Experimental foxes and human evolution towards cooperative sociability

Dmitry Belyaev’s famous fox experiments, conducted near Novosibirsk, Russia, are a foundational component of scientific research into domestication syndrome.

In these experiments, a population of foxes taken from an existing farm (where they were being bred and slaughtered for the fur trade) were selected over multiple generations for tame behaviour. Part of the justification for this experiment was to produce animals that were less stressed under artificial confinement.

These experimental foxes were kept in identical caged conditions and were only allowed to breed on the basis of their response to a simple behavioural test: periodically, experimenters would approach each fox and insert a gloved hand into their cage, foxes that responded socially, or with curiosity, were kept as breeders of subsequent generations, but those that responded in fear or aggression were killed and sold for their fur.

Over time, foxes that had been selected for social behaviour (there were also control groups of aggressive and non-selected foxes) began to show many morphological and physiological changes that hadn’t been deliberately selected for. These changes were the same as those regularly observed in other domesticated mammals (and in some birds and fish) when compared to their wild relatives or ancestors. A collection of traits referred to as ‘domestication syndrome’.

These characteristics include things like:

  • Shorter faces/muzzles;
  • Smaller brains;
  • Smaller teeth;
  • Less difference between males and females;
  • Change to pigmentation patterns in fur, skin and feathers;
  • Skeletal gracility (that is, smaller and lighter-weight bones);
  • Increased reproductive behaviours (more sex), and more regular oestrus cycles;
  • Paedomorphism (adult resemblance to an ancestral juvenile state);
  • A longer sociable window in youth before adult wariness emerges;
  • A smaller and less reactive adrenal system;
  • And declines in sensory functions such as sight and smell.

Belyaev’s fox experiments are recognised as a key piece of evidence for the underlying correlation between selection for more sociable behaviour and the emergence of the domestication syndrome.

I, along with many others, find this fascinating because humans also appear to show characteristics of domestication syndrome. The experimental demonstration that these traits emerge in response to selection for sociability, contradicts many previous formulations of human evolution.

For example, the belief that continuous competition and the ‘survival of the fittest’ were the secret behind humanity’s apparent evolutionary success were once used to justify detestable activities performed under the pseudo-scientific tenets of Social Darwinism and eugenics. Even in modern times, some of those promoting social and economic competition, whose political goals include undermining cooperatively-based mechanisms of social security and shared public services, are regularly motivated by a belief that competition is somehow natural and inherently beneficial to human ‘progress’*.

In spite of these appeals to nature, however, the proponents of this view have struggled to convincingly demonstrate how complex human society and cooperation could possibly have emerged from pure competition (witness continuous research and debate on how selfishness might lead to altruism!).

Especially in light of the evidence for human self-domestication, doesn’t it seem far more likely that human culture, technology, and civilisation have emerged from an improved human capacity for sociability and cooperation? This being the case, isn’t it logically counterproductive to promote competition in all its various forms and to accept or condone the anti-social (if not, outright destructive and dangerous) ideologies and behaviours associated with it?

The evidence for human self-domestication, and what it implies about human development, should force a significant popular and scientific reconsideration of many beliefs and guiding narratives regarding our past, and recent trajectories of evolutionary and social change.

No doubt, humans are sometimes ‘naturally’ competitive and anti-social (and, lets face it, the statistics emphatically show it’s mainly the males), but these behaviours are not the secret to our recent developmental success. They are lingering reminders of our evolutionary past.

…A less-sociable past that needs to be recognised and accommodated, not necessarily celebrated, and definitely not emulated or promoted in the modern era.



* Seriously, check out that link on how the glory of competition means some of the richest people that have ever lived on this Earth might soon be able to travel to Mars! Somehow that’s progress!?!



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