In 1959, Dmitri Belyaev made his way to Siberia to look for the most polite foxes he could find.
A Soviet geneticist, Belyaev was interested in how animal domestication occurs — and in what happens biologically when the wild canine evolves into the mild-mannered dog. The thousands of fox fur farms stippling the Siberian countryside at the time were ideal grounds for his experiment.
Belyaev started breeding especially docile foxes and observing the temperament of their pups. Within just three generations they were noticeably less fearful and aggressive toward people. By the fourth generation some pups would even approach their captors, wagging their tails like giddy retrievers. The animals were showing signs of friendliness toward humans. They’d been domesticated.
Duke anthropologist Brian Hare argues that humans unintentionally experienced a similar process that left us more cooperative than our now extinct human cousins, like Neanderthals and Denisovans.
While Belyaev’s foxes underwent artificial evolution through breeding, Hare and others believe that in Homo sapiens natural selection favored friendliness — that without realizing it we were self-domesticated by our own evolution, and that our more agreeable demeanor is responsible for our success and propagation across the planet.
In his new book, Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity, Hare presents a thesis on why being more cooperative with those around us, and more willing to compromise, may have conferred survival advantages. Violence and aggression, he writes, wasn’t always a sound evolutionary strategy. Being the alpha bully means you’re more often engaged in dangerous encounters, and a target of the greater group, in whose best interest it is to weed out threatening, socially destabilizing males. [Continue reading…]