The science of How to Tame a Fox examines basic Darwinian artificial selection, told through the audacious transformation of feral fur foxes into loving house pets through selective breeding. The particular fascination of the story, however, comes from its characters, history, and setting and from the layers of scientific understanding of the experiment. The work started in 1950s Russia, when the cosmopolitan and charismatic Dmitri Belyaev, a geneticist working for the Russian fur industry, partnered with Lyudmila Trut to model the thousand-year process of canid domestication in a few generations. Belyaev sought to “basically turn a fox into a dog-like animal, [so that] he might solve the long-standing riddle of how domestication comes about. Perhaps he would even discover important insights about human evolution.” Over the next several decades, Belyaev, Trut, and their team took foxes that were so fearful and aggressive that keepers had to approach the cages wearing protective two-inch-thick gloves and carefully bred them to be lovable, loyal domestic companions.
Trofim Lysenko, the Stalin-appointed director of the Soviet Union's Academy of Agricultural Sciences, conducted a “vehement crusade against genetics research,” and scientists who displeased him were sent to prison camps, forced to resign, or even killed. It was in this setting that Beluaev set out to solve the “great outstanding mystery of domestication,” and the subsequent work unfolds in the context of the political and scientific upheavals of the mid-20th century. Particularly fascinating is how these researchers' understanding developed within the context of increasing recognition of ethology as a “real” science through the works of E./O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and others.
The many aspects of physiology discussed in this retelling of the project are intriguing, as are the ingenious experimental designs carried out by Belyaev and Trut, in sometimes astonishingly primitive conditions on breeding farms in remote Siberia. The authors discuss the selective breeding experiments in the light of genetics, animal behaviors such as imprinting and play, behavior, the physiology of breeding, and even human evolution. Among the most fascinating experiments investigated the source of fox pups' increasing tameness—genetic determination or learning through the mother's behavior? Belyaev and Trut addressed this question through “cross-fostering,” in which eight-day-old embryos from tame mothers were implanted in aggressive mothers to be whelped and raised, and vice versa. The results were powerful: tame offspring of aggressive foster mothers interacted positively with humans, even when their foster mothers punished them for their behavior. The researchers were even able to compare the behavior of tame and wild pups in the same litter, identifying the tame pups through their characteristic coloration.
How to Tame a Fox provides a fascinating glimpse of the ambitious and long-term work of a team of scientists investigating, innovating, and persevering. The book has appeal for the independent reader, as well as great potential for use in the biology classroom. Each iteration of the experiment offers a glimpse of science in progress, with the potential for examples and discussion. Although its flow can seem scattered and long-winded at times, the book is well worth the read for the science, and scientific history, it presents.