Psychology, Think

Taming the fox: the trend toward self-domestication

July 1, 2012

Alice Toler

According to Temple Grandin, an autistic person and well-known animal behaviorist, animals have the ability to feel only one emotion at a time. Fear and curiosity, as opposite points on a spectrum, are the only exceptions to the rule. “Cows will investigate scary new objects or people in their environment,” she says. “If you stand still in their pasture they’ll start to walk up to you because they’re curious. But if you make even a tiny movement with your hand the’ll jump right back, because they’re also afraid.” Grandin will sometimes lie down in a pasture and let a herd of cows come over and investigate her. If she is still enough, they will sniff and lick her all over.

Though there’s a lot less licking on our agenda, we sometimes act just like those cows. Our minds are many orders of magnitude more complex than the average heifer’s, but the dichotomous fear/curiosity drive still pushes so much of our behavior. There’s a loud noise outside of your house––what do you do? For most of us, the first reaction would be to go investigate, carrying enough adrenaline in our bodies and heightened awareness in our minds to be able to deal with possible trouble. Curiosity and fear occupy either end of an emotional teeter-totter, and any unusual event will place us right on the fulcrum as we try to figure out which way we should tip.

Trauma makes us hyper-vigilant and reactive. Our hyper-vigilant state leads us to defend ourselves against things that are merely new––not necessarily threatening. If you’re a soldier returning from war with your brain chemistry still all keyed up, you might even find your own spouse or children to be a source of dangerous novelty. When we strike out to defend ourselves, we bring the war home and spread the trauma. This is the cycle of abuse, and the antidote to it is to foster patience and calm.

Cows are prey animals, and are hard-wired to be cautious. You might say they’re victims of hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of trauma inflicted by every predator large enough to take them down. Yet Temple Grandin’s patience and calm in their pasture can overcome their fear and let curiosity blossom among them like a fragile flower. Native Americans once used this principle to hunt antelope; they would lie down in the middle of the prairie holding a flag, and wait patiently until a curious antelope came near to investigate. Cows must have been domesticated from their wild ancestors by many generation so patient and calm humans winning the trust of ancestral wild cows, and then instead of killing them, taming and actively breeding together the most gentle of offspring among of those animals.

Antione de Saint-Exupéry captured this act of taming beautifully in his book, The Little Prince. Having fallen to Earth from his home planet (asteroid B-612) the Little Prince encounters a fox, who explains the process of taming a wild animal to him: “You must be very patient. First you will sit down at a little distance from me––like that––in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…” Eventually the Little Prince tames the fox, and they are friends.

In a remarkable experiment, ongoing in Russia since the mid-20th century, wild foxes have in fact been tamed and bred and domesticated. There is no doubt about our hand in domesticating cattle, but… who’s been domesticating us? There is no conspiracy. We did this to ourselves, and we’re not the only self-domesticated ape out there. Bonobos, the peace-loving relatives of the much more violent chimpanzees, have also been called “self-domesticated.”

What we have in common with these gentle apes is an increased capacity for abstract thought and memory compared with other animals, which means that trauma can hang on to us a long time after the actual event is over and done with. A cow may lose a calf but go on to produce more calves every year, because her biology drives her and overcomes the imprint of the loss in her mind. A human mother who loses a child never forgets, and that loss may rule her life to the point where she avoids having any more children for fear of the pain of loss repeating.

People exposed to trauma often work to institute rules and laws that will prevent that trauma from happening again, either to them or to other people. This is why we have seatbelt laws, and why smoking is banned so many places now. This is why people no longer fight duels to the death, and why slavery has been outlawed. Humans, for all our history of depravity, have yet spent the better part of the past 500 years methodically rooting out and abating behaviors that spread trauma. No mother wants to see her son die before she does, and no father wants to see his daughter beaten or victimized.

This trend towards self-domestication is quiet but powerful. Patience and calm consistently tips the seesaw away from fear and towards curiosity––and as the most powerful single species in the history of planet Earth, who do we really have to fear except ourselves?