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A Glimpse of Neverland

Thursday, October 25, 2012 - 06:00 PM

Illustration of a paper airplane flying through the sky (Sky image remixed from CC BY 2.0 photo by Fabio Marini)

Ooooooooh, New Normal has been on the airwaves this week. This is by far one of my favorite Radiolabs ever and I think that’s because what the episode is really about is that elusive but definite thing which pervades what can at times seem like totally flat and known universe: CHANGE.

I feel the sting of hope so many times throughout this episode (when Stu becomes mayor, when the men of Silverton don dresses), and each of those moments, it’s like some pressure point is pushed and the reaction is immediate. Boom. Ouch. Wonderful. Tears.

So first of all, I wanted to share a powerful little quote that, for me anyways, presses upon that same spot. It comes from the author Francine Prose, from the short story “Hansel and Gretel” which is a modern twist on the old fairy tale. The narrator is a middle-aged woman reflecting back on a time when she was young, stuck in a very unhappy situation in a cabin in the woods:

I wonder how often the future waits on the other side of the wall, knocking very quietly, too politely for us to hear, and I was filled with longing to reach back into my life and inform that unhappy girl: all around her was physical evidence proving her sorrows would end. I wanted to tell her that she would be saved, but not by an act of will: clever Gretel pretending she couldn’t tell if the oven was hot and tricking the witch into showing her and shoving the witch in the oven. What would rescue her was time itself and, above all, its inexorability, the utter impossibility of anything ever staying the same.

I find myself needing to go and find this paragraph from time to time. Almost like it's a prayer.* What this quote and the New Normal episode say to me is that in a world that is seemingly uncaring of you and your needs, there is in fact one promise. One quiet truth, a large and omnipotent Delta (Δ) in the sky that guarantees you're not really as stuck as you think you are. Things will change. Because change, (Δ), always awaits. And, yes, it can cut both ways. It can take away a loved one or rot your tomato plants -- but it is true! A fact of nature. (Δ). (Δ). (Δ). The best worrystone there is because its powers are guaranteed. And New Normal seems simply a celebration of this fact.

Which, errr, mute the Hallelujah, brings me to the second part of this post. The foxes segment, the last in the show, in which Dmitri Belyaev domesticates the silver foxes. I have to confess that I've never really understood what was oh so hopeful and astounding about it. So some guy domesticated some foxes. Big whoop.

I got that there was something neato about the fact that when you select for a friendly fox you also get some anatomical changes (floppy ears, dull teeth), but I didn’t find it strange or surprising. Hadn’t I been taught in high school that sometimes genetic traits were randomly linked? Like red hair and freckles.** These just often ‘went’ together, and there’s nothing so astounding about that -- they’re close together on a chromosome, so they're less likely to split up in recombination. So floppy ears and gentleness are linked, I buy it. No need to wheel out the wow-machine.

But then along came a listener so awed-out by Belyaev’s friendly foxes that he made it his mission to go to Siberia just to see them in their floppy-eared glory. His name is Tyler Cole, this listener, and when he wrote the fox farm, they did not write back. He wrote again. No response. And finally, after much email persistence, they relented. They said he could visit. He got himself to Russia. He got a train ticket to Novosibirsk. Hundreds of dollars and hours of his life, just to see these foxes. He got there. He took a video. And he sent it to us.

OK, I thought after I saw his video. Maybe I need to re-listen to this segment and see what’s so darn amazing about it. If Tyler’s gonna go all the way to Siberia, there’s gotta be something I’m missing. So I listened and I focused and I think … I got it.

This is absolutely redundant for some of you, but for my fellow folks with curious hearts and an occasional zone-out problem... take heed. What’s so cool about the foxes is this: they aren't just a fluky collection of floppy mutations, but specifically… half-grown foxes. At least that's what Tecumseh Fitch (who is not a Harper Lee character but an evolutionary biologist) thinks. They are frozen in adolescence.

T-Fitch bases his idea on the slightly magical set of cells called “neural crest cells.” OK, magical is the wrong word. Neural crest cells are as mundane as they come. Every mammal has them. They are the cells responsible for making fur thick, cartilage firm, bones strong, and adrenal glands pumped full of stress-wary hormones. But if you look at all that in another way -- if you take what they do for a creature en masse -- they are sort of magical-seeming: they're the cells that make you grow up.

What Tecumseh Fitch thinks is that when you select for a friendly fox, you are actually selecting for a fox with less potent neural crest cells. I’m imagining these cells like pixie dust, that only gets sprinkled lightly. The adrenal glands get only partially inflated with fear. Which is why the foxes are friendly to humans. And all the other changes -- floppy ears, thinner bones, duller fangs -- aren’t due to coincidences of gene location, but of pixie dust that never finished its job. 

Cue the Peter Pan music.

And that's what Tyler Cole went to see. A glimpse of Neverland.

Here's what he found. NOTE: This video might be upsetting to watch as it features stressed out animals in cages. We're presenting it for those interested in seeing the difference between the aggressive foxes and the gentle foxes, and how their physical features compare.

Tyler Cole's "The incredible fox domestication experiment in Novosibirsk, Russia" on Vimeo.

Tyler also wrote an account of his visit, and reports that while he didn’t notice the differences in bone size that we talked about in the episode (the facial features of the gentle foxes looked the same to him as the aggressive foxes), he did note a couple of other anatomical changes that we didn’t discuss in the show. First of all was the fur color. Many of the friendly foxes had patchy patterns on their fur. Kind of like a cow or calico cat. This is kind of patterning is called piebald, and a little Googling on the topic reveals that piebald patterning is often caused by a neural crest defect!  A study on piebald mice found, “The white areas of the coat are completely lacking in neural crest-derived melanocytes.” (Melanocytes are the cells which produce melanin, a dark pigment). Whoa! Ten more points for Tecumsah Fitch’s idea. And then there were the blue eyes. Many of the domesticated foxes Tyler observed had gorgeous baby-blue eyes, a sappy adjective I use intentionally because it turns out… what else are a thing made dark by neural crest cells? Eyes.*

So as Tyler squishes his hand into the fluffy white coat of the gentle calico fox, maybe there is something to the notion that what he’s actually touching is a creature on pause. A lost boy fox in a kind of canid Neverland. 

Alright, I’ll zip up the poetic musings for now. But, man! Here’s to Stu and the friendly baboons and an absurd sci-fi reverie of a whole breed of adolescents. Enjoy those remaining days of fall. Look up at the near barren trees and maybe even try to catch a falling leaf. What is it if not a dry crusty flake shed from that benevolent Delta (Δ) in the sky.

P.S. I would be remiss not to inform you that these lost-boy foxes are now for sale.

And now, to the FOOTNOTES:

* My friend Maria first shared "Hansel and Gretel" with me two years ago, and I so thank her for that gift. It's part of the collection, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. An insanely fun compilation of modern takes on fairy tales by contemporary authors.

** Regarding red hair and freckles. This is common example of genetic linkage, though it has not actually been shown that it is due to them being physically close together on the chromosome. They could appear together for other reasons. Maybe there was once some selective advantage in northern climates to have such traits, so they evolved together. Scientists don't know yet. An example where two phenotypes have been shown to be linked because the genes are close to each other is:  Myotonic muscular dystrophy (a childhood disease caused by disruption of the "dystrophin" gene, which is essential for the proper development of skeletal muscle cells) and the ABH secretor gene (a gene that is responsible for secreting a series of "blood group antigen" proteins into the bloodstream). But I thought that was a bit complicated to go into when I was trying to make the freckle point.

*** Here's an absolutely fantabulous National Geographic article that finally made me understand why domestication is actually mysterious.


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Comments [6]


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Mar. 07 2013 05:13 AM

For those who have not forgotten the "Fact of the Matter" this again gets at the heart of the issue of Yellow Rain, and what was wrong with the podcast from a third party perspective.

Radiolab has so much to answer for.

Nov. 13 2012 07:34 PM
John from Indiana

The thing I found unusual in the fox story was that it took only a few generations to produce a tame fox, while we normally think of evolution as being very slow. I've recently heard that there's something unusual about canine genetics (or at least wolf genetics) that makes rapid genetic change more likely in them than in other animals.

@Yaov: I think another reason for the push towards a more docile human in recent decades is the need to be less warlike to avoid our own extinction via nuclear armageddon.

Nov. 06 2012 08:15 AM
Mirkosan from Eugene, OR, USA

I agree change is the only constant. This thought was driven home to me first by Nietzsche and then by Foucault, building on Nietzsche. The truth is, in essence, that there is no single truth. And we can never step in the same river twice.

Oct. 30 2012 03:14 AM
Yoav from Israel

I was really excited of the original story as was told in RadioLab. My excitement came form seeing a window to our own culture, to the mankind. I'm very interested in issues of manhood in the modern age, and especially after the Women Liberation Movement. Many psychological text refer to the drama of the modern man as not having a passage ceremony (like in older cultures), and this leaves many men with the mentality of boys. When I heard the show I suddenly felt another piece of puzzle click into place - we are kind of going through a cultural domestication phase. It is a hard time for men - most of us feel the need to remain "wild", while on the other side society demands us to take part of the house, raising the children, and other "domicile" activities. I enjoyed thinking of this passage era as not too long - if the foxes were domesticated in a few generations, maybe we as well will be domesticated fast enough...

Oct. 28 2012 11:05 AM

It makes me sad that the foxes are for sale as pets - though it makes me sadder that the ones that aren't selected for their extreme tameness get sold for their fur, which then pays for the research to select more tame foxes. This is why long-term funding is so important!

Oct. 25 2012 09:30 PM

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