How the Dog Got Its Curly Tail and Floppy Ears

Refusing to endorse the ideologically driven 'theories' of Trofim Lysenko during Stalin's rule of Russia, the geneticist Dmitry Belyaev was removed from a prestigious position in Moscow and was sent to Siberia to conduct his research for the Department of Fur Animal Breeding (yeah, that was a real department). The goal was to create a tamer variety of silver fox. The experiment, which started in 1959, took over forty years and involved forty-five thousand foxes. The results revealed something fundamental and fascinating about evolution.



Given all the recent talk about the logistics and ethics of creating genetically modified designer babies, I think it's appropriate to bear in mind the unintended consequences that resulted from Belyaev's attempt to select for a single characteristic: we have no a priori way of knowing whether single phenotypic traits are governed by sets of genes that don't also affect other phenotypic traits we may not want to mess with.

If you're curious about Lysenko's curious story of intellectual corruption, you can listen to it In Our Time.
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