Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

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

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
November 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Lee Alan Dugatkin
Lyudmila Trut
Total Pages: 
Univ. of Chicago Press

Lee Alan Dugatkin is a biologist and historian of science at Louisville U. Lyudmila Trut/, the lead researcher on the silver fox domestication experiment since 1959, is a professor of evolutionary genetics at at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk, Siberia.

The Amazon website for the hardcover edition is

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a good summary (click on ‘Read more’). I then recommend using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option and scroll down to and read the 5-pp Prologue. Why Can’t a Fox Be More like a Dog? The answer is it can (as the book’s title shows). The book itself is a lesson on selective breeding, which Lydumila showed takes far less time than was thought possible before this Artic silver fox experiment. Since, at present, Amazon gives you the Kindle preview also for the hardcover edition, you can read beyond the excellent Prologue to the first 10-pp of the 17-pp Chapter 1 – A Bold Idea. I strongly recommend doing this, for these ten pages tell about Dmitri Belyaev, the highly respected Russian geneticist who was a lead scientist at the government-run Central Research Laboratory on Fur Breeding Animals. By his cleverness he survived the horrible decade of Trofim Lysenko's influence on biology in Russia. The fox experiment was his idea. He was lucky to find and employ Lyudmila Trut to head the experiment. These first ten pages also review the typical breeding methods used for improving the fur, which was a profitable enterprise for Russia. The missing last seven pages are not a big loss.

A few years ago I saw a documentary on TV (IPTV, I think) that revealed the deceptively simple method that Lyudmila Trut first used in the experiment to domesticate silver foxes. She would slowly approach a cage with a new fox. If the fox snarled and retreated to the far corner of the cage, she excluded this fox from her breeding list. But if a fox stayed calm and then approached her at the front of the cage in a friendly manner, this fox was put on her breeding list, especially if the friendly fox came to her when she put her hand close to the cage. By breeding only friendly foxes it took only about 7-10 generations for them to become domesticated – that means the kits born of such foxes were also friendly like young puppies. That such a simple method worked so quickly astounded animal breeders everywhere. (Dmitri Belyaev, a spell-binding speaker, spread the word of their domestication breeding technique.)

So when I saw that this story had become a book for the general public, I bought it. The book contains sixteen color photos of the foxes, some with their trainers, who treated them like puppies. I was amazed by the changes in the domesticated silver foxes: many changed the color of their fur and many became multicolored, their tails became longer and wider. Later these tame foxes noses became shorter and more rounded (a trait that occurs in dogs in their puppy skulls that have similar shape changes as they mature). Some of the tame foxes started to have two litters per year. However the wild foxes still bred only once a year. All of these changes were not just carefully recorded by Lyudmila, for she reported all changes regularly to Dmitri Belyaev, who then turned the experiment towards a search for genetic changes caused by domestication (or vice versa). Soon other early-career geneticists were working with them.

This genetic work is still in process in the fox experiment, but it seems near certain that the changes were related to different hormones or hormone balances. The latter chapters dwell in the genetics aspects. This leaves us with an analog sort of like the infamous chicken-and-egg problem. Did the hormone production change first in the parts of the domesticated fox genome which then caused the observed color or tail or skull changes? Did the observed color or tail or skull changes cause the changes in the hormones? Or did these co-develop slowly in the genetics? Did the friendliness of the humans, which didn’t take long to become love for the cute tame fox kits, induce these changes? Such questions now are being studied by many geneticists involved in changing attributes, and have, as one would surmise, now include other animals (and/or creatures) besides foxes and dogs.

This book was for me a fascinating look at an aspect of nature that I had not looked into at any depth before. I thoroughly enjoyed it – a book that was hard to put down. I rate it at five stars.