How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)
by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut
(Univ. of Chicago, $26)
In 1959, two Soviet geneticists launched “a singular experiment,” said Barbara Kiser in Nature. Curious to learn how humans had succeeded in domesticating wolves, Dmitri Belyaev and intern Lyudmila Trut began trying to replicate the process on an accelerated timetable, but with foxes. Working on a breeding farm in Siberia, Trut selected the calmest animals for mating, then repeated the process, beginning a selective breeding process that has now carried on for more than 55 generations. The story of the discoveries the experiment has yielded would be extraordinary even without the political context, said Marlene Zuk in The New York Times. But because the project was launched in a climate hostile to such research, How to Tame a Fox reads as “part science, part Russian fairy tale, and part spy thriller.”
Trut and Belyaev hid the true nature of their project, and for good reason, said Jennie Erin Smith in The Wall Street Journal. In the 1950s, Soviet biologists still had to answer to a Stalin appointee who rejected genetic research and on occasion had dissenters executed. But Trut was closely watching how selective breeding altered behavior, and she noticed when a fourth-generation pup began wagging its tail. Succeeding generations of foxes became more doglike in appearance too, and Belyaev theorized that by prioritizing calmness, the team had triggered a cascade of changes in the genes regulating a fox’s endocrine system, producing traits—floppy ears, curly tails, out-of-season mating— shared by other domesticated mammals.
“I wanted more science,” said Matthew Cobb in the New Scientist. The book has plenty of space to describe adorable foxes angling for belly rubs. But though we’re told about 335 genes that show differences in activity between tame foxes and control foxes, there’s little evidence those genes played a part in wolf domestication. Still, the study’s findings continue to intrigue scientists worldwide, and I was glad to learn tame foxes can now be adopted as pets. “After reading How to Tame a Fox, I am very tempted, but my cats would object.”