“Easy never has mattered. Possible is what matters.”
Why did I get this book?
After finishing Ellen Furlong’s Decoding Dogs: Inside The Canine Mind, I decided I needed this book. In her lecture, Ellen mentioned the Siberian Fox Experiment and I have always had a strong interest in domestication. The concept of how we as humans have shaped animals to suit our needs is truly fascinating, and I believe that knowing the origin of our domesticated animals can help us understand how they’re uniquely different from their wild ancestors: something we owe the modern, domesticated animal. So it was only natural that a story of how two passionate humans, could recreate thousands of years of selective breeding and domestication within a few decades caught my attention.
What does this book do?
This book is a story. A wild one. And if we hadn’t had historical and scientific records of it, I would have believed it fiction. But this, this is not fiction. It is the story of how biologist Dimitri Belyaev stood up to his competitors, tricked the USSR government into funding a project that did not carry any interest for them at that time, and created a domesticated fox. It is a true example of science doing what it does best and at the same time a scary testimony of the USSR doing what it did best, complete with political intrigues, scientific rivalry, and people vanishing into thin air for not following step. So why is this story important? It is important, because Belyaev and Trut’s work in itself was an act of courage, and their work is the first detailed account of how domestication works. They started the experiment in 1959 under the guise of improving fur quality to boost the USSR economy, and Trut lived for years, isolated in the Siberian cold, away from her family, suffering through the horror of a large number of foxes in the experiment being murdered midway through, and most recently had to fundraise to save the experiment from starvation due to lack of university funds. For the team involved, it was a marathon of hardships, and wonderful discoveries, but for us, it’s a high-speed race through evolution, and we have front-row seats. The experiment is still running to this day and has so far mapped out physiological traits that show domestication in canines, as well as behavioural changes within the test subjects. Traits such as floppy ears, spots, and curly ears, along with behaviours like barking and active interest in human interaction showed up within the fox population, and handpicking the most suitable breeding prospects, the team soon saw the foxes behave more and more like the dogs we know and love today. So if you want to know where dogs came from and how they came about, you need to read this book. If you’re just a curious mind, you should read it too.
What does this book not do?
Well, this book is not about dogs. But, it is about the foundation to build a dog, and it does give the reader an excellent understanding of why our dogs behave as they do. However, if you only want to read something about the modern dog, this is not the book for you.