Can new kinds of animals be brought into being outside of DNA tinkering and Frankensteining? Most certainly, as a long-running Russian experiment reveals.
Humans have been living among domesticated animals for many thousands of years. The first to be domesticated, paleontologists have long believed, was the dog, bred from the wolf. Enter Dmitry Belyaev, a Russian geneticist who “had become fascinated by the question of how an animal as naturally averse to human contact and as potentially aggressive as a wolf had evolved over tens of thousands of years into the lovable, loyal dog.” Roughly 40 years ago, as Dugatkin (Biology/Univ. of Louisville; The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, 2006, etc.) chronicles, Belyaev and Dugatkin’s co-author, Trut, moved to a Siberian farm where foxes were bred for their fur. There, they began a far-reaching series of experiments that yielded “the perfect dog”—however, the perfect dog, or at least something like the wolf-descended dog, was a fox, its evolution from one biological form to another having occupied just a blink of an eye in evolutionary time. Their experiment, note the authors, is one of the most revealing ever conducted in the sphere of evolution and animal behavior. The narrative includes a wealth of asides on how science is conducted under totalitarian regimes—Belyaev began his career under the shadow of Stalin and the charlatan Lysenko—but is at its most fascinating when it centers on the business of how an animal is in fact tamed. What qualities would be favored? Gentleness and playfulness, to be sure, but also a certain kind of transcendental calmness (“fox pups are serenely calm when they’re first born, but as they age, foxes typically become quite high-strung”) and youthfulness. The science is profound, but the authors write accessibly and engagingly—and their vulpine subjects are awfully cute, too.
Of compelling interest to any animal lover and especially to devotees of canids of all kinds.