Biology

Review: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

March 26, 2018
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Review: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

  It has generally been assumed that the process that could transform this: into this: was a drawn-out evolutionary slog, taking many generations of human-canid interaction to achieve. But as Tim Flannery notes in a recent review of several new titles on the subject for The New York Review of Books, Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut’s How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution offers a fascinating look at the groundbreaking discovery that revealed that the process of domestication, once thought to have taken thousands of years, could be compressed into decades: “Profound insights into how dogs evolved from wolves come from a remarkable, multidecade experiment on foxes that was carried out under the supervision of the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev from the 1950s onward. … Belyaev’s experimental method was simple in the extreme. Out of the thousands of silver foxes held at a fur farm, he simply selected for ones that were calmer than normal in the presence of humans. After just a few generations of selective breeding, some offspring of these slightly tamer foxes started to seek out human company. Breeding these individuals produced foxes that showed changes . . .

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Why did Barbara Streisand clone her dog?

March 14, 2018
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Why did Barbara Streisand clone her dog?

Jessica Pierce has done a lot of thinking about animals and ethics. A bioethicist by training, her books on the subject include The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, coauthored with Marc Bekoff, and more recently Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. So who better to weigh in on the ethics of pet cloning – a topic which, as you likely know, has captured a bit of public attention recently due to the news of Barbara Streisand having cloned her coton de tulear (a breed that coincidentally looks a lot like this guy, or gal as the case may be <–). Pierce’s recent op-ed in the New York Times titled “You Love Dogs? Then Don’t Clone Them” argues that the cloning industry creates a canine underclass of egg donors and surrogate mothers whose welfare is overlooked in the rush to profit by reproducing facsimile copies of rich people’s dead pets. From the article: “Clones like Ms. Streisand’s dogs Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett don’t materialize out of thin air but require the help of a whole team of female dogs. The cloning process begins with . . .

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WSJ reviews Christopher Kemp’s “The Lost Species”

February 25, 2018
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WSJ reviews Christopher Kemp’s “The Lost Species”

Tales of expeditions to the farthest reaches of the globe by intrepid scientists and explorers in search of undiscovered species that inhabit it have always captivated the public’s imagination. Take, for example, the apparent popularity of the David Attenborough-themed raves currently taking the UK by storm, featuring episodes of Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II set to samples of the 90-year-old biologist’s narration (as well as some of today’s hottest dance tracks). But while the BBC’s premier nature documentaries might make the work of today’s biologists seem like a neverending jungle adventure, as a recent Wall Street Journal review of Christopher Kemp’s new book The Lost Species points out, in recent years some of the most fascinating new biological discoveries were actually made by researchers working behind the scenes, sorting through vast collections of zoological specimens stored in the the drawers and cavernous basements of natural history museums. As Kemp’s book explains, for decades after their collection, specimens housed in museum archives can remain incorrectly categorized, or not categorized at all–not only due to the sheer size of some of these collections, but also the complex detective work that must go into proper taxonomic classification. David MacNeal writes for . . .

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The Book of Caterpillars

September 25, 2017
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The Book of Caterpillars

I’ll open this post with a confession: I once watched a little green caterpillar eat the entirety of a dill plant my wife had planted in a windowbox. How could I not? He was so cute, and so industrious! If you feel the same way, but you also would like to retain your plants for your own use, might I suggest our new Book of Caterpillars?   A very big book about little creatures, offering life-size photographs of six hundred species, accompanied by information about their range, habitat, diet, and the moths and butterflies they eventually become. To whet your appetite, some samples follow. The Loepa Megacore. The Forest Tent Caterpillar. The unforgettably named Lettuce Shark. And the, well, commandingly named Commander. The Book of Caterpillars is inching its way to a bookstore near you right now! . . .

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Synthetic: An ethnography of life

June 30, 2017
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Synthetic: An ethnography of life

Reposting this fabulous review and commentary by Christina Agapakis at New Scientist on Sophia Roosh’s Synthetic: How Life Got Made—after the jump. *** What is synthetic biology? This question has vexed synthetic biologists and journalists alike since the discipline was named at MIT more than 15 years ago. Is synthetic biology a technique? A goal? A state of mind? In her ethnography of the field, Synthetic, Sophia Roosth offers a useful answer. “Synthetic biologists, by a pragmatic definition, are people who identify as synthetic biologists… at a methodological level what unites this diverse cast of characters is sociology,” she says. The social life of synthetic biologists is just as important to understanding the field as its technical content; it’s the beliefs, ambitions and relationships of these people that make the field what it is. Roosth dives into the history, anthropology and peculiar society of synthetic biologists – of which I consider myself a member, having been trained in a synthetic biology lab across the river from the labs Roosth describes. Synthetic is a traditional anthropological monograph: there are chapters on religion, kinship, property, labour, the household and origin myths. Roosth grounds each chapter in her long-term engagement with the community, and her historical . . .

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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

June 16, 2017
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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

From an interview with Barbara J. King at Nonhuman Rights Blog: So far in our litigation, no court has challenged the idea that chimpanzees are self-aware, autonomous beings; a New York appellate court judge even called the NhRP’s affidavits from scientists “very impressive.” And yet, all the same, our chimpanzee clients remain legal “things” with no rights even though science and law suggest they should be recognized as legal “persons” with fundamental rights. How might you account for this gap between the science of animal cognition and emotion and animals’ legal status? Why do you think the law is still lagging behind the science as far as animals are concerned? The idea of animals as property or as things is so deeply entrenched in Western systems of law;  it’s hard to shake that loose from what years of animal-behavior, anthropology, and psychology studies tell us about chimpanzees as able to reason, remember, plan, suffer, and take into account factors that affect their own well-being. In thinking about the “why,” I remember Steve talking so movingly about this: we know about the not-so-distant past in which human beings other than white men were considered as property or less-than-human in our legal systems. As . . .

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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

June 14, 2017
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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

Elle Hunt at the Guardian takes on Evelleen Richards’s expansive account of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, perhaps the biologist’s most misunderstood and least explored supposition: Richards argues that, more than natural selection, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was uniquely his own and, perhaps as a result, often misunderstood. His theorizing drew upon a wide range of influences, many of them deeply personal, including his grandfather Erasmus’s radical writings on evolution and his own relationship with his wife. In, On Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, published last month by the University of Chicago Press, Richards explores this confluence of connections Darwin had to make and, just as crucially, the challenges he had to overcome in order to reach his conclusion. Given the conventional understandings of beauty, gender and sexuality of the Victorian era, it is difficult to overstate how radical Darwin’s theory was at the time. It was the culmination of a lifetime of intellectual legwork – and yet he was constantly called upon to validate it until his death in April 1882. “The accepted point of view was that all the beauty that we experience on Earth was created by God for his own and human delight,” says Richards. . . .

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How to Tame (Really Tame) a Fox

June 9, 2017
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How to Tame (Really Tame) a Fox

Below follows an excerpt from Lee Dugatkin’s piece on tameness at the Washington Post, which draws from his singular work of biology, How to Tame a Fox (And Build a Dog), a Cold War-driven suspense tale of scientific experimentation, Siberian winters, and one unconventional Space Race-era goal: recreating the domestication of dogs from wolves in real time, using the silver fox. *** He and Lyudmila began to test this idea in 1959. Every year they assessed hundreds of foxes and selected only those with the most “prosocial” interactions with humans — the ones that licked people’s hands, wagged their tails and whined sadly when interactions with humans were over.  These were the foxes chosen to parent the next generation. They would then assess whether subsequent generations became tamer over time, and equally important, whether traits associated with the domestication syndrome began popping up. They did, and quickly — remarkably quickly, given the thousands of years it took for our ancestors to domesticate dogs, cows and other creatures. Within the first decade of the fox domestication experiment, the animals were not only markedly tamer, offering up their stomachs for belly rubs, but some of them had curly tails and mottled fur. Lyudmila remembers one fox in particular from this time. . . .

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Image sampler: Pollination Power

May 15, 2017
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Image sampler: Pollination Power

Below follow just a few of the spectacular macrophotographic images culled from Heather Angel’s Pollination Power for a recent profile in the New York Times. Sourcing flora from more than twenty countries, Angel delivered a technically laborious, otherworldly portrait of one of nature’s more intimate processes. You can read more about the book here. Also this line: “Sometimes you see up to five solitary male bees sleeping in a flower,” Ms. Angel said.     To read more about Pollination Power, click here. . . .

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The Fox in the Big House

May 3, 2017
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The Fox in the Big House

Smarty Pants—a new podcast from the folks at the American Scholar—debuted “The Fox in the Big House,” a brand new episode featuring Lee Dugatkin, who talks up his latest book How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by recounting the historical particularities behind a Cold War-era Soviet experiment that started with few dozen silver foxes from Siberian farms and then attempted to recreate the evolution of wolves into dogs in real time. Intrigue! Listen in here. To read more about How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), click here. . . .

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