Book Review – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

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

Written by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut

Published in March 2017 by Chicago University Press

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) tells a remarkable story about a remarkable long-term experiment you will most likely never have heard of. I hadn’t, despite my background in evolutionary biology. When the announcement for it crossed my desk a month or so ago, its subtitle immediately grabbed my attention.

For more than 60 years, Russian scientists have been cross-breeding captive foxes in Siberia, selecting for tameness, in a bid to learn more about the evolutionary history of animal domestication. Written by evolutionary biologist and science historian Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, who has been part of this experiment for close to six decades, it tells the story from its inception.

Back in 1952, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev had many questions regarding domestication. Though the breeding techniques were well understood, how did domestication start? The wild ancestors of today’s domestic animals would have likely run away or attacked humans, so what changed to make domestication possible? Being the lead scientist at a state laboratory that helped fur breeders produce more beautiful and luxurious fox pelts, he had both the knowledge and the means to tackle these questions. His plan? Experimentally mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog using its close genetic cousin the fox. It was bold, both in its timescale, likely needing years – even decades – to yield results, but also in its timing. You see, Russia was still under the communist rule of Stalin, and one of his protegees, the poorly educated agronomist Trofim Lysenko, was waging a war on the “western” science of genetics. Scientists were expelled, imprisoned, and even murdered over their career choice. But Belyaev, having lost a brother this way, refused to back down. Far from Lysenko’s prying eyes in Moscow, in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, he started his breeding experiments, purporting to improve breeding rates in case anyone did come asking. Lyudmila joined him in 1958, and this book is their story.

It’s a story of science, and the authors do a good job distilling the findings into a reader-friendly format. The results are fascinating as the foxes rapidly evolve from wild animals to tamer and tamer companions that crave human interaction, undergoing a raft of subtle morphological changes in the process. But it’s also very much a human story. Of the women, often local peasants, who came to work at the fox farm, not necessarily understanding the science, but showing immense dedication to the cause. Of the researchers, who developed a deep love for, and connection with the generations of foxes, who rapidly became more dog-like in their behaviour and appearances.

It’s a story of persistence against all odds; the experiments are running to this day and have survived Stalin’s brutal regime, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with all the economic turmoil that that caused. And it’s a story of an opportunity most scientists can only dream of: being able to follow up on previous findings and answering questions raised by previous experiments. Uniquely, this played out during (or perhaps was able to keep going because of) a period in which our knowledge of genetics, and the technologies available, kept on developing. The measuring of neurochemicals, epigenetics, PCR, genome mapping, next-generation sequencing… as new questions were being generated, so new techniques became available to probe deeper into the mysteries of the domestication.

The book makes for fascinating reading and is hard to put down once you start it. Highly recommended.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is available to order from NHBS.

Book of the Week: Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful

Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful jacket imageGeorge McGhee Jr


What?

New volume in the MIT Press Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.

Why?

Following the ethos of this series which looks in detail at the theoretical models behind the practical application of the biological sciences, this new volume looks at the phenomenon of convergent evolution through its manifestation in animal and plant biology, as well as in natural systems of all scales from the molecular world to large-scale ecosystems, and finally extending into the realm of mind where convergent characteristics are found in phenomena like tool use, and the evolution of various behaviours such as reproduction and herding.

This is a fascinating account of the state of current thinking on this subject, which brings into perspective the possibilities of life on our planet and Darwin’s vision of “endless forms most beautiful”.

Who?

George McGhee Jr is Professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University and a Member of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria.

Available Now from NHBS


Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth – Save 20%

If Thomas Henry Huxley was famously ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, then Richard Dawkins is probably best described as ‘Darwin’s pit bull’. – Richard Fortey, The Guardian

Save 20% on the newest book by Richard Dawkins – now available at NHBS.

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150 years ago the momentous findings in Charles Darwin’s masterpiece On the Origin of Species shook the scientific and religious world to its core. Perhaps more astonishing, the Creation-Evolution debate sparked by his seminal work of 1859 continues unabated in the 21st century. Now, Richard Dawkins, world renowned evolutionary biologist and famous atheist, takes on the Creationists with a brilliant and uncompromising look at the incontrovertible evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Get your copy of The Greatest Show on Earth today – and save 20%!

Browse more Richard Dawkins DVDs and books

Darwin’s Bicentenary and the History of Evolutionary Biology

It’s almost the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (February 12th 1809) and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, his ground-breaking theory on the evolution of populations by means of natural selection.

To celebrate Darwin’s Bicentenary we have a selection of books written by Darwin, including his seminal On The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle and The Descent of Man. There is also a wide range of books about Darwin, a section on the history of Evolutionary Biology and our pick of introductory evolutionary biology books for the non-scientist.

We have also put together a summary of the latest titles in evolutionary biology and the Evolution Classics and Bestsellers – our pick of the most important books on evolution from the last 40 years.

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