Today is a shout out to Dmitri Konstantinovich Belyaev, a Russian geneticist from Novosibirsk, Russia who set about taming the fox in breeding experiments that lasted from the late 1950’s through the mid 1980’s.  His work has continued on at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics.

Dr. Belyaev attempted to domesticate the wild silver fox (Vulpes vulpes) by selecting for those that showed the least fear of humans.  After several generations, they began to wag their tails and lick their human caretakers to show affection.  Since tamed foxes began to show other phenotypes seen in other domesticated animals, he postulated that spotted coats, floppy ears, curled tails and other phenotypic expressions co-migrated for the “tameness gene” which was enhanced in the breeding selection process.

The Darwinist and Mendelian scientific system was disliked by Stalin, who preferred to believe that Lysenko (Lamarckian) evolution was real, as it promised that workers could pass on training during their lifetimes to their progeny.  The fact that the science of Lysenko and Lamarck was balderdash never stopped them, so real scientists were ‘enemies of the state’ and wound up in such places as Siberia.

The ‘anti-fur’ movement never has quite caught on in Russia – it is cold there.  Trapping wild foxes is challenging, so the goal was to create “fox ranches” for their fur.  In his work in siberia, Belyaev discovered some patterns, leading him to the conclusion that ““that domestication was ruled by a process of ‘destabilizing selection’ affecting mechanisms of ontogenetic neuroendocrine control, either directly or indirectly in response to the appearance of a factor of stress…””

Amazingly, tameness began to show its genetic traits after four generation of foxes.  By 15-20 generations, the foxes had begun to manifest other phenotypes that were genetically linked to this tameness gene.  Wikipedia offers “After over 40 generations of breeding, in short, Belyaev produced “a group of friendly, domesticated foxes who ‘displayed behavioral, physiological, and anatomical characteristics that were not found in the wild population, or were found in wild foxes but with much lower frequency….Many of the domesticated foxes had floppy ears, short or curly tails, extended reproductive seasons, changes in fur coloration, and changes in the shape of their skulls, jaws, and teeth. They also lost their ‘musky fox smell’.”

It gives one pause, considering that we EBA’s have been Out of Africa from only about 50,000 to 100,000 years.  I use the term EBA to describe ‘everybody but Africans.’  The human race has undergone a diaspora across the continents, putatively from a single cluster of persons leaving Africa in a single pulse.  That observation says nothing about Africans – our people from that continent show much of the same diversity as the EBA populations.  The breaking-point was about 2000-4000 generations ago.  Under hard genetic selection forces, that is plenty of time for humans to “evolve.”  By comparison to our friends the foxes, even 800 years can be enough time to show evolutionary changes.

What is Race?

We are coming ominously close to the concept of race in this discussion – and it has a solid part here.  I propose to turn the concept on its head, though.  Race is no more than a cluster of phenotypes which people classify as being related.  People use “race” as a classification to determine how related another human is to their tribe.  And the classification is highly subjective within a group.  “Blacks” and “Whites” are the names of classifications which are used by a common subset of people.  To other subsets of people, they do not “see” the classification of Black and White, as their classification system depends on other classes of phenotypes.

For example, my nephew is half-Japanese, half-European.  To my eyes, he looks Japanese; but as he grew up in Japan, it was noticed that he was geikujin, “White,” and was picked on by Japanese students.

Races and Faces

I believe that racism is an innate habit of all Homo sapiens.  We are hard-wired to recognize individual faces from birth.  Babies can be shown to identify familiar vs. stranger faces within two weeks after being born – a time when they are still wrestling with the tribulations of conjugate vision.  There is no doubt that we are locked into faces.  Survival depends considerably upon recognizing familiar faces, “our” faces.

As we incorporate familiar faces from mother and close family, we record visual characteristics of familiar faces.  This is perhaps the most computer-like habit that we express.  It is built in to run independently in infants who are meanwhile struggling with far more simple complexities such as how to nurse, when to sleep.

This early imprinting shows up later in a more sophisticated classification system.

To be continued