Recently I’ve been spending doing some work with the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford. There’s a certain amount of overlap between what they’re working in and my interest in helping people become more mindful of the future consequences of decisions they face in the present. In any event, it’s made me more likely to notice articles about peace, and so I was struck by an article that had reported on some fascinating work on sociability and evolution. As it explains, in 1959, Russian geneticist Dimitri Belyaev
began breeding 130 silver foxes in a kind of Mendelian experiment. He put one group under severe selection pressure using a simple method: those foxes that approached an experimenter lived to breed for another generation; those that snarled at humans or showed aggression toward them were turned into fur coats. The other group, a control, was bred randomly with regard to how they behaved toward humans.
After only forty generations, the selected foxes began to display changes you (and Darwin, too) might think would take millions of years to evolve. As expected, they became incredibly friendly toward humans. Whenever they saw people, they barked, wagged their tails, sniffed the people, and licked their faces. But even stranger were the physical changes, which occurred at a higher frequency than in the control group. The ears of the selected foxes became floppy. Their tails turned curly. Their coats lost their camouflage and became spotty, with a star pattern appearing on the forehead. Their skulls became smaller. In short, they looked and behaved remarkably like their close relative the domestic dog.
Now came the big test. If dogs had acquired social skills in the process of domestication, then perhaps the selected silver foxes acquired those skills, too. And they did. Domesticated silver foxes could read human body language as well as any dog. The control lineage could not.
The skill of silver foxes at reading human social cues is a crucial piece of the puzzle. People (including the authors) had supposed that the unusual social skills found in dogs had probably evolved because smarter dogs had been more likely to survive and reproduce during domestication. But Belyaev’s foxes weren’t bred to be smarter than the average fox, just friendlier. It seems that the selected foxes are more skilled at reading human cues as a by-product of a loss of fear of humans, which was replaced by an intense interest in interacting with us….
[S]omething similar may have happened in human evolution. Instead of getting a jump start with the most intelligent hominids surviving to produce the next generation, as is often suggested, it may have been the more sociable hominids — because they were better at solving problems together — who achieved a higher level of fitness and allowed selection to favor more sophisticated problem-solving over time. Humans got their smarts only because we got friendlier first.