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How to Tame a Fox (and build a dog) - Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut ****

One of Rudyard Kipling’s just so stories tells us about early humans domesticating animals and how the 'The Wild Dog' became the 'First Friend'. Kipling was right: archaeology and genetics evidence tell us that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated. They descend from wolves that lived about 23,000 years ago. Today, there are so many different looking dogs — Poodles, Bulldogs, Afghan Hounds… — that it is pretty astonishing that they all originated from wild wolves. 

As with other things that happened a long time ago, we can just imagine how this happened (like Kipling did) and scientists can infer it from the data they gather. But ultimately, we have no way of knowing the exact story of what happened. Still, some lines of research may help with this. One particular long-term experiment, started in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule, selecting tame(r) silver foxes throughout generations, has provided plenty of insights on how domestication can happen and how dogs may have become our best friend. The story of this research, the researchers and their foxes is told in How to Tame a Fox (and build a dog).

The book starts as Dmitry Belyaev, then the lead scientist of a governmental research program on fox breeding for fur, plans and starts his experiment to domesticate foxes by breeding less aggressive foxes throughout generations, attempting to re-create the domestication of dogs. This had to be done in utmost secrecy as, at the time, Soviet research in genetics was strictly forbidden. Belyaev knew only too well the consequences of opposing the ruling views on science since several of his colleagues had been imprisoned or had 'disappeared', like his own brother, also a scientist. A few years later, after the death of Stalin and as research in genetics became studied again, he established this research line and put Lyudmila Trut, then a recently graduated scientist, in charge of this research line in a fox farm at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia. (The experiments continue to this day and Trut, now 89, is still the leader of this research.)

In an amazing illustration of the power of evolution happening through (artificial) selection, in a few generations, the foxes became tame, with curly tails, emitting sounds and following humans around — looking and acting almost like dogs. The book, written by an evolutionary biologist, Lee Alan Gugsatkin, and Lyudmila Trut herself, narrates decades of work as seen and felt by the scientists — their enthusiasm, resilience and sometimes despair. 

I find a couple of things slightly unsettling in this book. Although Trut is an author, she is always referred to in third person, which is odd and hard to reconcile with the omniscient author. There is an occasional lack of modesty ('Lyudmila had received the highest caliber of training' and was a 'top young student'), and, in the case of Belyaev, a cult of personality ('a striking handsome man, thick coal-black hair and penetrating dark brown eyes', his 'demanding standards of excellence were profoundly inspiring'). In addition, while animal welfare was definitely seen differently a few decades ago, we are left to wonder about the conditions in which these foxes lived and about their ultimate fate. In addition, the experiments have been criticized by current researchers pointing out that these foxes, farmed for fur, could not have been totally wild to begin with. However, this is still an amazing story.

When reading this book we follow the scientists in their quest while having in the background part of the history of the Soviet Union, making this book an interesting read for both those interested in natural sciences and for those interested in the history of science. I would guess Darwin would have liked to read about these experiments and its results — and perhaps so would Kipling.

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Review by Rita Ponce - See more of Rita's writing here


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