This is the story of a Russian’s experiment to domesticate wild Silver Foxes, the results of which were far more surprising than anyone could have expected and that have completely changed how we understand evolution today.
Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev was a Russian geneticist who pioneered this project and dedicated 26 years of his life to an experiment. This was an incredibly dangerous experiment and not just because he wanted to set up a farm with hundreds of wild foxes in a Siberian forest and see which ones were most likely to attack him, but because Mendelian genetics (read more here) was heavily suppressed under Stalin, so much so that many people were killed and thousands more were jailed.
This was the period of Lysenkoism, the pseudo-scientific doctrine of Trofim Lysenko. Thankfully the dominance of this doctrine was slowly coming to an end by the beginning of this experiment. But I still had to put this in just to get across how amazing this man was.
But how do you get over 100 wild Foxes to a farm in Siberia for an illegal experiment during the reign the murderous tyrant Josef Stalin? Have a graduate student do it of course.
Lyudmila Trut, who at the time was one of Belyaev’s graduate students and later worked with Belyaev throughout the farms history, she is a brilliant scientist who still writes papers today on the subject of animal domestication (see here) and I would recommend giving her name a Google.
By breeding only the Foxes with the less excitable temperaments, Belyaev eventually had domesticated Foxes that shared more in common with the modern dog that in their wild and aggressive ancestors.
This experiment showed that humans were not breeding certain dogs for their coats or because they could bark. It showed that these changes were a natural result of domestication. Adrenaline (the hormone related to whether an animal fights of flees) is directly related to melanin (the skin and fur pigment) and so to change/breed less aggressive Foxes meant their fur colours, their flight zone and their ears changed as a natural by-product of this form of breeding.
All of this showed that evolution may not be as slow a process as we thought, in fact, the creation/domestication of dogs could have happened, in evolutionary terms, monumentally quickly.
(for a little while you could actually buy a domesticated Silver Fox… though they don’t sell them any more I don’t think… I spent a long time looking… but link below if you find any!)