This weekend I read How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut. I highly recommend it, with the following caution: The book is based on non-intrusive experiments done on foxes originally from fur farms, and most of the foxes, many generations away from the fur farms, are still kept in wire cages that I find heartbreaking. (More on this later.) If you can’t past that, you might want to take a pass.
That said, the science and the stories described in the book are riveting. Most of us know the basics of Dmitri Belyaev’s work on creating semi-domesticated foxes by only breeding the tamest ones to each other. Within just a few generations, several of the foxes displayed traits never seen in the foxes before, including tail wagging, soliciting attention from humans, whining and licking hands. Eventually the “domesticated elite” foxes developed coat color variations similar to those seen in dogs, curled tails, shorter and rounder muzzles, changes in reproductive cycles, lower levels of stress hormones and higher levels of serotonin and dopamine, all associated with docility and sociability.
The science required to make this discovery is nothing short of ground-breaking. Belyaev was always interested in the process of domestication, including wondering why so few animals have been domesticated over time. Why reindeer and not deer? Why horses and not zebra? (Yes, people have tried to domesticated zerbra, with no success. You can tame an individual zebra, but that’s not the same as creating a domesticated version of the species.) Belyaev speculated that domestication involved not the long, slow process of genetic mutation often associated with evolution, but rather what he called “destablizing selection,” in which the expression of genes is changed rather than the genes themselves. The fox research (initiated and supervised by Belyaev but done primarily by Lyudmila Trut and colleagues) supported this hypothesis beyond anyone’s expectations, and subsequent research by a bevy of scientists has shown us that profound structural, hormonal and behavioral changes can occur due to miniscule changes in gene activity early in development. If I was on the Committee I’d nominate Belyaev and Trut for a Nobel prize.
However, it’s not just the science that turns How to Tame a Fox into a page-turner. It’s the politics and the personal story behind the research. In one of the many personal and political tragedies resulting from the suppression of scientific inquiry, Belyaev’s brother Nikolai was murdered because his research didn’t fit into the theories of Lysenko. Belyaev often risked his life to conduct his own research, but managed to make it through the worst of times with his life, although at one point he was banished from teaching, lost his staff, and had all his papers rejected before Lysenko finally lost power.
Lyudmila Trut’s story is equally dramatic. In order to participate early on in the research, she had to move her husband and baby girl to Siberia, risk political censure if not death, and cope with temperatures as low as 40-50 degrees below zero, all in a male-dominated field in which woman were given little say in decision-making and even less respect.
As if that’s not enough, here’s more:
The fox experiment has been going on for 60 years, which is an astounding period of time for one research project, and an invaluable source of information. There are many aspects of this research that have not made it into the popular press that I think you’ll find interesting.
Belyaev believed that humans have most likely gone through a similar period of “domestication.” (Several others have made the same suggestion.)
Their research continues: Svetlana Gogoleva, working with Trut in 2005, found that the “elite” foxes make unique vocalizations that look on a spectrogram almost exactly like human laughter.
Some of the foxes are available for adoption–here’s an article that discusses how that works and some of the controversy surrounding it. (Trut’s desire to have foxes adopted into homes is mentioned in the book, but how one would do that is not mentioned.)
I do have a few issues with the book, the primary one being the welfare of the foxes. Although several of the most docile and affiliative foxes were allowed to live in houses and offices with the staff, it appears that most of the foxes still live in wire cages with wire flooring. (The foxes confirmed that they find the flooring uncomfortable by choosing to stay on a wooden board inserted in the pen to position them for Brian Hare’s research on pointing.) It surprises me that no mention is made of this issue in a book published by The University of Chicago Press and co-written by an American scientist and author.
There are a few other quibbles, including a superficial and not completely accurate discussion of the research on the salience of “pointing” cues, and Trut’s apparent worship of Belyaev (“Some say he possessed an almost mystical ability to sense the thoughts and mood of a crowd…”), but these do not detract from the value of the book. Overall, it’s a fascinating, compelling story that reminds us of the passion and commitment of scientists like Belyaev and Trut, who threw their lives (and their safety) into the pursuit of science. Given the current American suppression of scientific results that don’t fit into the ideology of some, I found the story of Belyaev and Trut especially inspiring… and cautionary.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Here are three deserts from a “left overs” party at friends the day after Thanksgiving. (Except none of the deserts were “left overs,” we all love to cook! I made old-fashioned apple pie (one the left), David made a delectable ginger-pear gallette and Tamar made the yummy pumpkin pie at the bottom. Good grief. I’m skipping the scales for a few days; ignorance is bliss.
Five of our ewes are at good friend Donna’s farm, visiting our co-owned ram, Little Big Man. So that we know who was bred when, Donna smeared his chest with red “marking paint”. It’s not too hard to tell whose been bred, hey? The ewe third from the left was undoubtedly bred right after he was painted. Or, I don’t know, maybe he just really liked her a lot?
I hope you’re liking whatever you’re doing a lot too.