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How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut
University of Chicago Press
240 pp.
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How to Tame a Fox is the true story of a modern-day attempt to domesticate an animal. The experiment was the brainchild of Dmitry Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist who recruited Lyudmila Trut, one of the coauthors of this book, to help him tame wild foxes in the late 1950s in an attempt to replicate the evolution of wolves into dogs.

The scientists started their work under the shadow of Trofim Lysenko, an agrobiologist who rejected Mendelian genetics and fabricated data but who nonetheless won the trust of Joseph Stalin. With Stalin’s help, Lysenko shut down genetics research in the Soviet Union between the 1930s and the 1950s. As a result, Belyaev’s project, and the lives of the researchers, were initially at risk.

By hypothesizing that tamer foxes would breed more often than wild ones, and thus increase fur production, Belyaev and his team framed their research in terms of potential financial gains for the government, disguising their true aim: to answer fundamental questions about the underlying genetics of domestication. They separated an initial population of wild foxes into groups based on each fox’s willingness to engage with humans and bred the friendliest foxes together. Within only six generations, a new group emerged that were eager to interact with humans—these foxes even began showing more “doglike” physical features (e.g., floppy ears and curly tails). The project continues today, as scientists use new tools to focus on the molecular genetics behind these changes.

This fascinating book sheds light on aspects of Soviet science and history that are little known in the Western world. Some passages are a little long-winded and tend toward hero worship, especially those that concern Belyaev, whom the authors clearly admire. However, it conveys the science and the political environment of the times accurately and convincingly throughout.