Book Review: How to Tame a Fox

Title: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

by: Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut


Imagine scientists who have to perform experiments in secret; not because of the nature of said experiments, but because the countries government could declare their research as illegal and opposing to political ideologies.

Scientists attempt to follow their passion of evolution and genetic research during a time where science is smothered by the importance of supporting political dictators, where performing good science means undermining your countries government and could result in death.

Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev lived during a time when scientists would put their lives at risk in order to pursue their experiments, smuggling their research findings to outside countries in hopes of expanding their scientific field.  Belyaev wanted to solve the evolutionary mystery of how dogs became domesticated.  Starting his experiments in the late 1950’s, he decided to attempt to replicate the evolutionary process of domestication.

Belyaev and his colleagues raised silver foxes in a deceptive, simple experiment where the tamest foxes were allowed to breed.  The experiment was cloaked under the guise of a pelt farm.  These Siberian farms were widely known for their luxurious pelts, and was the perfect operation for his secret experiment to take place.

Lyudmila Trut, who is the current research leader for the fox experiment, began working with Belyaev on this experiment as an intern.  Belyaev knew the risks he was putting on himself, and did not hide the facts when asking Lyudmila to join him.

This story highlights the progressive experiments performed against the dark political history and drama of labor difficulties during Siberian winters.  As the Soviet Union was disrupted by the disastrous influences of Trofim Lysenko, scientists struggled under the ideologies that the government could engineer a perfect system – both of crops and people.

This book is engaging with contrast and clash of science under siege from political interest, with golden nuggets of exciting scientific discoveries amidst the strife.  It follows the exploration of how genes, evolution, and even environment shaped fox behaviors towards domestication – resulting in an animal that would wag it’s tail, roll over for a belly rub, and even protect a member of a different species.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  It gave me science and history blended with drama.  I liked that I was able to learn the political history of Russia, the beginning of genetics and evolutionary science all together.  I was at times consumed within the story.  The books flows well, following the scientific process and learning along with the progress of the experiment.

I immediately had immense respect for Dmitri Belyaev.  The author eloquently captures how the people around Belyaev admired him, and you cannot help yourself but want to be able to follow him as well.  His determination and ingenuity are outstanding, as are the lab assistants who braved the harshest winters to provide much needed care to the foxes.

I made mention to my husband several times my astonishment with the innovation and swiftness of the research team.  On several occasions Lyudmila recounts the need to pull data or take samples, and her teams reaction and ability to perform such detailed tasks with precision and haste is beyond impressive to me (especially given the environment – did I mention this is in Siberia, dead of winter?!).

I found myself becoming emotionally attached to the struggles and successes of the scientists.  Reeling in excitement as new discoveries were made, and also feeling heartache, as if my own, when learning of the losses along the way.

Lyudmila fondly recounts her memories with the tamed foxes, and I find the similarities I witness with my own dogs intriguing.  I enjoyed the recounts of scientists who were invited onto the fox farm to witness the tame foxes, imagining the pure joy one would feel upon being greeted by a fox with a wagging tail and playful nips and licks at your hand.

The fox experiment has endured through the decades, allowing for further expansion of the experiment and monumental results in genetic and evolutionary fields. Belyaev suggested a self domestication theory based on the findings of the fox experiment.  Although this books does not dive too deep into that theory, it stirs my curiosity and causes my mind to ponder the possibilities.

This is a book I would recommend to anyone who has an interest in science, animals, and/or history.  I had little previous knowledge on any of the subject matter and found the book easy to understand when talking about the rich political background and details of genetics history and evolutionary science.

*The experiment is on-going, containing 56 generations of foxes bred to date.

Have you read this book?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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Thanks for reading!



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