Tuesday, July 6, 2021

REVIEW: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution (audiobook nonfiction) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, narrated by Joe Hempel

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is nonfiction. I checked it out via one of my Overdrive accounts.


In 1959, two Russian geneticists, Dmitry Belyayev and Lyudmila Trut, began a selective breeding experiment to see if they could witness the process leading to domestication. They weren't sure that it would work or, if it did, whether it would happen quickly enough for them to witness the results. Fortunately for them, their experiment was successful, eventually resulting in foxes that displayed some of the same behavioral and morphological features present in dogs, which allowed them to then more closely study how their wild and tame foxes differed from each other in terms of hormone production, vocalizations, etc.

The first half of this book was more heavily focused on Soviet-era history and politics and the way they influenced this experiment. Due to Trofim Lysenko's restrictions on genetic research (Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics), Belyayev and Trut had to be careful how they presented their experiment. In order to cover up their true intentions, they worked at a fox fur farm and claimed they were studying fox physiology in order to see if some foxes could be bred more frequently and therefore be more useful to the fur trade. While this portion was interesting, and I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the increasingly tame new generations of foxes, I went into this expecting it to be more of a popular science book and was a bit disappointed at how little science was discussed.

The second half focused a little more on scientific topics: gene activation and expression, the science of domestication, the idea of humans as "self-domesticated," studying fox vocalizations, etc. The cynical part of me sometimes wondered if the sudden increase in scientific background info was intended to distract readers from the rough patch (to put it mildly) that the fox domestication experiment hit after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to a sudden lack of funding, they had trouble keeping the foxes alive and had to resort to killing some of them (the book said they focused on the wild ones rather than tame, but still) and selling their fur for money.

I don't do well with print nonfiction so I listened to this instead. Unfortunately, it was a little hard for me to follow along during some of the more science-heavy portions. Also, apparently the print version has pictures of the foxes, so I missed out on that.

While I don't regret listening to this, it was too heavy on Soviet politics and history for me to call it a good popular science book. I'm also fairly certain that it wasn't a balanced look at the fox domestication experiment, and not only because Lyudmila Trut was one of the co-authors. The text was filled with fawning praise of Dmitry Belyayev - he had bucketloads of charisma and was apparently good to everyone. I couldn't help but note the one mention in the text of the time someone brought up potential ethical issues with one of his ideas (can't remember the specifics, something to do with chimps, maybe?) and the way he dismissed them as "short-sighted."

The way the domesticated fox descriptions were handled also seemed overly glowing. The narrator's tone warmed every time he described the foxes playing, bonding with their handlers, or doing cute things - I mean, yes, the foxes were fun, but the line between "these foxes are part of an experiment" and "these foxes are cute pets" was really blurred. And then the Institute really did start selling some of the foxes as pets. I had to laugh as Lyudmila Trut's supposed concern that she might not find enough people willing to take in foxes as pets - there are plenty of people who literally try to keep tigers and wolves as pets, so I imagine the real concern was more with whether there'd be enough people willing to pay handsomely for them and then deal with the issues involved with having an exotic pet, not that the book touched on that aspect at all. Plus, from what I've read even "tame" foxes have behavioral quirks you can't train them out of - again, not touched on in this book at all.

Overall, this made for a decent enough few hours of listening, but it felt pretty biased and people looking for a more science-focused read will probably be disappointed.

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