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

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9780226444185: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution
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Tucked away in Siberia, there are furry, four-legged creatures with wagging tails and floppy ears that are as docile and friendly as any lapdog. But, despite appearances, these are not dogs—they are foxes. They are the result of the most astonishing experiment in breeding ever undertaken—imagine speeding up thousands of years of evolution into a few decades. In 1959, biologists Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut set out to do just that, by starting with a few dozen silver foxes from fox farms in the USSR and attempting to recreate the evolution of wolves into dogs in real time in order to witness the process of domestication. This is the extraordinary, untold story of this remarkable undertaking.

Most accounts of the natural evolution of wolves place it over a span of about 15,000 years, but within a decade, Belyaev and Trut’s fox breeding experiments had resulted in puppy-like foxes with floppy ears, piebald spots, and curly tails. Along with these physical changes came genetic and behavioral changes, as well. The foxes were bred using selection criteria for tameness, and with each generation, they became increasingly interested in human companionship. Trut has been there the whole time, and has been the lead scientist on this work since Belyaev’s death in 1985, and with Lee Dugatkin, biologist and science writer, she tells the story of the adventure, science, politics, and love behind it all.  In How to Tame a Fox, Dugatkin and Trut take us inside this path-breaking experiment in the midst of the brutal winters of Siberia to reveal how scientific history is made and continues to be made today.

To date, fifty-six generations of foxes have been domesticated, and we continue to learn significant lessons from them about the genetic and behavioral evolution of domesticated animals. How to Tame a Fox offers an incredible tale of scientists at work, while also celebrating the deep attachments that have brought humans and animals together throughout time.

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About the Author:

Lee Alan Dugatkin is an evolutionary biologist and historian of science in the department of biology at the University of Louisville. His books include The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness and Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press. Lyudmila Trut is a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. She has been the lead researcher on the silver fox domestication experiment since 1959.
 

Review:

"A story that is part science, part Russian fairy tale, and part spy thriller. . . . Sparkling." (New York Times Book Review)

:Dugatkin is a veteran science writer with a knack for turning sprawling subjects into compact, enjoyable narratives. Ms. Trut, now in her 80s, is both a co-author and a subject of the book, an unusual arrangement. But her intense participation adds a rare degree of intimacy to this science story." (Wall Street Journal)

"A cheerful, easy-to-read account that expounds upon the wonders of scientific achievement. . . . The authors weave other charming histories of other scientific studies and events throughout the book, including the discovery of hormones, pedigree analysis, animal communication, human evolution, and Belyaev's travels in international scientific circles. Writing a simple, straightforward narrative suitable for lay readers, Dugatkin and Trut spin complex genetic science into a fascinating story about adorable foxes." (Publishers Weekly)

"Profound insights into how dogs evolved from wolves come from a remarkable, multidecade experiment on foxes that was carried out under the supervision of the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev from the 1950s onward. Because much of the research was published in Russian, How to Tame a Fox, which is cowritten by Lyudmila Trut--a central figure in the project over many decades--will be widely welcomed for the extraordinary detail it contains."
  (Tim Flannery New York Review of Books)

"Our furry companions evidently descended from wild wolves—resulting from thousands of years of human selection. Nearly 60 years ago Russian researchers Trut and Dmitri Belyaev decided to domesticate wild foxes to learn in detail how the journey from wild beast to household pet happens. They set up their experiment on a farm in Siberia and over the following decades mated the tamest animals from each successive generation. In this book, biologist and science writer Dugatkin and Trut recount this grand experiment. The result: a host of docile foxes and the identification of the genetic underpinnings for their domestication.”
  (Scientific American)

“Can new kinds of animals be brought into being outside of DNA tinkering and Frankensteining? Most certainly, as a long-running Russian experiment reveals. . . . The science is profound, but the authors write accessibly and engagingly—and their vulpine subjects are awfully cute, too. Of compelling interest to any animal lover and especially to devotees of canids of all kinds.” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

"If you read only two biology books this year, this is one of those two that you simply must read." (Grrl Scientist Forbes)

This intriguing, well-written account of an ongoing experiment in canid domestication should delight readers interested in the origins of the human-animal bond.”
  (Library Journal)

"It’s a story of science. . . .But it's also very much a human story. . . . It's a story of persistence against all odds." (The Hoopoe, NHBS)

"Trut and Dugatkin lovingly recount some of the experiment's milestones, including the first fox born with a wagging tail and the first one with droopy ears. . . . At every step, the authors skillfully weave the science of domestication into the narrative of foxes becoming ever-more doglike." (Science News)

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