Whilst driving through Seattle, I was listening to an interesting broadcast from a local radio station (88.1 KPLU), in which they were discussing an experiment that was still going on in Russia that had been started over 50 years ago. Dmitri Belyeaev, a Russian scientist had setup a breeding project in 1959 to see how the domestication of dogs may have occurred, from Wolves. They went on to describe the experiment and some of the interesting results, of the domestication of Siberian foxes over 50 years. More about the experiment can be read here. I do not necessarily agree with the experiment but, the results are facinating
What is most fascinating to me about this experiment was less that indeed the foxes could be bred to be domesticated and not afraid of people, but I was intrigued by the results of what it had done to the foxes as a result of the domestication. It seems that as a result of the selective breeding of the foxes that exhibited the correct responses to good behavior, that other aspects of their physiology altered too. Their teeth became smaller, their ears were more droopy (less cartilage), their tails less straight and their bones smaller and lighter. It seems that the selective breeding had focused not only the desired character traits but has also funneled certain genetic mutations that altered their appearance and structure. Through the filtering of good behavior and removal of the otherwise necessary aggressive traits that would keep them alive in the wild the foxes had begun to alter to suit their new temperament. So of course this is very interesting, from a scientific stand, and definitely goes along way to explain how Wolves may have become domestic dogs. The next thing the talk moved on to thinking about humans and our own evolution. This was when I started to get interested what was proposed.
The premise was put forward that humans too have through group behavior and social exchange actually evolved themselves and arguably domesticated themselves. The thought is that once we were like apes in small groups and the strongest mostly survived and a strict hierarchy could be seen. Then as time moved on and we became wanders and probably grew larger groups we had more people fighting for the top spots, soon it was necessary for progress to get along the friendlier males would have more success with females than the fighters and aggressive males. Jump forward a few thousand years and today we see that we are in large groups and in very close proximity and getting along is a very valuable trait to have to survive, aggression will only get you so far. They mentioned how if you placed 100 chimps on a long haul flight across the Atlantic not many would survive they would definitely kill each other, being so close for so long. We however, have learnt to get along and can tolerate such closeness and are generally friendly. Does this mean as the radio show suggests that we have domesticated ourselves into a more passive and friendly animal just like the Siberian Foxes. Certain it is suggested that we have altered genetically in a similar way, we have smaller bones, smaller teeth than our ancestors. The concept of become a domesticated species is interesting to me, not so much that the idea of a “pet” human, but because it shows that as we grow as a society and population that lives in closer and closer proximity, we are having to alter how we react and respond to each other on a daily basis and it seems it would be fair to suggest that we are altering not only our personalities but potentially our physiology as well.
Of course this may all be an interesting parallel and really we of course are far more complex creatures with our ability to rationalize, but none the less it was an interesting radio talk show. As a follow up I discovered there is a book on the subject by Peter J Wilson called interestingly enough “The Domestication of the Human Species”, it is now waiting in my Amazon wishlist.