Dec 30, 2022

New Normal

This episode —first released in 2009 and then again in 2015, with an update — asks, what is “normal”? Maybe it exists, maybe not. We examine peace-loving baboons with Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, talk to Stu Rasmussen, whose preferred pronouns were he/him (, and his neighbors in Silverton, Oregon about how a town chooses its community over outsider opinions. And lastly, we speak with an evolutionary anthropologist, Duke University’s own Brian Hare, and an evolutionary biologist Tecumseh Fitch, then at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, now at the University of Vienna, Austria, about foxes who love to snuggle.

And what we find is that normal — maybe the only normal — is change.

Reported by - Aaron Cohen
Produced by - Soren Wheeler
with help from - Annie McEwen

Articles -
Stu Rasmussen’s NYT Obituary (

Theater - 
Andrew Russel’s “Stu for Silverton” ( the play based on Stu Rasmussen’s life. 


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JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, you ready?


JAD: All right. Let's open the show today ...

LULU MILLER: Test, test, test.

JAD: ... on a sunny street corner in New Jersey.

LULU: So where are we now?

JOHN HORGAN: We are on Washington Street, which is the main thoroughfare in Hoboken.

JAD: It's a nice day in Hoboken. People are out and about after work.

JOHN HORGAN: Is that sangria? What are you guys drinking here?

JAD: And we're here with a guy, his name is John Horgan.

JOHN HORGAN: I'm a science journalist.

JAD: He's also a teacher.

LULU: Ooh, it is hot!

JAD: And John is out today with our producer Lulu Miller, doing what he often does.

JOHN HORGAN: Okay, here comes someone!

JAD: Which is to go up to someone he doesn't know ...

JOHN HORGAN: Excuse me, sir. We're doing a survey. It'll only take a minute at most.

MAN #1: A minute I can give you.

JAD: And he asks them this one question.

JOHN HORGAN: Here's the question: will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?

MAN #1: No, because of greed and one-upsmanship.

JAD: To explain, John has been asking this question, "Will humans ever stop fighting wars?" for years. Because for him this question, it's not just about war. It gets at something really basic: do we feel we can change who we are? In any case, the first time it popped out of his mouth it was 2003, and a friend had asked him to give a talk at a church just a few days after the first invasion of Iraq.

JOHN HORGAN: And so here I was in this church, and I can remember the mood was very somber. I was determined to try to make people feel that, okay, this is a setback, but still you've got to believe that peace is possible. And I tried to list all the reasons.

JAD: And as he was making his case and getting worked up, he looked at the 60 or so people who were there in the audience and he said, "All right, how many of you here believe that war will end someday?"

JOHN HORGAN: And I think one or two people raised their hands.

JAD: Out of 60. And John thought, "Wait, is this really who we are?"

JOHN HORGAN: And so that's actually when I started reading as much as I can about all these things, and dug up some surveys from the 1980s.

JAD: What he found was that about 20 years ago, people were asking this question.

JOHN HORGAN: Do you think war will ever end?

JAD: Taking surveys. Now granted, they were not the most scientific of surveys, but what the results seem to indicate is that we used to be optimistic back in the '80s.

JOHN HORGAN: Only one in three thought that war is inevitable.

LULU: Huh. So it was a minority.


JAD: Whereas today ...

JOHN HORGAN: Will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?

JAD: If you take that question to the streets of Hoboken as we did, you will find ...

MAN #2: No.

WOMAN #1: No.

MAN #3: No.

MAN #4: No.

WOMAN #2: No.

MAN #5: No.

WOMAN #3: Umm ...

JAD: About nine out of ten people say no.

WOMAN #4: Yes.

MAN #6: Yeah.

WOMAN #5: I think so.

WOMAN #6: No.

MAN #7: No.

MAN #8: No.

MAN #9: Never.

MAN #10: No.

MAN #11: No.


MAN #12: No!

JAD: Now depressingly, the worst part is that when he asked him the next question, "Why do you think this?" invariably, he gets something like ...

WOMAN #7: Because I think there's a human nature is to—for greed and to always want more.

JAD: It's just ...

WOMAN #8: Human nature.

WOMAN #9: A lot of people are big dumb animals, and they're just gonna keep fighting over useless things.

MAN #13: It's in our genes, it's just the way people are.

MAN #14: And I don't think we're ever gonna learn.

JOHN HORGAN: Why do you say that?

MAN #14: I just think that it's too ingrained in our human nature. So ...

ROBERT: So ...

JAD: So ...

ROBERT: So ...

JAD: So ...

JAD: So we want to challenge that last statement.

MAN #14: ... too ingrained in our human nature.

JAD: That one. Okay, we know some things have been handed down to us from our primate ancestors. Violence, maybe. Who knows? Question is: how ingrained is that stuff?

ROBERT: Well, yeah. I mean, if you think that we have inherited something, yeah, what can we do about it? Are we stuck, or ...

JAD: Or can we change if we make the right choices?


JAD: So what we've got for you this hour are three stories ...

ROBERT: Where choice, individual choice challenges destiny.

JAD: Right.

ROBERT: Maybe. [laughs]

JAD: We hope.


JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. Stick around. To get things started, let's just take the question that was just in the air: are we human beings violent forever and forever and forever, amen? Is that just who we are?

ROBERT: That's a good question.

JAD: It's a good question, right? And the people who usually say yes ...


JAD: ... say yes because—in part, because of our ancestors.

ROBERT: We're like them, they're like us. That's how it goes.

JAD: On the other hand, let me tell you a story.

ROBERT: I was hoping there would be another hand.

JAD: Yes. Do you remember this guy?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I'm Robert Sapolsky. I'm ...

ROBERT: Oh, yeah. That's Robert Sapolsky.

JAD: We've had him on the show a couple of times. He's a neuroscientist, spends most of the year at Stanford.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: ... being a lab rat scientist, doing neurobiology in the lab.

JAD: But in the summers ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Most summers I go and spend time in East Africa, in the Serengeti studying wild baboons there.

ROBERT: Why—what is it—what is he working on? What's his reason to be there?

JAD: Well, Sapolsky's interested in studying stress. The effect that stress has on the body. And it turns out, baboons are a perfect source of data because they're always under stress. You know, the one thing we know about baboons, and have known forever, is that they fight ...


JAD: ... constantly.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: ... not just metaphorically, but literally have been the textbook example of a highly-aggressive, male-dominated hierarchical society. Because these animals hunt, because they live in these aggressive troops on the savanna, parentheses just like we humans used to, and thus we evolved very similarly, they have a constant baseline level of aggression which inevitably spills over into their social lives.

JAD: Which is why he studies them. So what Sapolsky does basically, is he goes into the bush and he watches.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Here are field notebooks. And there's a floor of them there. And a whole shelf there.

JAD: His office is covered with these field notebooks, each one containing detailed notes of who groomed who ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And who's not getting along with who, and who's messing around with who in the bushes.

JAD: And he tells the following story of a particular moment in his baboon watching which completely changed his life, changed how he sees the world. It happened about 30 years ago. Sapolsky was a young guy just out of grad school studying his first troop.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: My—my first baboons.

JAD: A troop he really loved.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: These were animals I was very connected with.

JAD: In most ways, it was a pretty average group.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, your basic baboon troop. The females were highly affiliated with each other. They had a very stable ranking system. The males meanwhile, highly aggressive, dumping on each other.

JAD: Because that's just what males do.

ROBERT: Right.

JAD: Or so he thought.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, mid-'80s, a big boom in tourism in Kenya. Wonders for the economy, lots of new lodges, lots of lodge expansions. And there happened to be the next territory over, a tourist lodge.

JAD: And this one particular lodge, he says, had gotten really big really fast.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And during that time, the lodge greatly expanded their garbage dump.

JAD: Which means basically, that they just dug a hole out behind the lodge.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And then each day, a tractor came out with the leftovers and dumped it there.

JAD: So what we're talking about here, if you can nasally imagine, is a big steaming pile of trash, half-eaten food baking in the sun, smell wafting in the breeze for miles and miles and into the nostrils of baboons everywhere. So it was not long before a troop of baboons—not Sapolsky's, but one nearby ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Discovered the garbage, and just started feeding on it. And here they are eating leftover desserts and chicken whatevers.

JAD: To find a dump full of food must be to a baboon like—like wandering into heaven.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's manna in the wilderness.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So this troop almost immediately shifted their entire behavior to they just slept in the trees above the garbage dump, and instead of getting up at six in the morning to start foraging, they would waddle down around two minutes of nine. And the tractor would show up at nine o'clock and dump the food, and they would have 20 minutes of sheer frenzy. And then they'd go back to sort of being couch potatoes.

JAD: And this is how it went for a while.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So they're over there living off of garbage, and somehow some of the males in my troop figure this out.

JAD: These males think, "We gotta get in on this. We've gotta go over there and take their food."

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: What emerged was each morning, a bunch of males would run a kilometer or so to the garbage dump and fight their way in to get some of the garbage.

JAD: So every morning there'd be a showdown, basically.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. And they would come back with canine slashes and stuff like that. And ...

JAD: But they'd also have drumsticks, cakes, hamburgers. And this ritual, says Sapolsky, went on for years.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And then a few years into it, I got word that there were a couple of baboons in this garbage dump troop that looked awful and something was wrong with them.

JAD: Some guys from the lodge had called him and said, "Hey, you better get down here and look at this." And when he got there, what he saw was horrible.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Animals with rotting hands walking on their elbows. I mean, just really bad. So trying to figure out what this is about, get veterinarians involved. And we finally figure out it's tuberculosis.

JAD: Turns out some infected meat had been thrown in the dump and then eaten by the baboons. And this was really bad news because while tuberculosis in people is a really slow moving disease ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: TB kills non-human primates in weeks, and it's a nightmare of a disease for them.

JAD: In just a short time, the garbage dump troop was completely decimated. Not to mention that the tough guys in Sapolsky's troop, the ones that had gone to the dump every morning, they got it too.

JAD: They have the same kind of rotting hands, and ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: They all die of it.

JAD: Oh, wow. That must've been really kind of tragic to witness.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: This was not a good period for me. You know, these were my animals. I had—I had grown up with these guys.

JAD: But, you know, while Sapolsky was heartbroken now that half the alpha males in his troop were dead, he did notice some strange things started to happen. Changes.

ROBERT: How did they change?

JAD: Well, grooming spiked.

ROBERT: Grooming. So you and I sit on a branch, and I take little fleas out of your fur.

JAD: Yes. Well, you know, usually when a female grooms a male, the males never reciprocate. But suddenly, they were. Even weirder ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You saw adult males sitting in contact with each other and grooming each other.


JAD: You know how—how rare that is? It'd be like, if suddenly in the middle of round five of a heavyweight bout, Mike Tyson just decided to stop boxing ...

ROBERT: And nuzzle his opponent. [laughs]

JAD: Or comb Evander Holyfield's hair.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: It would be like that.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: If you're a baboonologist, it would have been less shocking if these guys had wings, or were photosynthetic or something. Up to then I had seen, like, 30 seconds of male-male grooming in the course of 15 years.

JAD: But at the time, Sapolsky kind of wrote it off. This was just some freak event that wasn't gonna last. So he actually stopped studying them.

ROBERT: Even after that big investment of time?

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Scientifically, they were ruined by such a non-natural event removing half the study subjects.

JAD: Oh, as a scientist it became less interesting to you.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You know, that was the rationale. It was just too painful to go and watch these guys. So I moved to the other end of the reserve about 40 miles away and started with a new troop there. And for six years, I would not go anywhere near this corner of the park, because I just didn't want to be there.

JAD: Now fast forward six years, and we come to the moment that really changed things for him, really flipped him into a different way of thinking. And it happened kind of by accident.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So about six years later, I'm out there for the first time with who was soon destined to become my wife, and decided I wanted to kind of show her where I had grown up. What part of the park ...

JAD: Aww, you wanted to go to the old haunt.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, basically. So went there, and the troop was there.

JAD: And they were acting pretty much the same as before: lots of grooming, not so much fighting.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And isn't that nice? And they're still, like, this great remnant troop.

JAD: And he's sitting there with his wife just pointing out all the different baboons. "Oh, there's Tiva, and there's—I don't know, whoever." And then it hits him.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: This epiphinal whatever.

JAD: Wait a second!

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: There was only one male left who had been there at the time of the TB outbreak.

JAD: Dun dun dun!

ROBERT: I don't follow this. What? One male?

JAD: Stick with me for just one second and you will get it.


JAD: The thing about male baboons, first thing you gotta understand, is around puberty, the males get a little antsy.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: They get itchy, they're bored and they just pick up and leave. So in a troop, any of the adult males grew up someplace else.

JAD: Which meant that these new guys that were coming into Sapolsky's troop, were coming in from the outside, from the old world order.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The jerky, real dog-eat-dog world out there.

JAD: So you gotta figure these new males are coming in with old expectations that they're gonna have to kick ass to be respected, which would mean that this whole kumbaya situation should evaporate the moment these guys show up. But it didn't. It stuck.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Oh my God! The new guys are learning we don't do stuff like that here.

JAD: And if the new guys are learning a new way, well, that means the old way, the violent way, isn't the only way.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And this—this floored me. It was one of those moments. It will be one of the three or four best science moments in my life. The key question was how do these guys unlearn their entire childhood culture of aggression, blah, blah, and somehow learn we don't do stuff like that around here?


JAD: Well, what?

ROBERT: Well, how do they unlearn something that was supposedly built in?

JAD: Oh. Well, he doesn't really know exactly.


JAD: But, but but but, here's Sapolsky's hunch. Here's his hunch. And this is really cool. It may have to do with that precarious moment when the new guy comes in. Now normally what happens in this sort of status quo, is that the new guy arrives and it's just a really bad experience for him.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's awful. I mean, you look at them and you just identify with, like, freshman year at college or something. They're completely peripheral. Every male who's higher ranking dumps on them.

JAD: And even worse, this freshman baboon is completely ignored by the ladies.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And you just sit there and say, "Somebody groom him. My God! I went all sophomore year until—somebody groom him! Come on!"

ROBERT: Why don't they groom him?

JAD: Well, because if they did ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Some adult male would have attacked them.


JAD: So the ladies hang back while he's out there biting and clawing and trying to scratch his way in. And what you've got here is a cycle that has existed for a long, long time. But if you make one small change, just remove the alpha male, take him out of the equation, suddenly ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The females are more relaxed, and more likely to take a social gamble of reaching out to somebody new. The key thing is the females.

JAD: Sapolsky thinks that it's all about timing. If the females can get to the new guy early enough, everything's different.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's remarkable. In your typical troop, it's three months on the average before the first female grooms you. In this troop? Six days.

JAD: Get out! Six days as compared to three months?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. And in a world in which from day one as an adolescent male you're treated better, something about the aggressiveness melts away.

ROBERT: The thing though is, Jad, that before we get too carried away, we do have to ask the question just how permanent this change is as nice as it is. So I explained this whole story that you've just told to a professor at Harvard named Richard Wrangham.

RICHARD WRANGHAM: Yup. Professor Wrangham is here.

ROBERT: He's an evolutionary biologist. Studies chimps, particularly. So I asked him, well, okay, you've heard this story about the baboons. What do you think?

RICHARD WRANGHAM: Yeah. No, it's a nice example of the potential for some change. Clearly we should put boundaries on it. You know, lots of baboons have been sighted across Africa, and this sort of example has never been found in a natural context. But ...

ROBERT: What do you mean? Aren't these guys wild baboons that just happened upon a garbage dump?

RICHARD WRANGHAM: Yeah, it's just not a very natural context to have humans provide food that leads to several males dying.

ROBERT: But that means that I could imagine going on a helicopter all over Africa, shooting all the alpha males, and then giving all the ladies a chance to create a different baboon culture. And what I guess I'm wondering is do you think, in an absurd situation like that, that the baboonery might change its essential nature?

RICHARD WRANGHAM: I don't think it'll change its essential nature. I can see that there can be a cultural influence that may last a little bit of time, but the larger influence clearly is the set of genes that produce a particular kind of brain. A baboon is basically a baboon until you get some kind of genetic change. And that is something that Sapolsky has not seen there.

ROBERT: So Professor Wrangham wants a genetic change to make sure that this is really real. Permanent.

JAD: Yeah, but here's the thing. I don't know if this constitutes a genetic change, but it has been 20 years.

ROBERT: Really?

JAD: Yes. 20 years. And Sapolsky's original baboon troop is still operating in this peaceful mode, even though dozens of new males have come and gone at this point.


JAD: And the idea that something that was thought to be so unchangeable could change and change quickly and then stay changed as a result of something so airy and undefinable as culture, well, that has caused Robert Sapolsky, dare I say it, to hope.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Absolutely. And it's not something that I do by nature.

JAD: [laughs] You're not a hopeful guy by nature.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No, not at all.

JAD: In fact, this story got him so hopeful, he decided to send it to Foreign Affairs magazine, which is a magazine read by a lot of politicians.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. And they went for it.

JAD: And so we had to ask him: after it was published ...

ROBERT: ... did anyone write you back?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No, basically not. I basically heard nothing from anyone.

ROBERT: Nothing from anyone?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yes. Big yawning silence. I'm sure George Bush and Cheney read it each evening and tremble at its implications. But no, basically, as far as I can tell, it was a huge waste of time for me to write it.


JAD: Well, we read it.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Thanks. Thanks. My mother didn't, even.

ROBERT: All right, so—so six or seven years have passed, and so we decided that it was only right for us to catch up with Robert Sapolsky.


ROBERT: Well, hello!


ROBERT: Is the person next to you taping?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. No, we're trying to close a window here to decrease the noise.

ROBERT: We found him in a very odd place, actually, for a baboon scientist.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: In the library of a middle school with a bunch of kids outside. [laughs]

ROBERT: How did that happen?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: My wife now directs the musical theater productions.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So somehow I'm playing piano as a rehearsal pianist at this school.

ROBERT: What's the musical?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: We are doing Oliver this year.

ROBERT: Really! Anyway, this has nothing to do with anything we—okay, so—anyway, so ...

ROBERT: I told Robert that we talked to Richard Wrangham, reminded him that Wrangham says, "No, no. Baboons are hardwired to be a certain way, and—and circumstance is never gonna change them in the end."

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yup. Well, he and I [laughs]—this isn't the first time we've disagreed.

ROBERT: And I think we probably had a "We shall see" sort of finish.


ROBERT: So what have we seen since you last talked to us?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So what's been happening?

ROBERT: Yeah, what's been happening?


ROBERT: He says well, there were a few possibilities here.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: There's one scenario where it could've turned into exactly what was being predicted there, which was that the troop would go back to being a typical highly-aggressive baboon troop. The other possibility is the one that I was always, like, dreaming of, which is so you're a kid who's grown up in that troop, and you've grown up on the commune there. And along comes puberty, and it's time for you to pick up and you move to a different troop. And what happens when the kids who grew up in this baboon culture switch to other troops?

ROBERT: Now Sapolsky admits that if just one baboon from the nice troop went off to join the meanies, he'd probably get his ass kicked, but he thinks that if you get two nice baboons together, they make a little bit of a team, and it would be kind of like a critical mass of niceness that just might spread and turn all the other guys nice.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: In principle, this, like, great, unique pacific culture in these baboons could be transmissible.



JAD: Love that.

ROBERT: Okay. Well, don't leave us hanging. What has happened?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, so what actually happened is pretty damned grim.

JAD: Oh. Did they go back to being mean?

ROBERT: In some sense it's really worse than that. Remember how this whole thing begins because there's a troop next to Sapolsky's troop and they'd been eating garbage in a garbage dump?

JAD: Right.

ROBERT: Well, eventually Sapolsky's troop—because now the garbage dump is open and available—they went over there and ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Began living at the tourist lodge, and just living off of garbage.

ROBERT: Now they just sort of squat with the garbage.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And essentially stopped functioning as a coherent troop.

ROBERT: So this question of will they all become nice baboons eventually, or will they all revert back to being mean baboons, that got totally trumped by the garbage situation. There was so much food to eat for these baboons, and it came so free and so available that the natural business of baboonery just broke down.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: A lot of the males wound up being killed by game park rangers there because as per usual with this sort of thing, they got dangerous to the humans there because they got too habituated to humans. So lots of males were killed, the rest of the troop is just sort of fragmented. So I never got to find out what would happen in the long run.

SOREN WHEELER: Because the garbage got in the way again?


ROBERT: That's Soren Wheeler, our senior editor.

SOREN: Well, so the troubling thing here for me is that, you know, there was a traditional baboon culture which was violent and hierarchical. There was this hint of a hope of a different baboon culture which was grooming and happiness, and we had a question about which one of those two would spread or last. But the truth is they ran into some junk food, and then they have no culture.


SOREN: Which I hate to say it, that sounds depressingly like America.

ROBERT: [laughs]

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. And there's bunches of them still there I'm sure as we speak, actually not as we speak, but 10 hours from now they'll be waddling over to get some leftovers. They're probably not missing the culture that they had, but yeah, those were my guys. I had my last season out there four years ago and haven't been back since.

ROBERT: You know, it sounds like you—you need some—a little—you know, a little picker-upper to quote the art folks, "We would do anything for you. Anything."


ROBERT: "We would climb a hill."


ROBERT: "Wear a daffodil." So just so know.


ROBERT: "Leave you all our will."



ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Oh God. That's—I just managed to get that stupid song out of my head from rehearsal earlier today. Thanks a lot.

ROBERT: We'll be right back.

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. Our topic today?

ROBERT: Choice and human destinies.

JAD: Yeah, with the way we are ...

ROBERT: Is that the way we're gonna stay?

JAD: Ah, very nicely put.

ROBERT: Yes. In the last section, we were talking about baboons and their propensity to serious change, which is a maybe or a maybe not. We don't really know.

JAD: Yeah, we'll know in a thousand years.

ROBERT: But let's switch our ape. We'll go to Oregonians, which is a rare subset of human beings.

JAD: [laughs] To set it up, we were thinking a lot about small groups on this show, you know, because that's what we are. We are small group primates. That's the phrase that's sometimes used to describe us humans. And it's a phrase that can carry some negative connotations. As in, "We evolved in these small groups, so we are predisposed to be small minded." No! Small is not always a bad thing. I'm going to tell you a story now that's a small group story. It's—just as a warning, contains a moment or two that's a tiny bit graphic, but we hope you'll stick with it because it's a really cool story. Takes place in a small town. Like, really small. The kind of town ...

STU RASMUSSEN: ... where you can dial the wrong number and still have a conversation.

JAD: Because you know everybody.

JAD: So tell me where we are, and ...

STU RASMUSSEN: Beautiful downtown Silverton. Essentially, our downtown has not changed since the late-'40s, early-'50s.

JAD: Oh, yes it has. But we'll get to that. This is Stu Rasmussen. He is our main character. And a little while back, Stu gave myself and producer Aaron Scott a tour.

STU RASMUSSEN: Movie theater on the corner. The old hardware store on this corner. This building ...

JAD: A tour of his favorite place on Earth: Silverton, Oregon, which is about 40 miles from Portland. It's about 40 years from Portland, actually.

STU RASMUSSEN: You know, it's the town I grew up in, and this is my image for what I want Silverton to be. You know, I rode my bicycle down this street and came to the hardware store to ...

MOTORIST: [car honking] How're you doing?

STU RASMUSSEN: We're doing good. Vince. How are you?

JAD: Does that happen to you a lot? People just honk and wave?

STU RASMUSSEN: All the time. It's a small town. Everybody knows me.

JAD: If it were up to Stu, this town would never change. It would stay frozen in that quaint Norman Rockwell, candy-coated image from his boyhood. The weird thing though, is that that image in his head would probably never have included a guy like Stu—at least Stu as he is now. And if this is a show about change, here is a story about a pretty radical bit of change where you wouldn't expect to find it.

JAD: Speaking of which, can you describe where we are and what we're looking at?

STU RASMUSSEN: Well, we're standing in front of the Palace Theater on the corner of Oak and Water Street.

JAD: This is one of those Gone With the Wind theaters, where it's the big marquee and the bulb lights and everything.

STU RASMUSSEN: Built in 1935 and in continuous operation ever since.

JAD: Stu pulls out some keys and opens it up.

JAD: It's starting to get really cold.

JAD: He suggested that we do the interview here in the town's only theater.

JAD: Mmm, it even smells like a gilded-age theater.

JAD: Which at 1:00 p.m. still smelled like popcorn from the previous night, and was filled with nothing but 200 empty red velvet seats.

STU RASMUSSEN: It's not what you expect in a small town theater.

JAD: No, this is beautiful!

WOMAN: Are you gonna go ahead and turn the lights off?


WOMAN: Okay. See you later.

STU RASMUSSEN: Okay. Thank you.

JAD: We plopped ourselves ...

JAD: Right here. What do you think?

JAD: ... best seats in the house. Right in the middle.

JAD: Let's sit and pretend we're watching the movie of your life.

STU RASMUSSEN: [laughs] Well, there's a dull movie.

JAD: [laughs]

JAD: Hardly. So the movie of Stu begins in 1975. He's 27, and he's in a theater just like this.

STU RASMUSSEN: Seminal moment in my life was when The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out.

JAD: Stu is in the projectionist booth because that's his job. He's changing the reels. And at some point during one of the musical numbers, he glances at the screen.

STU RASMUSSEN: And it was like, "Oh!"

JAD: What was—what was the, "Oh?"

STU RASMUSSEN: Here was this movie with a guy in drag on screen.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rocky Horror Picture Show: I'm just a sweet transvestite ...]

STU RASMUSSEN: He's a sweet transvestite.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rocky Horror Picture Show: ... from Transsexual ...]

STU RASMUSSEN: From Transsexual Transylvania.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rocky Horror Picture Show: Transylvania.]

STU RASMUSSEN: Those are words that I've never heard. I watched that again and again.

JAD: Fast forward 10 years, Stu now owns the theater, just like his dad had before him. He's an upstanding member of the town. He's on the Silverton city council, then on the library board. And then he starts to transform. And everyone will tell you it began with the nails.

STU RASMUSSEN: I think I probably started having my nails done in '94 or '95. And it started out with very masculine nails without polish and square ends, and then slowly grew them out. And then I went into what I considered a masculine nail color of blue.

JAD: And then he says he gradually started to paint them red. Then he put acrylic tips, which got longer and longer.

STU RASMUSSEN: This was the first test of the community.


LORI: Good evening, sir.

STU RASMUSSEN: How are you?

STU RASMUSSEN: Because I would be at the theater taking tickets.

CHILD: Can I have two tickets?

JAD: He'd be dressed as usual in his plaid shirt and jeans.

STU RASMUSSEN: And this hand would come out for their ticket, and ...

DENNIS BEAN: What in the hell are those?

STU RASMUSSEN: You can't miss it.

DENNIS BEAN: And, you know, he had the long fingernails.

JAD: That's Dennis Bean, longtime Silvertonian.

MEGAN DISALVO: One time when I had to give him my ticket ...

JAD: And that's Megan Disalvo. She's 17.

MEGAN DISALVO: And he rips it and, like, his nails, like, went down the palm of my hand and just gave me the chills.

CAL PALMER: Yeah. I think probably his nails were the first thing most people noticed.

JAD: Cal Palmer, veterinarian and city councilman.

CAL PALMER: Born and raised here in Silverton.

AARON SCOTT: Like, was there talk? Were people ...

CAL PALMER: Oh, definitely talk. But it happened so gradually.

JAD: Which is something you hear again and again, "It happened gradually."

CAL PALMER: You know, first it was the nails and, and then at some point in time, he changed the focus of the movie theater, and was really making a game attempt to get new releases down in the theater.

KEN HECTOR: And frequently, you know, when there was a theme kind of movie, he would get into costume. My name is Ken Hector, former mayor of Silverton, Oregon. And very often, the costume would be female attire.

JAD: This is step two of Stu's very careful transition. According to everyone we spoke with, for years after the nails he would "promote" that week's movie by dressing up.

CAL PALMER: One of the new Star Wars movies was out, and it wasn't a coincidence he was dressed as Queen Amidala.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Star Wars: Come back! I love you!]

CAL PALMER: Whatever name is from the movie.

JOHN BUCK: Years ago, I remember—some years ago there was a movie called My Big Fat Greek Wedding?

JAD: That's John Buck, also a lifelong Silvertonian.

JOHN BUCK: That whole day he wandered around town in a wedding dress, complete with a veil.

LINDA WEBB: That, of course, got everybody talking.

JOHN BUCK: Yeah, a lot of people laughed about it.

LINDA WEBB: And at first, I don't think people put it together with ...

JAD: This is Linda Webb. She's a registered nurse.

LINDA WEBB: ... sexuality, transgender or any of those things. I think we thought he was just dressing up to go along with his—with his movie.

CAL PALMER: There was clearly a, "Let's go by the movie theater tonight, because we've got to know what Stu's wearing."

JAD: But for Stu, this was just the beginning of something. He was—he wasn't just clowning around.

JAD: When did your gender complexities begin?

STU RASMUSSEN: Probably 14 or 15. I think I was a shy young man, and interfacing with girls—my mother was a bit strange on that, in that girls were evil and they would—no girl was good enough for her son and da da da da da. So ...

JAD: Did you date at all?

STU RASMUSSEN: Not until I was out of high school.

JAD: So girls were kind of scary, it sounds like.

STU RASMUSSEN: Oh, girls were scary. Yeah.

JAD: While everybody else went on dates, he says, he would build computers from scratch. And even today in his basement, you'll find an entire electrical shop.

JAD: Oh my God!

STU RASMUSSEN: Fun stuff. RF generator, spectrum analyzer, logic analyzer, another logic analyzer.

JAD: In any case, Stu says the best that he can explain himself gender-wise, it's just to say that when he looks in the mirror, he likes himself better when he's dressed as a woman.

STU RASMUSSEN: I don't know how to describe it. It's just—I can't understand it. I mean, some people like to dress up and look like a cowboy or a lumberjack or whatever. You know, it's your mental image of yourself that you look in the mirror and you like.

JAD: So after the nails, after dozens of episodes of socially-acceptable cross-dressing, Stu took the next step. He began to perform some experiments. Like, he would go to the lumberyard just to get some stuff.

STU RASMUSSEN: A couple of pounds of nails or something.

JAD: All the while, he would be wearing a padded bra under his flannel shirt, just to see what would happen.

JAD: So this for you was like a test. It was like a calculated test to gauge ...

STU RASMUSSEN: Absolutely. If it was possible. If I could survive with breasts.

JAD: So when he was 52, he drove into Portland, visited a doctor who put him to sleep. And the doctors made two small incisions.

STU RASMUSSEN: One under each breast, about an inch and a half or two inches long.

JAD: Then they pulled back the skin on each side, slid in an uninflated balloon.

STU RASMUSSEN: And then pumped it up with water until the skin was stretched to the point that it was almost transparent.

JAD: That sounds very painful. Was it?

STU RASMUSSEN: Well, I was asleep at the time.

JAD: But when he woke up he was a different man, because he now had several pounds of new stuff hanging off his chest.

JAD: What were you thinking at that moment?

STU RASMUSSEN: I was thinking, "What have I done?" It was like there's no going back.

LINDA WEBB: I can remember being in Mac's Place downtown at a table, and he was coming across the street with his breasts prominently showing. And it was the first time any of us realized that he had actually had surgery. And one lady was going, "Look! Look!" And the other lady was going, "Don't look! Don't look!"

KEN HECTOR: You know, you would see Stu going across the street and oh my God, look at Stu!

LINDA WEBB: My God, what is he doing?

KEN HECTOR: It's just sort of shocking.

CAL PALMER: There was a buzz around town.

JAD: Was it a situation where he'd walk by and then heads would turn, hushed voices would ensue.

VICTORIA SAGE: Yes, basically.

JAD: This is Victoria Sage, Stu's longtime girlfriend. They've been together for 36 years.

VICTORIA SAGE: So we would be walking in our local Goodwill and we'd be a few aisles away from each other, and I would hear, "That used to be Stu Rasmussen." Like he had changed somehow. Stu's just trying to fulfill that body image he's got in his head.

JAD: But he's also kind of in a way asked you to adjust your body image of your mate. Has that been difficult?


JAD: Okay.


JAD: [laughs]

VICTORIA SAGE: No, I'm sorry. If you—if you want to get kinky about it, a man with [bleep] is kinda cool.

JAD: Huh! Okay. Did—was there ever any concern?

VICTORIA SAGE: There was for me. Not so much for Stu, I think, partly because he didn't hear as many whispers as I felt I did. But I was concerned for the theater business.

JAD: Not without reason. A lot of kids in the town stopped coming to the theater because their parents wouldn't let them. Ticket sales took a hit, and it wasn't long before pickup trucks full of teenage boys would drive by the theater yelling slurs.

VICTORIA SAGE: Oh, I don't know that I go so far as—well, yeah. I guess—I guess "faggot" is a slur, I guess.

JAD: So you get to this point in the sped-up movie narrative of Stu, this point right here, where even though he took it so slowly and was so careful, it's still easy to imagine things turning ugly.

LINDA WEBB: I don't know. What was that movie about the boy that was, you know, drug and beat to death because he was gay in a small town in the Midwest. You know, what ...

AARON: Matthew Shepard?


JAD: But according to Linda Webb, Silverton's not so different from Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard lived. It's a small town.

LINDA WEBB: Very traditional.

JAD: Very conservative.

DENNIS BEAN: You know, you got a lot of rednecks in Silverton.

JAD: That's how Dennis Bean puts it. So it's not crazy to expect the worst. But here's the surprise, and the whole reason we came here to Silverton.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: Monday, January 5, 2009.]

JAD: The worst did not happen.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.]

JAD: There was no redneck rebellion. In fact, the opposite happened.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: Please raise your right hand ...]

JAD: Something historic.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: ... and repeat after me. I ...]

JAD: On January 5, 2009, the town of Silverton elected Stu mayor.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: .. of the city of Silverton, Marion County, Oregon. Congratulations.]

[NEWS CLIP: Silverton has elected the nation's first openly transgender mayor.]

[NEWS CLIP: The nation's first openly transgender mayor.]

[NEWS CLIP: Well, change is definitely in the air this election. Take Stu Rasmussen for example.]

[NEWS CLIP: ... as openly transgender.]

[NEWS CLIP: As he runs his hometown in heels.]

[sound of heels on the floor]

JAD: Speaking of heels, this is in fact the sound of Stu's four-inch heels pounding on linoleum as he goes to a city council meeting.

STU RASMUSSEN: Hello, Harold.

HAROLD: How are you?

STU RASMUSSEN: Couldn't be better. How are you? Good.

JAD: Now call us, you know, city elitists or whatever, but a mayor in a plunging v-neck sweater and a black miniskirt? Not what you would expect in a tiny conservative Republican town.

JAD: So we want to know, you know, why did this happen here?

JAD: So producer Aaron Scott and I walked around town for a couple of days, and we interviewed dozens of people, including a guy named Ken Hector, who Stu beat out for mayor. He's a conservative Republican, definitely not one of Stu's big fans.

KEN HECTOR: It was just a difference in philosophy about—I don't want to sound pretentious but, you know, as a mayor, I think there's certain expectations about professionalism that you should exhibit. He would come in with a tight, clinging top with cleavage down to here.

JAD: You're almost pointing at your belly button there.

KEN HECTOR: Well ...

JAD: A little bit higher.

KEN HECTOR: Come on! You know, when you're at the council meeting, show some dignity here and just dress in the appropriate attire for the occasion.

JAD: Ken even tried to get the city council to impose a dress code on Stu. But when we asked him, you know, are you surprised that the town has embraced Stu, and even gone so far as to elect a mayor? He said ...


JAD: Not in this case.

KEN HECTOR: You know, Stu's a rarity in that, you know, there's a lot of people in this town who are extremely religious, very conservative people. Were it a stranger who came into town suddenly, I'm sure that the support and perception might've been different. But you're talking about a native son who grew up here.

JAD: And he said, "Look, Stu runs the only theater in town. So he's out there every weekend."

KEN HECTOR: Standing out in front of the Palace Theater taking tickets.

JAD: So everybody knows him. Not only that, back in the day, he used to be the cable guy. So he's literally been in everybody's home. He's still the guy you'd call if you have trouble with your computer. So it might sound strange to you, but it's really not. And that is when it hit me: actually, under the right circumstances, a small town can be like the most progressive place on Earth. And it's exactly because everyone's all up in your grill. You are forced to know people. Like, for instance ...

JAD: How long have you known Stu?

SUSIE SIMAARON: Oh my goodness. I grew up with Stu. I mean, we—I remember when Stu was, like, an altar boy at the church with my brother.

JAD: This is Susie Simas, a retired teacher.

SUSIE SIMAARON: Yeah, his parents and my parents were friends.

JAD: Like a lot of folks in Silverton, she has known Stu for so long and in so many different contexts that you can't do that New York thing with him where you're like, you see someone on the sidewalk and you size them up instantly and think "Ah, freak!" No, to her, he's way too complicated for that. You know, to her, he's Stu the altar boy, Stu the computer geek.

SUSIE SIMAARON: Yeah, I probably would call him a geek.

JAD: Stu the city councilman, Stu the mayor. Or ...

SUSIE SIMAARON: He's just Stu.



CAL PALMER: Whatever. That's him.

KEN HECTOR: You know, go on about your business.

JAD: Now to be clear, a lot of the people we talk to, in fact, some of the same folks who said, "Yeah, Stu's just Stu," are still not happy about the situation.

TOM SMITH: No, I mean, I don't think God's a cross-dresser.

JAD: They either felt it was morally wrong, as in the case of this minister, Tom Smith.

TOM SMITH: In Genesis 1:27, it says, so God created man in his own image.

JAD: Or some folks like Linda Webb's husband John just felt like he takes it way too far.

JOHN WEBB: And it's right there. It's in your face. He dresses kinda like a streetwalker.

LINDA WEBB: You feel that that's confrontational?


JAD: But most of the people who had objections, it was a little more nuanced. And it went something like this.

JOHN BUCK: Well, I personally did not vote for him for mayor because I didn't feel that it was a good idea to have someone that looked like that representing us. But on the other hand, he is a good man and he's got this town at heart.

JAD: In other words, according to John Buck, the problem really isn't Stu or the town, it's the outside, all those people out there who are gonna hear about Stu and then judge them,

which is what makes November 25, 2008, such an interesting day. Stu had just been elected mayor. He'd squeaked it out by about 400 votes, but he hadn't yet been sworn in, when a group of Christian extremists from Kansas showed up in town and started marching up and down Main Street, yelling at people. And at one point, they even unfurled an American flag, put it on the ground and stepped on it, just to show how offensive they found Stu.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protester: It's our duty to come out here and preach to everyone. The man is disgusting.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protester: These folks hate Stu because they will not by any means warn him about the sin that's taking him to hell.]

STU RASMUSSEN: So unpleasant. And then bringing up signs that say things like ...

CAL PALMER: God hates Silverton. God hates your mayor.

JOHN BUCK: God hates fags.

CAL PALMER: Your pastor is a whore.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protester: It's an abomination for a man to put on women's clothes and to be the opposite sex.]

JAD: A few folks from the town decided to start a counter-protest.

DENNIS BEAN: We stood across the street from these people, by and large.

JAD: Just a few guys at first. Now earlier, someone had suggested ...

JESSE DAVIDSON: All the guys ought to dress up as girls, and all the girls ought to dress up as guys.

JAD: Jesse Davidson said his initial reaction was, "Yeah, right." But there he was in a dress.

AARON: Was that the first time you got in a dress in public?

JESSE DAVIDSON: I admit it, but that really actually was the first time.

JAD: He says that at first, he and the two or three other guys who had on women's clothing felt a little weird. But then ...

JESSE DAVIDSON: People just started coming. It was just amazing.

DENNIS BEAN: It was a couple of hundred people. I mean, men dressed like women, women dressed like men.

JESSE DAVIDSON: Some of the people that I saw down there were surprising to me, because I had labeled them in my head as conservative. And people would drive by, people with signs. "God loves Silverton." "God loves Stu." With the costumes.

DENNIS BEAN: The town was really alive.

CAL PALMER: And the crowds just kept getting bigger and bigger.

JAD: What were you—what were you thinking at that moment? From what I understand, you were standing off to the side, just watching. What was going through your mind?

STU RASMUSSEN: Yeah. Well, honestly, I tried to discourage people from even giving them the time of day, saying don't give them any attention. I couldn't get that to happen. They were so angry. They came out. 200 people. Men in dresses, grandmothers, babies. It's just amazing. And that was the town, that wasn't me. Sorry, I get a little emotional.

JAD: That must've been a turning point for you.

STU RASMUSSEN: The biggest one, yeah.

JAD: Props to Aaron Scott, who did a huge chunk of the reporting for that piece, and co-produced it with me.

ROBERT: We'll be right back.

JAD: Okay, so that story, we did that years ago, and it just feels like the world is different now. Like, with regards to transgender issues. And we wondered, like, how have things changed for Stu in these last six, seven years?

ROBERT: So ...

STU RASMUSSEN: Hello there!

AARON: Hello!

STU RASMUSSEN: Long time no see.

AARON: A long time indeed.

ROBERT: ... we decided to send producer/reporter Aaron Scott back to Silverton to sit down with Stu and with Stu's partner Victoria just to catch up.

AARON: I mean, it's been seven years since—or will be going on seven years, six years since we ran this story the first time. What has been going on in your world?

STU RASMUSSEN: Well, since the election, that's been about it.

AARON: So the first thing he told me was that he got reelected after two years, and then he was reelected again. And then after six years as mayor, he's now out of the game.

STU RASMUSSEN: Hallelujah! [laughs] I am truly enjoying my vacation.

AARON: And he did tell me that back when this story first aired, things did get kind of nutty.

STU RASMUSSEN: Well, you know, it's probably the most unusual phone call we've ever received. Victoria and I were sitting at home, the phone rang and it was a fellow from New York City who said "I was bicycling on Manhattan, listening to the original Radiolab piece," and he thought it would be really fun to do my life story as a musical.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stu for Silverton: [singing] I don't know what I feel, but I know it's a big deal, then they reveal.]

AARON: And he did. That fellow is Andrew Russell. He put on a big production up in Seattle. It got standing ovations.

STU RASMUSSEN: The most surreal and bizarre experience in my life sitting in an auditorium with 400 strangers watching as, in song and dance, my life goes by.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stu for Silverton: [singing] He can call me "she," and she can call me "he." And he can call me "she," and she can call me "he." And he can call me "he," and she can call me "she," when you refer to me by gender.]

AARON: So there was this musical which seemed to do pretty well, and then a movie producer called him up and said that he wanted to option Stu's life for a movie. And now Victoria says those whispers that they used to get, those have turned into people wanting autographs or stopping them in the show store and saying ...

VICTORIA SAGE: "Aren't you Stu? Aren't you that mayor?"

STU RASMUSSEN: "Can I get a picture with you?" "Well, sure. What's the big deal?"

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stu for Silverton: [singing] There's really no way you can lose!]

AARON: But one of the most interesting things for me was that a lot of that attention was at the beginning. These days Stu says that, you know, as transgender issues have grown in the national news and on TV shows, Stu says that back in Silverton the fact that he's transgender ...

STU RASMUSSEN: It's become pretty much passe, so here we are.

AARON: He says it's just kind of routine now for him and everyone else, except he did say there's this one thing: every time the story airs or re-airs, which it does from time to time ...

STU RASMUSSEN: When it—when it goes the phone starts ringing and we can tell where it's from.

AARON: ... he says he gets these calls from people who are struggling with their own gender issues, or trying to figure out how to come out to their families.

AARON: And people actually call your home phone.

STU RASMUSSEN: Yeah. Usually anonymously, they won't identify themselves necessarily because they're still either closeted or not really ready to come out, but they're saying, "Thank you so much for being yourself and for telling your story to others so that I can—you know, I can validate my life from that. Thank you."

AARON: Does that ever get old?

STU RASMUSSEN: No. For somebody who was in the position that I was and made the change, and then to have other people either following along or, you know, emulating it in one way or another is very gratifying because it validates my life and it says well, you weren't a complete waste of time.

AARON: A lot more than a lot of people get.


ROBERT: Special thanks to producer Annie McEwen for helping us on all the update parts of this show.

LULU: We do have some sad news: Stu Rasmussen, the two-time mayor of Silverton, Oregon, cinema proprietor, card-carrying member of both the ACLU and the NRA, and good neighbor passed away in November of 2021. He is and will continue to be missed.

ROBERT: Are we about to do foxes?

JAD: Yes, we are.


JAD: Three, two, one. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today, we're talking about, well, change, really. Or what looks like change.

ROBERT: So you remember back to the baboons when we started this program?

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: The question we were asking then was will those baboons, if they do enough generations, will they create a new culture?

JAD: Yeah, will it stick?

ROBERT: Will it stick?

JAD: Let's hope.

ROBERT: Let's hope, but we don't know. And the town that chooses a mayor, is that town expanding the sense of possibility, or is this just a little blip?

JAD: Let's hope!

ROBERT: Let's hope. Yeah, exactly. But now let's get really serious. There are, indeed, changes that do stick, and we're going to examine a rather startling example of it right now. But to do that, we need an evolutionary biologist, and we found one at Duke University.

PRODUCER: Can you guys talk to each other now?

BRIAN HARE: Yeah. Hello, hello?

JAD: Who's this?

ROBERT: That's Brian Hare.

BRIAN HARE: That's fantastic.

ROBERT: And the first thing Brian Hare did was tell me about another guy ...

BRIAN HARE: Dmitry Belyaev.

ROBERT: ... named Dmitry Belyaev.

BRIAN HARE: And Dmitry Belyaev was a very famous geneticist in Russia. He was alive during World War II, and doing genetics work.

ROBERT: But after World War II, he was in a little spot of trouble.

JAD: Why? What did he do?

ROBERT: Well, because he was a real Darwinian. He believed in evolution and genetics.

BRIAN HARE: Thinking about evolution like a Darwinian evolutionist does, that was not popular in Stalin's Russia.

ROBERT: Is "popular" the word or was that a death sentence?

BRIAN HARE: It was a death sentence. So the writing was on the wall, and he knew that he should probably take the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow.

ROBERT: Quickly.

BRIAN HARE: Quickly! And he went to Novosibirsk. And the way that Dimitry Belyaev decided to hide his continued interest in studying Darwinian evolution was he would begin a fox farm where he would make fur coats.

ROBERT: So what is Mr. Belyaev actually doing?

BRIAN HARE: What Dr. Belyaev was actually interested in was to understand how does domestication happen?

JAD: That's his question? That's a dumb question!

ROBERT: No, it's not a dumb question at all, because ...

JAD: Well, you just—you bring the ...

ROBERT: No, think about a wild animal. It is impulsive, it is aggressive, it growls.

[wolf growling]

JAD: What is that, a wolf you're playing there?

ROBERT: That's a wolf that I've got there in the background. Now this is a domesticated version.

WOMAN: Good boy. Good boy! Come here!

JAD: Doggy!

ROBERT: The nature of the animal has completely changed here. And if you want to learn something about the nature of a creature, how it can change ...

BRIAN HARE: Domesticated animals are a wonderful place to start.

ROBERT: So Belyaev ...

BRIAN HARE: He decided, "Why don't I just experimentally domesticate some animals?" And his cover was that he was going to make better fur coats.

JAD: When was this, by the way?


ROBERT: Okay, so Sputnik was up. Russians were feeling good, and he was making fur coats, so to speak.

BRIAN HARE: So to speak. Began one of the most exciting experiments in biology.

ROBERT: So here's what Dimitri Belyaev does: he goes to a bunch of fox farmers, and he says, "Okay, I want to buy a bunch of foxes."

BRIAN HARE: And he says, "Well, all I gotta do is take this group of foxes and break them into two groups. And one group, I'm not gonna change them in any way."


BRIAN HARE: So it's like a control line.

JAD: So one group is just normal foxes?

ROBERT: Normal. But ...

BRIAN HARE: "The other line, I'm gonna decide who is going to be allowed to breed and who is, unfortunately, going to be a fur coat."


ROBERT: So some of the foxes get to have puppy foxes of their own.

JAD: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT: And some foxes become fur.

JAD: Ooh!

BRIAN HARE: So what he did—and the test was marvelously simple.

ROBERT: He would go, or one of his assistants would approach a cage ...

BRIAN HARE: Where the fox was kept.

ROBERT: With this little baby fox.

BRIAN HARE: Sort of a juvenile fox. The experimenter would stand, say, a foot away, and would just try to touch the fox.

ROBERT: Hi, little fox. Hi, little fox!

JAD: Run fox, run!

ROBERT: But If the fox would make this kind of sound ...

[fox chirping sound]

BRIAN HARE: And sort of cower in the corner, like most foxes would do ...

JAD: What is that? What's that sound?

ROBERT: That is the sound a fox makes when it's frightened.

JAD: Really?

ROBERT: Yes. Frightened fox sound.

JAD: Huh. So what happens if it makes that sound?

BRIAN HARE: Well, they did not breed that fox in the next generation.

ROBERT: Or to put it another way, they kill them.

BRIAN HARE: That—pretty much, yes.

JAD: That's just wrong.

ROBERT: But now, every so often, like, maybe one out of every twenty foxes, there would be a fox that would not run back, would not ...

[fox chirping sound]

JAD: So it wasn't afraid then.

BRIAN HARE: Then they would choose that fox to breed in the next generation.

JAD: Yay!

ROBERT: And they did this over and over again, generation after generation. They would breed the nice foxes together.

JAD: Yay!

ROBERT: Get rid of the bad foxes. Breed the next set.

JAD: Yay!

ROBERT: Get rid of the bad foxes. Breed the next set.

JAD: Yay!

ROBERT: Next set.

JAD: Yay!

ROBERT: Next set.

JAD: Yay!

ROBERT: Next set.

JAD: Yay!

ROBERT: Next set.

JAD: All right, all right. What happened in the end?

ROBERT: Well, eventually ...

BRIAN HARE: They had foxes that were attracted to humans.

ROBERT: Now Jad, how long do you think it would take to get foxes from being wild, ferocious animals to being animals who would lick your face?

JAD: After this kind of like ...

ROBERT: How many years?

JAD: ... exterminating, breeding technique?

ROBERT: Yes, after the breeding technique.

JAD: I would think a long, long time. I mean, I would think, like ...

ROBERT: How long?

JAD: Like, how many years, you mean?

ROBERT: How many years? How many years?

JAD: Well, it took wolves, like, thousands of years to become dogs. So I don't know. I mean, a long time.

ROBERT: Well, here's the thing: 10 years is the answer.

JAD: What?

ROBERT: 10 years.

JAD: No, shut up!

ROBERT: It took just ten years.

JAD: 10?

ROBERT: Don't tell me to shut up. I'm telling you, it's 10 fox generations.

JAD: Are you serious? 10 years?

ROBERT: But now here's the crazy thing.

BRIAN HARE: What was exciting and surprising was that these same foxes, they actually show a whole suite of changes that he did not select for on purpose.

JAD: Like, what do you mean?

ROBERT: Physical changes. These foxes, as they became more gentle, for some unaccountable reason, their ears, instead of pointing straight up, flipped over.

BRIAN HARE: That's right. It was a big accident that they now have floppy ears.

ROBERT: The tails on a fox, which on a wild fox, they're straight, now ...

BRIAN HARE: They have curly tails. They have multi-colored coats that are no longer just gray.

ROBERT: The tips of their paws lose color. The teeth get smaller.

BRIAN HARE: And their bones became very thin.

JAD: Their bones got thinner?


BRIAN HARE: Yes. So what happens to the skull and the face is it actually becomes more feminine.

ROBERT: The whole animal becomes more delicate and more puppy-like.

JAD: Wow! That's—I don't know what to make of that.

ROBERT: And it's not over. This experiment has been going on, it's now been 50 years, 45,000 foxes later.

JAD: 45,000?

ROBERT: And Brian, by the way, who has read about this said, "I got to see this for myself." So he went to Novosibirsk just to check it out.

BRIAN HARE: I did. I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which, you know, two days of looking at green grass, and there's, like, one species of tree, and I think there was a butterfly that was kind of pretty.

ROBERT: And was it birch trees you were looking at? Birch tree, then another birch tree, then another birch tree?

BRIAN HARE: Pretty much. You got it. You got it. So I show up, and they had thousands of foxes. Giant buildings that are probably, you know, as long as a football field full of just rows and rows of foxes. And when you see them, they actually wag their tail, they whine like a puppy dog. They're cute and cuddly, and they love people, and they don't bite. So it sounds perfect, except for, the one thing I forgot to tell you is that when they're yapping and excited to see you, they cannot help but pee for joy.

ROBERT: [laughs]

ROBERT: As I do whenever I see you.

JAD: What I don't understand though, is it makes sense to me that they're getting nicer, because they're breeding them to get nicer, but why is all this other stuff happening to their bodies? What's going on?

ROBERT: Well, you know, this is the unsatisfactory answer to that problem: nobody really knows why.

JAD: Gah!

ROBERT: But ...

TECUMSEH FITCH: Okay, I'm rolling at my end.

ROBERT: This is Tecumseh Fitch.

TECUMSEH FITCH: So here's a synchronize—sync.

ROBERT: An evolutionary biologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. And he has a notion.

TECUMSEH FITCH: My hypothesis for what's going on here, and this is just a hypothesis ...

ROBERT: Here's what he told me. He says you gotta go back to when a fox is a very, very little itty-bitty thing ...


ROBERT: ... inside its mother's womb.

TECUMSEH FITCH: Very, very, very early embryo, like two months old.

ROBERT: To become a fox that can survive in the world, this little embryo needs to grow strong teeth.

JAD: Yup.

ROBERT: It has to grow fur.

JAD: Need the fur.

ROBERT: Has to have bones, strong bones.

JAD: Got to have the bones.

ROBERT: It needs to grow glands.

JAD: Yep.

ROBERT: It needs to grow hormones.

JAD: Check.

ROBERT: And all of these things that you need as an adult fox ...

TECUMSEH FITCH: All of them come from the same founder population of cells in an embryo.

ROBERT: Wow. I didn't know that.


ROBERT: They're called neural crest cells. When the fox grows, these cells ...

TECUMSEH FITCH: They're doing these epic migrations. These guys are like pioneers that are moving throughout the body, and blazing these trails all over the place. Some of them go out into the skin.

ROBERT: Some of them go up into the cartilage of the fox's ears.

TECUMSEH FITCH: Some of them go into the jaw, and form all these different tissues: teeth, tail, big parts of the nervous system, major parts of the brain.

ROBERT: And the adrenal glands.

JAD: What's the adrenal gland?

ROBERT: Well, that's the most important one for our purpose. The adrenal gland pumps out when to be afraid.

JAD: Ah!

ROBERT: The adrenal glands say, "Run away! Run away! Run away!"

JAD: That's the thing that makes the fox go ...

[fox chirping sound]

JAD: ... whatever that sound was?

ROBERT: It's the one that makes that sound. So when you're breeding fear out of an animal, maybe what you're doing is you're slowing down the migrations of these cells. They don't deliver the fear, and then they don't deliver all the other things that they usually do.

TECUMSEH FITCH: What you're focusing on, what you as the experimenter are doing is saying, "I want the guys whose adrenal glands don't mature quickly." That might have the function of making the animal more tame, but what you're doing as a by-product of that is selecting for guys who don't get as many of those cells into their ears, and don't get as many of those cells into their skin, and don't get as many of those cells into their teeth.

ROBERT: So if you get some of the cells you need to make your ears firm and straight but not quite enough, then your ear will go up to a certain point, and since the cells aren't gonna complete the deal, the rest of your ear flops over.

JAD: Really?

ROBERT: Yeah, you haven't completed the task.

JAD: Is that why the dogs have little floppy ears?

ROBERT: Yeah, because their cells have been slowed down to the point where they don't finish the job.

JAD: Oh, they are literally arrested.

BRIAN HARE: Bingo! The argument is that actually when you select against aggression in animals, you're changing the time and the rate of development such that the experimental foxes are actually frozen as juveniles. They actually never really grow up.

ROBERT: So then to domesticate a fox, just like to domesticate a wolf into a dog, what you're doing is you're making them permanent puppies. It's a Peter Pan kind of thing.

JAD: Wait, wait, wait. So if we wanted to apply this to us, and we wanted to, say, breed a gentler, sleeker, human being, we should just kill the football players? Is that the idea?

ROBERT: What do you mean kill the football—you don't have something against football players?

JAD: No. Actually, I like football. But I mean, like, with the foxes, you just eliminate the meanies.

ROBERT: Oh, the meanies. Yes.

JAD: Would the same thing happen to us?

ROBERT: That's where it gets really interesting. Remember the professor we interviewed a few hours back, Richard Wrangham?

JAD: Vividly.

RICHARD WRANGHAM: Well, when we think about humans, obviously we're getting just super speculative. But ...

ROBERT: He says if you choose to go back ...

RICHARD WRANGHAM: ... if we go back just 30,000, 50,000 years.

ROBERT: ... and you look at the collection of skulls, and the early versions of us from way back then, you see some interesting fox-like changes.

RICHARD WRANGHAM: Well, if you look at domesticated animals, they have smaller teeth than their wild ancestors. And in humans, we've been getting smaller teeth over the last few tens of thousands of years.

ROBERT: Just like the foxes.

RICHARD WRANGHAM: We've been getting more gracile bones. That means to say that for a particular length of limb bone, it becomes a little bit narrower.

ROBERT: Just like the foxes.

RICHARD WRANGHAM: So it is tempting to think that the same kind of process has been going on in humans as has been going on in domesticated animals, which is that there's been natural selection in favor of a kinder, gentler human.

ROBERT: Wait a second, though. Who's doing the selecting? In the case of the foxes, Mr. Belyaev shot you if you were too aggressive. Who's selecting the—who's domesticating the humans?

RICHARD WRANGHAM: Well, one idea that has been specifically suggested is that it was the growing tendency for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to settle down in stable camps.

JAD: You mean like summer camps? Like sing songs around the fire kind of camps?

ROBERT: No. I'm talking about communities. Look, if you are in a very small family group, well then it pays to be big and strong and mean because if you're the biggest guy and you meet a smaller guy and he's got some potatoes, you grab him, eat his potatoes, beat him up.

JAD: Yeah!

ROBERT: And then move on to the next, and you never have to see him again. But let's say that as time passes, human society grows a little bit. You form camps. They might have 30 or 40 people. That way you can build bigger fires, and you can catch more bunnies, and you can defend against enemies. But in this world, if you beat everybody up, you may not survive that.

TECUMSEH FITCH: When pitted against anybody else one-on-one, the big, strong, mean guy is generally gonna win. When big, strong, mean doesn't win—and we see this in some primates—is when you can start to form coalitions. When you can start to have multiple individuals who say ...

JAD: "Hey, mean guy, stop it!"

TECUMSEH FITCH: "Yeah, you're bigger than any one of us, but you can't take on both of us or all three of us or our whole group."

RICHARD WRANGHAM: Now we've got other males in the community who aren't going to go away, and they say, "Okay, we've got to deal with this guy." And maybe they deal with him by shouting him down, ostracizing him, or even capital punishment.

ROBERT: And Richard Wrangham's theory is that if that happens enough times to enough bullies who then can't have kids and spread their genes because they have the unfortunate condition of being dead, then we've essentially bred out ...

RICHARD WRANGHAM: The more aggressive genes.

ROBERT: Or we have domesticated ourselves.

TECUMSEH FITCH: We're really talking about groups versus individuals here. And so in a sense, I think we're really talking about the beginning of society, and a kind of rule of law in the way that we think of it today.

ROBERT: And this pressure to be a little more gentle and to be a little bit more cooperative, this hasn't gone away.

TECUMSEH FITCH: I think if anything, we're being selected to work together more, to be able to tolerate being packed in even tighter. If you put 20 chimps on a jet plane and try to send them across the Atlantic, let me tell you that only one or two would walk off that plane alive. We do this all the time. We take it for granted as human beings that big groups of people can get along with one another.

RICHARD WRANGHAM: I do think that it's reasonable to imagine that humans have a future of increasing self-domestication.

ROBERT: What I sense you proposing is that as the Earth gets more crowded, all the creatures on Earth, or at least sentient creatures, have to start learning to live with each other a little more because they keep bumping into each other, the winners will be the domesticated ones. Everyone will get more empathetic to each other because that's the only way you survive. And we get gentler and gentler and gentler 'til lambs literally lie down with lions.

RICHARD WRANGHAM: You said it beautifully.

ROBERT: But do you believe it? [laughs]

RICHARD WRANGHAM: [laughs] Well, we may have to go through one or two ups and downs before we get there. And of course, there's something slightly alarming about the fact that one possible mechanism by which domestication has happened in humans is through literally execution of the more aggressive types. But in the long-term, sure, let's hope that all of us become more ...

JAD: Floppy-eared?

RICHARD WRANGHAM: More floppy-eared. Exactly. [laughs] Little white patches on the ends of our tails.

ROBERT: Remember when we started working together and how mean I was?

JAD: [laughs] You have—oh, my God, we've domesticated you!

ROBERT: Yes, you have domesticated me.

JAD: I have noticed your ears have been looking a little different recently. Show me your teeth. Smile? [laughs]

JAD: Anyhow, we should go to break. Or not go to the break, just go to the big break, which is the break that exists between us and everything else.

ROBERT: Yes, let's listen to the way we end it all.

JAD: Bye!

LULU: Thank you for listening. Lulu again. Before we let you go, just wanted to leave you with a fun—or actually kind of rather depressing fact which is that only 0.02 percent of people are members of The Lab and support Radiolab in that way. And if we could get that number up even a tiny bit before the year's end, it would help us hugely. So if you are curious, if you're thinking maybe, if you've got a couple bucks to toss in, there's a way you can do it: just go to That's Thanks so much!

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Ekedi Fausther-Keeys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

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