Saturday, 3 October 2009

New Scientist: Charles Darwin erred on the time it takes to domesticate wild animals

The domestication of wild animals, such as otters, takes much less time than Charles Darwin assumed. Image courtesy of Bernard Landgraf, Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

How long does it take to domesticate an animal species living in the wild? Charles Darwin assumed that domestication was an extremely slow process.

New Scientist reports on the experiments that the Russian geneticist Dmitry Belayev initiated 50 years ago. He obtained 130 silver foxes from a fur farm in Estonia and began conducting breeding experiments. While the foxes were wild, they were ”relatively friendly”. In just four generations, some of the foxes began to wag their tails. After 20 years Belayev and his colleagues had domesticated the foxes.

Belayev also experimented with rats, mink and river otters. Some rats became tame in 30 years. The mink were even faster: they began to show signs of domestication in four generations. In addition, over a third of the river otters that were completely wild in the beginning were tame after 13 years.

The long eras speculated by Charles Darwin are thus not necessary at least for the domestication of these animals.

New Scientist could not resist including a little just-so monkey tale into the article: According to the magazine, Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harward University, believes that humans were also domesticated. From a chimpanzee-like ancestor we became the ”relatively tame species” we are now.

Who, then, domesticated man? We did it ourselves, Wrangham says.

This is how it goes. When an article in an out-and-out evolutionary magazine ends with an ape-connection, the readers will no longer dwell on Darwin’s error.


Nicholls, Henry. 2009. My little zebra: The secrets of domestication. New Scientist 2728 (30 September)