Reprinted (in modified form) with permission from How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut. All rights reserved.
For the last six decades, Lyudmila Trut and her colleagues have been running one of the most audacious experiments ever undertaken. The experiment, first conceived and led by Trut’s mentor, Dmitry Belyaev, aimed to rerun the evolutionary process that led to the domestication of dogs but in real time, using the fox as a stand-in for the wolf. Each year for the last 58 years they have been testing hundreds of foxes in Siberia and selecting only the tamest of the tame to parent the subsequent generation. The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Their domesticated foxes will lick your faces and melt your hearts with their doglike devotion and love. What’s more, even though the experimenters select the parents of each generation strictly based on how behaviorally tame foxes are, these domesticated foxes look eerily like dogs, with curly tails, muttlike fur, puppylike faces and even, on occasion, floppy ears.
Belyaev and Trut’s experiment began in 1959 and it came within a hair’s breath of being shut down that very same year by none less than the premier of the Soviet Union. For, you see, any experiment on domestication is also an experiment in genetics, and a decade earlier, before the fox experiment began in Siberia, a pseudoscientist charlatan by the name of Trofim Lysenko had convinced the government of the USSR that Western genetics was bourgeois science, promoted by “wreckers,” making genetics all but illegal in the Soviet Union.
This skepticism of genetics all started when, in the mid-1920s, the Communist Party leadership elevated a number of uneducated men from the proletariat into positions of authority in the scientific community, as part of a program to glorify the average citizen after centuries of monarchy had perpetuated wide class divisions between the wealthy and the workers and peasants. Lysenko fit the bill perfectly, having been raised by peasant farmer parents in the Ukraine. He hadn’t learned to read until he was 13, and he had no university degree, having studied at what amounted to a gardening school, which awarded him a correspondence degree. The only training he had in crop-breeding was a brief course in cultivating sugar beets. In 1925, he landed a middle-level job at the Gandzha Plant Breeding Laboratory in Azerbaijan, where he worked on sowing peas. Lysenko convinced a Pravda reporter who was writing a puff piece about the wonders of peasant scientists that the yield from his pea crop was far above average and that his technique could help feed his starving country. In the glowing article the reporter claimed, “the barefoot professor Lysenko has followers … and the luminaries of agronomy visit … and gratefully shake his hand.” The article was pure fiction. But it propelled Lysenko to national attention, including that of Josef Stalin.
With Stalin as his ally, Lysenko launched a crusade to discredit work in genetics, in part, because proof of the genetic theory of evolution would expose him as a fraud. He denounced geneticists, both in the West and in the Soviet Union, as subversives, to Stalin’s great pleasure. At an agricultural conference held at the Kremlin in 1935, when Lysenko finished a speech in which he called geneticists “saboteurs,” Stalin rose to his feet and yelled, “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, bravo.”
In July 1948, as part of Stalin’s anti-intellectualism and anti-cosmopolitanism program, a grand plan to “transform nature” was put into place by the Soviet government, and Lysenko was placed in charge of all policy regarding the biological sciences. Shortly thereafter, at the August 1948 meeting of the All-Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Lysenko presented a talk that is widely regarded as the most disingenuous and dangerous speech in the history of Soviet science. Entitled “The Situation in the Science of Biology,” in this speech Lysenko condemned “modern reactionary genetics,” by which he meant modern Western genetics. At the end of his ranting, the audience stood and cheered wildly.
Geneticists at the meeting were forced to stand up and refute their scientific knowledge and practices. Those who refused were ejected from the Communist Party. In the aftermath of the speech, thousands of geneticists lost their jobs, dozens were jailed, and a few, including fox experiment leader Dmitry Belyaev’s older brother, Nikolai, were murdered by Lysenko’s thugs.
Lysenko’s hold on Russian science had its peaks and valleys since his infamous 1948 speech, but in 1959, as the fox domestication experiment was just beginning, he was getting frustrated that his stranglehold on Soviet biology was showing signs of loosening.
The fox experiment had commenced shortly after Dmitry Belyaev had been appointed deputy director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics outside of Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. The Institute of Cytology and Genetics was part of a vast new scientific city called Akademgorodok. Decades earlier Maxim Gorky had written of a fictional “Town of Science … a series of temples in which every scientist is a priest …where scientists every day fearlessly probe deeply into the baffling mysteries surrounding our planet.” Musing about such an oasis, Gorky envisioned “… foundries and workshops where people forge exact knowledge, facet the entire experience of the world, transforming it into hypotheses, into instruments for the further quest of the truth.” Akademgorodok was just such a place. In short time, it housed thousands of scientists and was home to the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, the Institute of Mathematics, the Institute of Nuclear Physics, the Institute of Hydrodynamics, and half a dozen other institutes. Researchers, both senior and junior, from all over the USSR, were recruited to be part of an academic nirvana that was unavailable anywhere else in their country.
Lysenko and his allies were furious that although they were still officially in power, scientists on the ground were starting to simply ignore their prohibitions and were even openly putting genetics in their institute names. Lysenko launched a new rear-guard campaign against genetics, and as part of this battle, in January 1959, a Lysenko-created committee from Moscow visited Akademgorodok. This committee had the official authority to determine what work was done at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, and Belyaev and the whole research staff knew all too well that they were at risk of being forced out. “Khrushchev arrived here,” Lyudmila recalled, “very discontented, with the intention to get everyone ‘in trouble’ because of the geneticists.” She remembers committee members “snooping in the laboratories,” questioning everyone and anyone, including secretaries. The word spread that the committee was clearly unhappy that genetic studies were being conducted. When the committee met with Mikhail Lavrentyev, chief of all the institutes at Akademgorodok, they informed him that “the direction of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics is methodologically wrong.” Those were ominous words from a Lysenkoist group, and everyone knew it.
Nikita Khrushchev, who was by this time premier of the USSR, heard tale of the committee’s report about Akademgorodok. Khrushchev had been a long-time supporter of Lysenko, and he decided to examine the situation personally. In September 1959, on a trip back from visiting Mao Tse-tung in China, he stopped off in Novosibirsk. Khrushchev’s temper often got the best of him when things did not go exactly as he wished, and the visit to Chairman Mao had not gone well, cut short because of the cold reception he had received. What’s more, the construction of Akademgorodok was ongoing, and it was a large enough project that things were over budget and behind schedule. In a fit of pique during his visit, Khrushchev threatened to disband the whole Soviet Academy of Sciences if the situation did not improve: “I’ll let you all loose!” he railed. “I’ll deprive you [of] extra pay and all privileges! Peter the Great needed an academy, what do we need it for?” Especially an academy with geneticists.
The staff of all the science institutes at Akademgorodok gathered in front of the Institute of Hydrodynamics for Khrushchev’s visit, and Lyudmila recalls that the premier “walked by the assembled staff very fast, not paying any attention to them.” The substance of the meeting between Khrushchev and administrators was not recorded, but accounts from the time make clear that Khrushchev intended to shut down the Institute of Cytology and Genetics. Immediately.
He never made good on his threat. Fortunately, Khrushchev’s travel partner on his visit to Akademgorodok was his daughter, Rada. A well-known journalist, Rada, who was also a trained biologist, recognized Lysenko for the fraud he was and convinced her father to keep the Institute of Cytology and Genetics open. Still, the premier had to do something to show his discontent, so the day after his visit, he had the head of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics sacked. In an ironic twist of fate, as deputy director, Belyaev was now in charge of the Institute.
Without Rada Khrushchev taking a courageous stand for science, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics would have shut its doors, and with that, the fox domestication study—a six-decade long evolutionary treasure chest that continues to this day—would likely have been dead in the water.