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Brian Hare tells us the story of Dmitri Belyaev, a geneticist and clandestine Darwinian who lived in Stalinist Russia and studied the domestication of the silver fox. Through generations of selectively breeding a captive population, Belyaev noticed not only increased docility, but also unexpected physical changes. Why did these gentler foxes necessarily look different than their wild ancestors? Tecumseh Fitch has a hypothesis, something about trailblazing cells and embryonic development. And Richard Wrangham takes it a step further, suggesting us humans may have domesticated ourselves.

Comments [49]

joanne groshardt from dallas

I LOVED this story. I married one of these wonderful domesticated men 35 years ag,o and he passed away a year ago.Too bad we were unable to keep the Trump family from profilicating.

If you are a domesticated, unattached male looking for a similar domesticated female, please email me at bigheart353 at and put the word Domesticated Foxes on the subject line.

Jul. 30 2017 02:17 PM
Rob D from Richmond, VA

I thought this was an excellent and insightful piece on Belayev's work with foxes. However, the podcast concludes with the sentiment that as time progresses humanity will further domesticate itself ad infinitum, producing a new humanity in which all individuals are more tolerant of sharing living space and interactions with one another. This sentiment brings to mind another Soviet scientist, one whose political connections and ideological leanings gave him no reason to flee the USSR: Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a staunch anti-darwinist, who believed that plants in an ecosystem engaged "natural cooperation" as opposed to natural selection.

Finally, it would seem that in this increasingly domestic future the greatest benefit would not be experienced by the most empathetic individual, but rather the least. An intelligent, sociopathic individual would reap all the benefits of friendly society while adhering to just enough societal norms to maximize his or her own individual prosperity.

Jul. 26 2017 02:17 PM
Debora from Los Angeles

This was the first _Radiolab_ i heard, and i've been hooked ever since. At the risk of incurring the wrath of animal-rights groups, what really caught my attention were certain SFX in the "fox farm" segment. i want to believe the gunshots were used in a gallows-humor fashion, but something tells me that wasn't the the case irl.

¿"At the risk..."? in a way i just approved the idea of shooting innocent animals; OF COURSE i'm going to incur someone's wrath; i'm even incurring MY wrath.

Apr. 08 2017 01:49 PM
Dan Knabb

H.G. Wells "Time Machine"
Eloi and Morlocks. I'm surprised this had not already been mentioned.

Dec. 14 2015 02:07 PM
Gregory Slater from east palo alto, ca

Is this possibly a way that we can deal with the problem of the repubs?

Dec. 13 2015 04:02 AM
Terry Fernsler from Harrisonburg, VA

Indeed, computer models find that after a certain number of generations, species do weed out non-cooperators. We can be grateful that, if we do not destroy the habitability of our planet, our ancestors will not have the likes of Trump and other extremist Republicans to deal with.

Dec. 12 2015 05:43 PM

If civilization leads to a more civilized population, then it seems more likely that visitors from another planet would be more interested in studying us than eating our lunch. Except, of course, unless their technology advances more rapidly than their domestication--like "Guns, Germs, and Steel".

Dec. 12 2015 02:15 PM
marikasimo from San Diego

I'm not convinced that American society is evolving to be less aggressive/violent. It seems like as people get more powerful they are able to appear more civilized by outsourcing their aggression to technology (i.e. media, movies, video games, drones and designer weapons), foreign policies(economic sanctions, imperialism, military) and domestic policies (restrictive laws, police, death penalty), and cultural norms (sexism, racism). People in power also have to privilege to define concepts like "civil," "professional," and "proper."

I also wonder if the Radiolab team considered how the racist history of the US intersects with this idea of self-domestication. Currently African American males are disproportionately represented in US prisons (and on death row). Based on the self-domestication theory, we would be led to believe that African American males are less evolved and more aggressive in nature than people of other racial backgrounds. However, for over 200 years, Africans in this country were bred for their docileness (people with aggressive behaviors were tortured, executed)--just as it's still a common practice to euthanize aggressive pets, today.

I don't believe that African American males are less evolved than white males or more violent, I think that due to the racist history of our country, African Americans have less socio-political power, and less access to legal ways to express their aggression (and their masculinity for that matter).

Also, I wonder in what ways our competitive, individualist and capitalistic society may select FOR aggressive traits.

Thanks for this thought provoking episode!

Jun. 20 2014 10:48 AM
Zombie Shane from The Land of Cotton, Early on a Frosty Morning, Look Away...

Oh fornication be upon me.

You have moderated kkkomments?

How naive of me.


Jun. 19 2014 07:02 AM
Zombie Shane from The Land of Cotton, Early on a Frosty Morning, Look Away...

Since when do jewesses get names like "Gigi"?

That's a filthy shiksa whore name.

Talk about de-evolution.

Anyway, G, how many chilluns you done pushed outta yo birf canal, beeyotch?

Cause a true Darwinian Nihiliste believes in one and only one maxim: You can either get busy evolving, or else you can get busy going EXTINCT.

And dey ain't nuffin mo extinctual den pushing ZERO BABIES out dat birf canal.

PS: I keep the kids. Not you.

You crazy frigging jewess nutjob.


Jun. 19 2014 07:00 AM
mr. wild from chattanooga, tn

"Gigi Jacobs from Los Angeles" basically says that certain categories of people are lower on the evolution totem pole. My, where have I heard that argument before? I guess liberals believe that there are certain people, who aren't as "developed", who must be subhuman.

Jun. 18 2014 10:36 PM
Karen Coker from Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Some foxes become fur coats? How sad and insensitive that you can gloss over - even tee hee over - the fact that many of these beautiful animals will have to endure lives of horrible deprivation and imprisonment on fur farms. Farmed foxes are raised in small outdoor cages, exposed to the harsh elements winter and summer. Many foxes develop psychotic behavior, literally bouncing off the walls of their cages as they pace furiously back and forth. Many develop foot problems from standing on wire for months on end. In the end, they are electrocuted through the anus in order to preserve the fur. No animal should have to endure this cruelty for profit and fashion. And there's nothing funny about it.

Jun. 15 2014 01:21 PM


Jan. 20 2014 09:50 PM

What does the fox say...

Nov. 01 2013 10:11 AM
cody galbraith


Oct. 22 2013 12:50 PM
Gigi Jacobs from Los Angeles

I know many of you are frustrated by this article, however, studies are being done on human brains with MRI's and fMRI's and we have both domesticated humans and non domesticated. We can look at the brain and actually see the primitive brain and the domesticated brain in others. You see, evolution does not take place in one generation. It happens in strains of humans all over the earth. In the US, we have a strain of humans that are still particularly violent and it could be that we have not had enough time for some to evolve as we have been a civilized country for such a short period of time. The wild west and the frontier did not promote evolution. Some of us are getting smatter. You wonder why a conservative doesn't accept facts? Because they don't have a very active ACC (anterior cingulate cortex), which does critical thinking. They don't really have a "facts part of the brain" and it was not necessary in primitive times. The fMRI shows strong activity in the amygdala in these individuals and an actual larger amygdala, which was very helpful in primitive times. It causes aggression-so yes, humans are evolving. It matters not whether it be by a woman having less stress while carrying a child or that we are forced to live with others in a peaceful way-we are evolving. But some strains of humans will take many more generations to catch up. Evolution has never happened over night where the next day all were evolved. It takes time for the whole population to evolve based on their environment. Regardless, we can see in the brain and there are two kinds of brains currently that are prominent. The primitive brain probably saved the species at one time. Unfortunately, it may kill the species in this era if not kept in check for they care not of Global Warming, dumping nuclear wastes, etc. Now it's time for evolution if we are all to survive. By the way, the primitive brain does score a few points lower in IQ-so we may be getting smarter also.

Feb. 06 2013 01:57 PM
Vi An from Canada

Work together. Cooperation is important. If we want to "think" that we are evolving and increasing in smarts, then we need to start acting like it, but non of us display that quality. Most likely people join mobs and go ballistic when bullied into such behaviors, than risk leaving and being a target themselves. Leave ALL wild animals alone, preserve their natural habitats, give land back to the Natives and lets stop killing each other already!

Nov. 01 2012 03:55 PM
Scott from Fairfax, VA

The ending comment of this show is that perhaps as the human population gets bigger we will have to get along and may "evolve" to become more peaceable. In actual studies of animal populations, crowding can sometimes have the opposite effect and promote behaviors like aggression, cannibalism, etc. See a summary done in 1973 by John A. King entitled The Ecology of Aggressive Behavior in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 4 117-138 (1973). This is a complicated subject and there are no one size fits all answers.

Apr. 28 2012 08:57 PM
brittany spears from moscow, russia

that's not awesome man why would you do that to a animal like that i'm going to laugh if it eats your eyes and finger and toes and craps on your face!!

Feb. 15 2012 11:02 AM
Preston Jones from Salt Lake City, UT

wow what followers copying me and dylan

Feb. 03 2012 09:15 AM
Miranda Urbe from West Jordan, Ut

This was so cool. I'm so glad that my science teacher assingned this it was so cool. Thats cool how the cells don't finish their jobs the dogs or foxes ears become floppy at the top. Thank you so much Mrs. Moretz for making this our homework.

Feb. 02 2012 09:46 PM
Miriam R. from SLC UT

this was VERY interesting! i liked it alot!

Feb. 02 2012 08:38 PM
Maizee Thompson from salt lake city, utah

This was really cool and interesting! I'm glad my science teacher assigned it!:) well kinda.

Feb. 01 2012 09:43 PM
Taska Collins from Salt Lake City, Utah

Wow! This was really interesting because the more the foxes became demesticated the more their physical charachteristics changed!

Feb. 01 2012 07:16 PM
Dylan Barbosa from Salt Lake City, Utah

My science teacher from slcse assigned this homework me and my freind preston thought this was cool

Jan. 30 2012 08:07 PM
Preston Jones from utah

very interesting

Jan. 30 2012 07:50 PM

They spoke about the effect of fear and adrenaline on mother foxes on the development of the foetuses in the womb, but they didn't mention this in relation to humans. A large factor may be that as humans have settled into communities pregnant women have felt safer, thus the foetus is subject to less stress, which effects its development. If this is the case then a far more effective way of "breeding" gentler humans is simply to ensure that pregnant women are well looked after, relieved of stress and given top medical care.

May. 09 2011 06:55 PM
Steve from NYC

Fascinating segment on domestication. To take this a speculative step further, one wonders if some populations might be less "domesticated" than others - I know this is risque - say, in the Middle East?

Sep. 22 2010 12:10 AM
Layla from Brooklyn

look, now these foxes are for sale!

Jul. 29 2010 04:06 PM
Greg from Florida

I'm catching up on a backlog of Radiolab podcasts, and just got to this piece. Very interesting!

I'm having trouble understanding what it has to do with evolution, though. From what the piece says, it appears that population isolation and artificial selection have created a bottleneck effect; on the genetic or developmental level, functionality has been removed, not added, and their fitness to survive appears to have been compromised. I mean, yes, the animals have changed, but mere change alone does not equal evolution, especially if something has been lost in the process. How is that evolution?

Jun. 24 2010 09:46 AM

I was just wondering (taking a joke about us having floppy ears at the end seriously) if our ears used to have bones in them? And then, because of docile selection like the foxes, they're all cartilage now instead of bones? But I don't know if lack of bone formation was the direct cause of the floppy ears in the foxes. Just a thought I had, but I'm no biologist.

May. 25 2010 12:31 PM
Leah from Carbondale, IL

I didn't like the implication that the human aggression that starts wars is physical-- show me a single modern war started by a physically strong male. It's almost always a greedy, cowardly, rich, frequently weak, frequently old, average-sized or small male with money for weapons and media-control that starts a war or puts a whole society at undue risk. Young people whose parents were poor or didn't want them are the ones who ultimately most frequently go to prison. Deviousness, selfishness, and judgmentalism are the human problems I'd say we'd have to "breed out," to stop wars, not rare athletes. It doesn't require athleticism to harm people. Many of the most divisive large-scale destructive people you'll meet are quite small in stature. Playing outside and eating vegetables and protein helps you grow--it doesn't necessarily make you more aggressive or less evolved than people who played Nintendo and ate candy all day. Some athletes are mean, but I personally believe they are outnumbered by "geek players"

May. 15 2010 11:21 AM
chelsea from victoria, canada

i'm currently hooked on radiolab - i don't know how my work days will go once i make it through the archives of amazing old shows.

i'm wondering if you could tell me the name of the piece at the end of the last segment? sounds like cello - is this a classical piece? or a missing zoe keating track?

Apr. 15 2010 05:33 PM
Jeff Vogt from Frederick, MD

Great Show! I would like to point out that Genghis Khan, the warrior and conquerer, is now believed to be an ancestor of over 8% of people living in the former Mongol empire. This seems to imply that human evolution selects FOR aggressive traits at some times.

Feb. 27 2010 03:40 PM
Emily Mitchell from new york city

While the topic was engrossing and a complicated theory cogently explained,the commentators' numerous joking references to the killing of the non-docile foxes were sadly out of place. They added nothing to an otherwise excellent piece.

Feb. 14 2010 09:23 PM
Albertine Flugzeug-Brand from Monaco/NYC

Yes we do feel we can change who we are.

Spinoza said our social constructions are expressions of our divinity. And so we have to evolve our social constructions in order to end war, like our Constitutions which grant or limit power of a few over the rest of us.

War will end someday when we take away the prerogative of ruling elites to start wars. History shows that wars are started because they enrich elites through raping and terrorizing and then pillaging and expanding territory. They seed and start ethnic conflicts on the ground between little people to cover up the land grab they're undertaking, and to enlist foot soldiers fired up by ideology or religion.

The proof is that the Europeans ended 1000s of years of war amongst themselves for the last 60 years now by a new social construction (European Union) and by removing the power of Aristocrats and Military Industrialists over the new and fledgling Parliaments by reforming their Constitutions, corporate governance, and media ownership laws. Maybe removing Aristos and Industrialists from power is like removing the power of the "alpha" male in the baboons.

In the US, we now need to do the same thing, remove the power of our military industrial and oil companies from seeding conflicts all over the world, and then snowing Americans through complicit media empires into paying for a manufactured war to cover up their raping and pillaging. That will mean changing their campaign finance laws, our Constitution and Supreme Court case law.

Ring a bell? As Edmund Burke said "those who don't know history are forced to relive it?" Well, some of us know history, and some of us know the remedies others have used now well proven over 65 years!

Feb. 14 2010 12:50 AM
Avi B from NYC

Here's a page I came across with videos of the Belyaev experiments:

Love the show!

Dec. 24 2009 12:48 PM
Joe from Dublin

Great show, very thought provoking!

Interesting reflection, I'm not sure if apathy is the opposite of aggression. Taking the argument that we breed out aggressive behaviour, if we are talking murderers, etc. wouldn't it be only unjustified aggression that is bread out, ie. individuals who cannot control their adrenals, or desires? The person who reacts in legitimate defence (violent assertion does not equal aggression), will still be part of the society and gene pool.


Nov. 17 2009 01:58 PM
Daniel from Minneapolis, MN

This was a fantastic show, so much so that I had to listen to it twice. Even though I am now 24 and a college graduate, I am forced to recall a lesson from high school biology that discussed natural selection; the article that I read for this class, if I remember correctly, argued that natural selection no longer pertains to humans. Does this then mean that humans are able to evolve as a society without breeding out the unsavory folk?

Nov. 03 2009 10:27 PM
Meira from Philadelphia, PA

Nevermind! I used Shazam for my iPhone and figured it out:
It's Bron-yr-Aur from Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti.

Oct. 26 2009 12:20 PM
Meira from Philadelphia, PA

Like Anthony from St Louis, I also came to find out that name of that song. I know the song, I have listened to it over and over again, but I can't remember the name and it's driving me crazy.


Oct. 26 2009 12:07 PM
Anthony from St.Louis

Great show! What is the name of the acoustic song after the Stu segment? Is there a place where you reference all of the music that you sample? Thanks!

Oct. 24 2009 01:30 AM
Miguel Carmona from Portland, Oregon

First off, I have to say that I truly enjoy how Jad and Robert make topics like this so engaging and thought provoking.

The last section really got me thinking. If society breeds out aggression through capital punishment and the other methods discussed, then will we as a society breed out our instinct to defend and protect ourselves? Is our new future one where we will be trapped in a juvenile state looking elsewhere in futility for protection that has been bred out of a few cultures? What about other cultures that continue to grow unfettered? How would the pacified culture defend itself?

In the recent video of a baby stroller falling in the path of a train, two individuals walk out of the station and appear to not react at all to the baby's harm. Surely they heard the mother screaming. If we breed out aggression, will we be reinforcing apathy?

Oct. 21 2009 04:11 PM
travis nobles

i just came across an article on Reuters about a book called Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister. in that book he writes, "As a class we are in fact the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet." it seems that he is saying the same thing, basically that modern 'self-domesticated' humans are wimps compared to our ancestors.

Oct. 21 2009 02:47 PM
George Bone from Silverspring Maryland

Well done. it got me thinking.

Oct. 19 2009 04:56 AM

Fantastic! Among Radiolab's best.

Oct. 09 2009 01:32 PM
Elizabeth Cregan

Caught this story almost by mistake. I was sucked in from the start. The Fitch hypothesis is one I really hope is investigated further. Loved the sound effects too HEHE. Keep up the great stories

Oct. 09 2009 06:44 AM
Jeff Riley from Albuquerque, NM

This episode is great and coincides perfectly with my Anthropology course!

Oct. 08 2009 08:11 PM
Christopher Langston from Brooklyn, NY

This was a great piece. I read the American Scientist piece on Belyaev's foxes in the 1990s and taught from it in my human personality courses at Purdue University. You really put this together in a clear and cogent way. It makes a lot of important points about how evolution works (i.e., with the biological variability and control pathways that exist) and the fact that not all features that are the product of evolutionary processes are themselves adaptations in the sense that selection operated upon them specifically (e.g., the floppy ears are a by-product of selection for other phenotypes by virtue of being tied to the same developmental pathways). Keep up the great work!

Oct. 05 2009 10:21 PM

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