by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

November, 2009

Beginning in 1959, Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev began experimenting with foxes to see if they could be domesticated and, more importantly, if the domestication could be passed from one generation to the next. He had observed that domesticated animals, regardless of species, looked different from their wild counterparts: They had different, varied coloring, were different sizes with smaller skulls, had different reproductive cycles, and often had features such as floppy ears and curly tails. In other words, they were “cute.” He theorized that the behavior collectively known as “tameness” was connected to the changes in appearance, probably the result of an animal’s internal biochemistry and that, as such, it should be inheritable. He and his colleagues from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics began with a group of 130 animals but only those foxes that showed minimal fear of humans—1 in 20 males and 1 in 5 females—were allowed to breed. The experiment was carried out at a research farm in Novosibirsk, Siberia.

The results were remarkable. In ten generations, a mere ten years, the foxes didn’t look much like foxes at all. Instead of having plain silver fur, they were multi-colored, resembling Border Collies; further, their hormone and neurotransmitter levels were radically different; their skulls were shaped differently; their reproductive cycle was only half as long, six months instead of a year.

But the most striking change was in their behavior. They no longer feared humans. In fact, the current crop of foxes (the experiment is still going on after 50 years) are happy to see humans and eager for attention. They whimper, whine with joy, and wag their tails at the sight of humans. They answer to names and lick scientists’ hands. They understand human body language and follow commands better than chimps. Dogs have been doing this for thousands of years. That foxes can catch up—even with human help—in a few decades is remarkable.

In ten fox generations, Dmitri Belyaev’s foxes went from wild animals to “fox-dogs” (“fogs?” “doxes?” “pseudogs?”). In ten human generations, about two hundred years, the Christian church was well under way. Martyrdom and persecution were common and would continue until the mid 300’s but the church could not be stopped. Christians continued to grow in numbers. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, had written down thoughts that sound very much like an early version of the Apostles’ Creed. An early version of the canon of scripture (a list of which “books” are considered part of the Bible) for the New Testament had taken form, which looks very familiar to anyone acquainted with the current canon.

The transition of Belyaev’s foxes from wild animals to pseudo-dogs in such a relatively short time seems incredible. And yet, Christ can make an even more remarkable transformation in us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17 KJV.) When we become Christians, we are no longer the same “creature” (newer translations use the word “creation”) that we were. The first chapter of John’s gospel contains an amazing promise: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13 ESV). This is good news indeed! We can be children of God.  The invitation is open “to all who . . . receive him,” even you and me. Paul reminded the Ephesians that they “. . . were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind.” (Eph. 2:3b ESV). And so are we and so is everyone. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can become “new creatures”—no longer wild, rebellious toward God (Deut. 9, 31:24 29; Psa. 68:6, Psa. 78; Isa. 30:9-11) but “tamed” by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us—and share the Good News with our fellow “creatures.”

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3 ESV.)

Copyright © 2009 by David Phelps