tell the game makers to get a biologist as a consultant, there are possibilities here!

    Actually, Notch, the original author of the game, has another very ambitious game on the drawing board, 0x10c that he wants to be as accurate as possible as to the science, and welcomes people’s opinion in different fields.

    0x10c will feature an in game computer with its own assembly language.

  21. 21
    IngisKahn

    Wooo, something I know about.

    I’m on the MincreaftCoderPack team, we make tools that let modders view/edit the minecraft source code.

    There are tons of mods that affect they way breeding works, though I doubt they’ve had any input from biologists.

  22. 22
  23. 23
    tbtabby

    I have a grove of trees that I use to harvest wood. I employ artificial selection by cutting down the shortest trees first, so I can get more big trees and thus get more wood overall. I call it Darwin’s Grove.

  24. 24
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @tbtabby:

    Are you talking a Minecraft grove or a meatspace (woodspace? cellulose space?) grove?

    Never played MC, don’t know what it might do in terms of response to selective pressures. But it seemed implausible that you were doing that IRL to any effect that would occur in your lifetime.

  25. 25
    Argle Bargle

    ibbica #10

    We’re talking about a game where magic is reality, and Skeletons and Zombies exist.

    Er, skeletons do exist IRL.

    So do zombies. Ever seen Pat Robertson?

  26. 26
    Ichthyic

    If you breed them in view of bullrushes do they come out striped?

    +1

    first thing that came to my mind.

  27. 27
    Ichthyic

    I call it Darwin’s Grove.

    might be better termed: “Mago’s Grove

    I do believe that is the earliest reference in print to artificial selection in agriculture.

    :)

  28. 28
    Ichthyic

    But it seemed implausible that you were doing that IRL to any effect that would occur in your lifetime.

    well, that isn’t exactly the case.

    you CAN see immediate effects of tree removals due to simply alleviating competition.

    you’ll get your preferred wood trees to maturity faster if you grow them in a monoculture, for example.

    hence why you typically, and unfortunately from a biodiversity perspective, see 3rd growth forests all over the world as monocultures.

  29. 29
    DLC

    now, if you could make biolumenescent sheep. . . it would make it that much easier to fall asleep. . . counting them in the dark.

  30. 30
    otrame

    Anyone remember Sim Life from back before Maxis sold out to EA?

    It had its problems, many of which could easily have been fixed as computers and programming improved, but each individual could be different and those differences were passed on, blended with the differences of the other parent. As it was , left io itself you usually ended up ith only one type of plant and one type of animal because the “sim” part wasn’t sophisticated enough,but it was a fun game to play with and I’ve been sorry they didn’t keep it going.

  31. 31
    timdiaz

    otrame – The Sims actually pass on genetics in interesting ways, especially if you use the editor to give them interesting skin colors.

    I was breeding orcs and elves once, in the Sims 3. :D

  32. 32
    leepicton

    Interestingly enough, when the husbeast and I toured the British Isles, we discovered all the sheep were color coded. It was the equivalent of cattle branding so all sheep could be released onto common grazing areas. It was done with spray paint and there were red circles, brown circles, yellow triangles, blue squares, etc. At first we were much bemused, but after awhile decided it made a lot of sense.

  33. 33
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Hmph.

    you’ll get your preferred wood trees to maturity faster if you grow them in a monoculture, for example.

    That’s interesting. That can’t be for all species, can it? Just as some crops fix nitrogen and others remove it so that rotating crops or alternating rows of crops can be more productive than year-on-year monoculture, there have to be some species of trees that don’t compete for resources as much between each other as between members of their own species. Don’t there?

    McFly?

    I guess I’m going with my intuition over any knowledge of the biology of woody plants.

    Hm. Tree husbandry: a topic on which I am profoundly ignorant. But then, I guess I’m ignorant on all kinds of husbandry ;-)

  34. 34
    whheydt

    If you breed red sheep and green sheep in the Highlands you should get plaid sheep…

    On a more serious level…

    As someone who has done a fair amount of hand spinning in my day, there are two ways to dye wool.

    After it’s been washed to remove the oils (lanolin…that’s right, your fancy, expensive hand lotion is made of the skin oil from sheep), because the dyes won’t stick the fibers if they’re oily, you can dye the fleece. This way you “dye in the wool”. The alternative is to spin the wool first and it is “dyed in the yarn”.

    Since the dyes penetrate all through loose wool a lot better than into a spun yarn, “dyed in the wool” is considered much better. (it also allows one to card different colors together before spinning.)

    –W. H. Heydt

  35. 35
    Ichthyic

    That’s interesting. That can’t be for all species, can it?

    nope.

    and technically, it’s not true for trees either. by “monoculture” I’m sloppily referring to eliminating competition only from other large vascular plants.

    obviously there would still be a need for nitrogen fixing bacteria, fungi, etc etc etc.

    I’m just speaking of planting and selecting practices of the timber industry.

  36. 36
    Endorkened

    This comment section is now about white privilege. Go.

  37. 37
    Ichthyic

    …I’d also note that in the end, the monoculture practice, while maximizing growth of the current generation of trees, does the reverse for the next generation of tress in the same area, which is also why you find 3rd generation monoculture trees to mature at a much smaller size than 2nd, etc.

    I mean, if we’re gonna get technical.

    bottom line is that I’m saying monoculture is bad.

    er, in case it wasn’t clear.

  38. 38
    Ichthyic

    This comment section is now about white privilege. Go.

    my dad can beat up your dad.

    go.

  39. 39
    speedweasel

    In other computer-game news, a small Italian plumber battles human sized mushrooms in order to save a princess from a 15 foot turtle monster.

  40. 40
    Ichthyic

    (it also allows one to card different colors together before spinning.)

    Having purchased a drum carder for buffybot, I now understand exactly what you meant here.

    I’m not sure what to make of my newfound understanding of processing wool for knitting though.

  41. 41
    Bronze Dog

    Minecraft animals are funky.

    General: Animals reproduce by being fed, putting them in “love mode” which makes them attracted to other members of their species who are also in love mode. In the official releases, wheat is the chosen food for all herbivorous animals, but recent development snapshots changed this to wheat seeds for chickens and carrots for pigs. All animals are interchangeable, able to act as the “father” or the “mother”, the mother being the one the baby comes out of and follows until maturity. Gestation time is virtually nonexistent. Hereditary traits generally only pass from mother to child, IIRC.

    Cows: All cows are presumably female since you can milk any cow by right clicking the pink udder while holding an empty bucket. Or you can get the milk from the pink spot in their ears.

    Mooshrooms: They’re cows with some kind of red fungal infection/symbiosis. They’re generated in the giant mushroom biome. You can milk them with an empty bowl to get mushroom stew. You can use shears on them to remove the mushroom layer, turning them into normal cows.

    Sheep: As PZ mentioned, dye essentially transforms the sheep to produce colored wool instead of merely dyeing its existing coat, and the color is hereditary. This was a design choice, since the blue dye is lapis lazuli, a non-renewable resource in the game.

    Pigs: The chosen riding animal for the game, now controllable in the current snapshot with the carrot on a stick, crafted from a carrot and fishing rod. Notably, a pig can be turned into a pigman zombie if it is struck by lightning.

    Chickens: Curiously, chickens are capable of reproducing by two different methods: Feeding two chickens will produce a chick through live birth. The other method is generally less reliable: Chickens regularly lay eggs that the player can pick up and throw (dispensers can also throw eggs). A small fraction of thrown eggs will produce chicks. Usually only one chick is produced, but on rare occasions, up to four chicks can hatch from a thrown egg.

    Wolves: Giving a wolf a number of bones (randomly determined) will transform it into a dog, sprouting a collar.

    Dogs: Dogs eat rotten flesh (from zombies) and uncooked meat given by the player to recover health. They only go into love mode at full health.

    Ocelots: Feeding raw fish to ocelots will turn them into domesticated house cats.

    Cats: Cats behave similarly to dogs with regard to food and reproduction, though their food of choice is raw fish. They’re mostly useful for their ability to scare away creepers, but are best known for their ability to occupy beds so players can’t sleep in them and for sitting on chests so that players can’t access their contents.

  42. 42
    Christoph Burschka

    When I bred my first colored sheep I actually thought about what biology teachers would think of this.

    Hm… maybe the dyes contain a retrovirus of some kind…

    Actually, Notch, the original author of the game, has another very ambitious game on the drawing board, 0x10c that he wants to be as accurate as possible as to the science, and welcomes people’s opinion in different fields.

    He’s since changed his mind on this, and now just wants it to be as accurate as feasible for a fun game:

    Hard science fiction. Update: GAH, NO! I’m focusing on fun gameplay instead. I still want to get corrected on glaring scientific errors, though.

  43. 43
    gijoel

    The forestry mod allows you to breed bees via Mendelian genetics.

  44. 44
    madknitter

    And then…if you dye a sheep and then breed it to produce more sheep, the color breeds true. Dye two sheep lime green, and you can generate a whole flock of lime green sheep.

    Wow! That would sure solve the problem of matching dye lots and buying enough yarn of the same dye lot to finish a project.

    (Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I am knitting a project from two different dye lots becauese I couldn’t get enough of one to complete the project. Two rows of dye lot A, two rows of dye lot B. What a pain in the ass.)

  45. 45
    some bastard on the internet

    Bronze Dog #41

    They’re mostly useful for their ability to scare away creepers, but are best known for their ability to occupy beds so players can’t sleep in them and for sitting on chests so that players can’t access their contents.

    *Wipes V8 juice from screen.*

    Haven’t played the PC version, so I can’t tell if you’re joking. But that was still hilarious!

  46. 46
    Endorkened

    Ichthyic: So, it’s wimp-shaming now, is it? Have at you! My dad can make your dad assume the receptive role in anal intercourse, thereby giving him a feminine aspect and reducing his social status in relation to me!

  47. 47
    Ichthyic

    My dad can make your dad assume the receptive role in anal intercourse, thereby giving him a feminine aspect and reducing his social status in relation to me!

    meh, pitchers are always overrated.

  48. 48
    Endorkened

    Ichthyic: You don’t like pitchers? YOU DON’T LIKE PITCHERS?! Okay, I have nothing, I can’t tell a shortstop from a long boiler. This argument is now about the historical context of Shakespeare’s Henry V. YOU BLINKERED IDEOLOGUE, I HOPE YOU CHOKE ON A HIGHBALL GLASS!

  49. 49
    mithrandir

    some bastard on the net #45:

    *Wipes V8 juice from screen.*
    Haven’t played the PC version, so I can’t tell if you’re joking. But that was still hilarious!

    Nope, they actually do that in Minecraft. You used to have to have decoy chests to keep them from sitting on the ones you wanted to use. It’s been nerfed a bit since initial release, thank Herobrine.

  50. 50
    davem

    and Skeletons and Zombies exist.

    But in PZ’s world, skeletons don’t exist. Tentacles have no need of them.

    It was the equivalent of cattle branding so all sheep could be released onto common grazing areas. It was done with spray paint and there were red circles, brown circles, yellow triangles, blue squares, etc.

    Farmers also paint the underneaths of Rams wth different coloured paints, so they know which ewes have been mated, and with whom.

    If you breed red sheep and green sheep in the Highlands you should get plaid sheep…

    Uh uh, wrong species. You’re thinking of wild haggis.

  51. 51
    jamessweet

    PZ, you are like the Unix nerd who watches a summer blockbuster, and in the scene where the hero has to “hack” a computer she’s sitting there saying, “THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS! Why would the villain’s computer even be running an open ssh server? This is so fake…”

  52. 52
    Steve

    Now take a look at Pocket Frogs, PZ!

  53. 53
    ibbica

    If you breed red sheep and green sheep in the Highlands you should get plaid sheep…

    Uh uh, wrong species. You’re thinking of wild haggis.

    Hold on, you mean the colour doesn’t run all the way through?

    Er, skeletons do exist IRL.

    So do zombies. Ever seen Pat Robertson?

    If you use the standard dictionary definition of ‘zombie’ you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of their existence (…says the person who noted that “They don’t typically move without muscles or an external force”, so take that for what it’s worth ;) ).

    Now, “a tall drink made typically with several kinds of rum, citrus juice, and often apricot liqueur”, yeah that definitely exists. Though I doubt Pat Robertson had anything to do with its development ;)

    The closest application is the latter part of a slang-y definition of “a person who is or appears to be lifeless, apathetic, or totally lacking in independent judgment”. He’s not really ‘lifeless’ or ‘apathetic’, though… that sort doesn’t tend to be *quite* so inclined to end up with their own TV show :/

  54. 54
    rq

    DLC @29 – It’s not quite bioluminescence, but imagine if it was…

  55. 55
    opposablethumbs

    Nice one, rq – that’s just what I was thinking of! Extreme Shepherding, an irresistible work of sheer (or sheared) insanity.

  56. 56
    prae

    Not only the animals, the “Villagers”, which might or might not be human, are also a single gender race. Doesn’t help that they look more male than female. They also need doors to procreate.

    Minecraft has abiogenesis, too. Spiders are spontaneously created in darkness, Slimes in certain depth in certain regions.

    Also, apples grow on oaks and cocoa beans are a symbiotic organism growing on jungle trees.

  57. 57
    Katarra

    If you’re interested at all, there’s a mod that changes (among many other things) the dynamics of sheep breeding called Better Than Wolves. They revert back to their natural wool color (the one they were spawned or born with) after being dyed and sheared, and with each breeding, there’s a chance of color mutation.

    It’s very specific what colors can possibly mutate from others – all the possibilities and probabilities haven’t been found yet – but one example I know of is the chance of getting a yellow wooled baby from two brown parents.

  58. 58
    petrander

    Darn it, PZ! Now I am gonna finally have to start working on my Evolution mod for minecraft.

    But not after I finished the Gram Clay Pit mod, for the local museum my wife works at, where you can mine through Miocene Gram Clay formation and find fossil shark teeth, shells, and whales!

  59. 59
    andrewriding

    I got really excited after Notch talked about having gone snorkeling and wanting to add a lot of underwater stuff. Seems he gave up on it for quite awhile and then just spat out the buggy squid mobs.

    It was fun watching the swim majestically though the sky, but now that the map actually generates deep and vast oceans a little coral reef here and there would be quite nice. Well ok, everyone that knows programmers knows that the water gets either sharks or piranha infestations before anything like that.

    Though a more interesting addition could be jellyfish- very translucent slime textures with the tentacles behind them applying the poison effect. They could drop some senseless ball-of-jelly item used for slippery properties that go opposite to the sticky slime balls in the game.
    Nah- they’re probably more than happy with ice blocks just making a slippery ground surface. You’d need a whole mod to come up with machines and things that needed lubricant.

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