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Dmitri Belyaev

How did dogs become our best friends? For our 10th episode, Aarati tells the story of Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet scientist who used foxes to uncover the mysteries of domestication.

Episode Transcript Arpita: 0:11 Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Smart Tea Podcast, where we talk about the lives of scientists and innovators who shape the world. How are you, Aarati? Aarati: 0:19 I am doing really well, Arpita, and do you want to know why? Arpita: 0:24 I do. You have such a huge smile on your face. I want to know. Aarati: 0:27 Because it is episode 10 of our podcast, that's why. I'm like super excited that we got here. Arpita: 0:35 Double digits. Aarati: 0:36 Yes, I read a stat that most podcasts stop after like three episodes, so this is a huge achievement. This is amazing. Arpita: 0:45 That's amazing. We're defying all odds. Aarati: 0:48 Exactly. Arpita: 0:50 Yeah, I think we've, what have we been doing this for almost four months now? Aarati: 0:54 I know that's crazy, right? I mean, that's a really good track record for me in terms of sticking to things. So I don't know about you, but for me, that's like very impressive. Arpita: 1:05 I think it's pretty good. It's pretty good. Aarati: 1:07 Yeah. How have you been doing? Um, how's like wedding planning and stuff going? Arpita: 1:12 Wedding planning is going. Um, we are as of today, uh, exactly one month out. Um, so all the big things are done, but it somehow seems that there is an infinite amount of small things that keep coming up. Aarati: 1:28 Yeah. Arpita: 1:29 I feel like I'm playing whack- a- mole a little bit, where I cross something off and then just like a new thing pops up. Um, or like, what is the Greek story? It's Medusa, right? Like you chop off one head and then like another one grows back. Or no, what is that? Aarati: 1:44 No, that's not Medusa. Medusa, Medusa's the woman who freezes you. Arpita: 1:47 Medusa has all the serpents. Aarati: 1:49 But I know who you're talking about. Oh my god, my Disney knowledge with, you know, with Hercules. I remember the scene where he's like chopping off the head... Arpita: 1:57 It is Hercules. It is Hercules. But I don't remember what the creature was, but like where you chop off a head and then like two more grow back. Aarati: 2:03 That's a good question. Let... Let me look it up real quick because now I'm curious. The Hydra. That's who you're... Arpita: 2:10 The Hydra. That's what it is. I'm Hercules and wedding planning is the Hydra. Aarati: 2:14 Oh my god, that's an amazing analogy. I just am picturing, like, a Hydra with, like, bridal veils on each head. It's like, Arpita: 2:23 So funny. Aarati: 2:24 It's just like, the massive wedding, Hydra. Yeah. Arpita: 2:28 In not wedding related news... Aarati: 2:31 mm hmm. Arpita: 2:31 exciting news for the week is not exciting at all, but I have been really enjoying it. I'm very obsessed with Chappell Roan right now, who's an artist... Aarati: 2:42 Oh, I've not heard of... okay. Arpita: 2:45 And you've probably maybe heard of her songs. Like some of her songs went viral as TikTok sounds. But, I think she is so wildly talented and her title track on her album is called Femininomenon. And she just talks about how we need like a feminist phenomenon, Femininomenon. And I'm just loving it. It's like great vibes. It's like very like pop dance party, a little unhinged in the lyrics, but like, so here for it. Aarati: 3:12 What's her name again? Arpita: 3:13 Chappell Roan, two L's. Aarati: 3:16 Okay, I'm gonna have to check it out, because I feel like, on TikTok, I hear all of these sounds, but then I never know, so what song it came from or what movie it came from. And then somewhere along the way, at some point, I'll see the movie scene or I'll see the song and I'll be like, that's it. That's the song! Arpita: 3:34 Yeah. Aarati: 3:35 You know, so... Arpita: 3:36 So right. Aarati: 3:37 Yeah, I bet that's going to happen. I'll look her up and I'll be like, Oh, this is, yes, I know this song! Arpita: 3:41 You'll recognize it. Aarati: 3:42 that song. Yeah. Arpita: 3:44 What about you? What's been going on with you? Other than being very excited about podcast number 10. Aarati: 3:49 So this last weekend I was dog sitting for my neighbor, which is actually very pertinent to this episode's theme. Arpita: 3:59 Oh. Aarati: 4:00 But, it was just so funny because it was the first time that my dog Kyro had another dog living with us. And so I got to kind of like, see how that went. And it went pretty well. For the most part, he kind of just ignored her and she ignored him. So, yeah. Yeah, that was that was great. Um, I was fine with that, but it was also really funny to just look at the different behaviors that these two dogs have and just kind of like see how different dogs and their personalities can be like, they're so different. And I just thought it was fascinating because like my neighbor's dog is like this really cute, like canonically cute doodle and has curly hair like white and tan fur and just looks like a little teddy bear, you know. Arpita: 4:47 So cute. Aarati: 4:49 Yes, like, and she has been told that she is adorable for her entire life. Like you can tell she just has that kind of like vibe that she's like, I'm adorable and I know it, you know, whereas my dog Kyro is half German Shepherd and half mutt. We got him from the shelter. He's like so disproportionately long and tall and he just kind of has this sort of scary look about him, but he's actually the friendliest guy, you know? Um, but like that, that's just one difference that they're like, so different looking, but then in terms of their behavior also, like Kyro will eat literally anything. Anything you give him, he will swallow, but the dog I'm dog sitting, she will not eat anything. It's, it's ridiculous. Like we give her her kibble and she's like, no, thank you. And I'm like, okay, but you haven't eaten for like a day. So, and then I called her owner. I was like, what do I do? How do I get her to eat? Cause she's like on a hunger strike or something. And I don't want her to starve to death. The owner was like, Oh, maybe put some cheese on it. Maybe add some of Kyro's kibble to it and she'll eat it. So I did that. And she ate like a couple mouthfuls and then she's like, all right, I'm done. And I'm like. Didn't even eat all of it and haven't even eaten for like 24 hours. I'm stressing out so much. Whereas Kyro's like is she done with that? Can I eat that Arpita: 6:13 I was gonna ask that, I was like, did Kyro eat the rest? Aarati: 6:17 Wanted to if I he is really good at listening to directions, though so you just tell him"no" and he does not but he was looking at it very longingly. So, you know and then also like when we want to go outside like Kyro is excited to go outside, but he stands very still to get his harness on and everything. And then once we go outside, he will go for miles. He will walk, he will run for miles and miles, you know? Um, but this dog, she's like so excited to go outside. She's like jumping around. We have to wrangle her to get her harness on. And then once we get outside, she walks like a hundred feet and then she's like, okay, I'm done. And we're like, what? What was all that? So it was just like so funny. It was just like such a different dog and it kind of got me wondering like how much of that is kind of in their nature because they are two very different breeds but how much of that is also just our lifestyle because my family will just naturally go for really long walks. We love to go hiking and My neighbors are kind of an older couple. So she might be kind of a home body, which you know, I I respect that but it was just... Arpita: 7:27 I respect that too. Aarati: 7:28 Yeah, it just kind of got me wondering, like, how much of it is, like, their nature, and how much of it is, like, how they've been brought up, and what their learned, like, learned behavior, and that actually, like, as I was thinking about that, seemed to really flow very nicely with today's episode, actually. Arpita: 7:47 Wow. I love that. Who are we talking about today? Aarati: 7:51 Um, so today we are talking about Dmitri Belyaev, who was a Russian geneticist and he is most famous for his experiments in domesticating foxes. Arpita: 8:04 Oh! Aarati: 8:04 And I wonder if you'd heard about this because this definitely like rang a bell in my head from undergrad. Some class, some science class that I took in undergrad, the professor definitely talked about this experiment. Arpita: 8:17 I don't think so. I must have slept through that lecture. Aarati: 8:20 Well, to be fair, I don't know if I learned it or if my professor just kind of went off on a tangent and I found that tangent super interesting. So it might've been that. Um, but yeah, he, so he's doing experiments in domesticating foxes because he got really curious of the question as to how dogs got domesticated. Um... Arpita: 8:40 Mm-Hmm. Aarati: 8:41 Yeah, and this experiment is also interesting because it is still ongoing. It is probably one of the longest biology experiments because it's been going on for over 70 years. So... Arpita: 8:55 70 years?! Aarati: 8:55 Yeah, so I'm really excited to talk to you about it today. So, Dmitri Belyaev is his name. Uh, he was born on July 17th, 1917 in Protasovo, Russia. And I should mention here, there's going to be a lot of Russian names. I'm really sorry if I, Arpita: 9:14 You crushed that. That was good. Aarati: 9:15 Yeah, Protasovo, Russia. Um, he had three older siblings. His father, Konstantin Pavlovich Belyaev, was a priest and his family were peasants. They took care of livestock and grew corn, but they also placed a high value on learning and education. But right from the get go, Dmitri's childhood was very unstable because 1917, the year he was born, was also the year of the Russian Revolution. I don't know if you know much about the Russian Revolution. I am weirdly fascinated by it, actually. I have, like, a mild obsession with it. Arpita: 9:51 Wow. So random. Um, I don't know very much about it except for bad Bolsheviks... starvation... Aarati: 9:59 Yes. Arpita: 9:59 That's, that's the summary. Aarati: 10:01 Yeah, I like the part a little bit earlier,"like" is a weird word to use, but, like, the whole downfall of the Romanov empire and Anastasia... Arpita: 10:11 Mm mm-Hmm. Aarati: 10:13 Rasputin...Like all of that. I'm just like fascinated by that. I always have been, but we'll do a quick history lesson because it is important to the story. Arpita: 10:21 Okay, good. I need a recap. Aarati: 10:22 Yes. Quick, quick recap. So before World War One, and then throughout the war, there was a lot of civil unrest, especially among the lower classes, because working conditions were horrible, wages were low, and basic needs weren't being met, and the people started rising up against Tsar Nicholas II. Eventually, he abdicates the throne, which ends a 300 year reign of the Russian monarchy. A provisional government called the Duma took over, but within months they were overthrown by the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin founded the Soviet Union, or the USSR, and led the country under his Marxist Communist ideals. But in 1924, Lenin died unexpectedly from a stroke, and Joseph Stalin took over. And as we all know, Stalin is this ruthless dictator, and if you oppose him, you're doing so at the risk of your own life. So... Arpita: 11:15 ok it's all coming back to me now. Aarati: 11:16 Yeah. So now, just seven years after Dmitri is born, Russia is a radically different place than it was. Prior to the revolution, most of the country were Orthodox Christians, but once the communist party took over, they forcibly tried to instate atheism throughout the country. And although religion was never made illegal outright, many places of worship were destroyed, believers were harassed, and religious property was confiscated. And Dmitri's family was a target of this as well, because remember, his father was a priest. Arpita: 11:50 Mm-hmm. Aarati: 11:50 His father was harassed and repeatedly imprisoned, and it got so bad that when Dmitri was 10 years old, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, Nikolai, in Moscow. Nikolai was 18 years older than Dmitri and was already a prominent population geneticist at this time. Arpita: 12:08 Oh, cool. Aarati: 12:10 Yeah. So Dmitri practically worshipped Nikolai and followed him around everywhere. Nikolai would take Dmitri to his lab meetings, which Dmitri called the"yelling meetings" because lab members loudly discuss and argue over data, which I thought was... Arpita: 12:28 I love that. That sounds a little familiar, maybe. Aarati: 12:30 Yeah I thought that was so cute. Um, but he loved it. He loved this. Um, and this is where he was like exposed to science and picked up his interest in genetics. And also, can I just say he's like 10 years old at this point. I'm so impressed that he's, like, listening to and understanding university level science. That's, like, crazy to me. Arpita: 12:50 It just feels like, like that would just be like the grumpiest environment for a 10 year old. It's like going with your parent to work. Like I used to have to go to work sometimes with my parents and it was just like, You just like throw a tantrum. You're just like, what am I supposed to do now? Aarati: 13:06 Yeah. Like... Arpita: 13:07 It's like not where you want to be. Aarati: 13:08 Yeah, what is this? This is not fun. Yeah. Arpita: 13:11 Yeah. Aarati: 13:12 He's, he's loving it. He loves this. And this is where he picks up his interest in genetics. But in 1928, Nikolai was offered a job in Uzbekistan. So Dmitri was sent to live with his sister Olga. Life was tough for Olga and Dmitri. And despite his interest in biology and science, Dmitri had to enroll in a seven year vocational program and trained as an electrician so that they could make money to make ends meet. Arpita: 13:39 Can I just say that everybody in this story has. That's the most Russian names I could possibly come up with. Aarati: 13:45 Don't they? Arpita: 13:46 Like if you told me, like, what do you, like, name the people in this family, I'd be like Olga, Dmitri, Aarati: 13:53 Yeah, exactly. Nikolai. There's, there's like, also like, I don't mention them all, but there's like 10 Nikolais like throughout Dmitri's life, including son. His son also is named Nikolai. So eventually. Arpita: 14:07 That's so funny. Aarati: 14:08 But yeah. So he was trained as an electrician to make ends meet, but he did desperately want to follow in Nikolai's footsteps. So when he was 17, he tried to apply to Moscow State University, which was the same school that Nikolai had gone to. However, now because of the Stalin regime, Dmitri was denied entry because he was a priest's son. So instead, he attended a trade school called Ivanova State Agriculture Academy, where he could start studying biology. Arpita: 14:39 Why was being a priest's son precluding him from being a university student? Because wasn't Nikolai also a priest's son? Aarati: 14:46 Well, that was 18 years ago when the czar still... yeah, now Stalin's taken over. There's this whole, like, you know, thing against religion and the communists are trying to instate atheism. And so, because he was a priest's son, for whatever reason, that meant he couldn't be educated, I guess, in the university, state university. Arpita: 15:07 Okay, got it. Aarati: 15:09 Both Nikolai and Dmitri were strong supporters of Charles Darwin's theory that differences in species arose from small inherited changes over time and Gregor Mendel's theory that these inherited traits are passed down through an organism's genes. But this was a really big problem because in addition to the crackdown on religion, Stalin was also very much against genetics research. He considered genetics to be a tool of the upper class that was used to oppress the lower class. And that was the whole reason for the revolution, right? To empower the lower classes. So genetics kind of, according to him, undermines this because the upper class could kind of use that to say,"Our genes are better than yours"... is his argument. So, unfortunately, Stalin became a supporter of a man named Trofim Lysenko, who was doing experimental research in agriculture to improve crop yield. And as you mentioned earlier, this was a really hot button issue because Stalin's government was struggling to feed the Russian people, and there's all these famines that are widespread throughout the country. Arpita: 16:20 I don't know a lot about Russian history, but famine, I know that. Aarati: 16:24 Yes. So Lysenko is claiming that his research could not only drastically increase crop yields during the winter months, but he also claimed that if you planted the wheat seeds under the right conditions, you could transform them into rye or barley. Arpita: 16:40 Is that true? Aarati: 16:40 No that's not true. Um, complete crap. Arpita: 16:43 I was like, that doesn't make sense. Aarati: 16:44 Yeah. doesn't make any sense. Um, but he was promising quick results as opposed to Mendelian genetics, which was much slower and This was at a time, again, when people are starving. So following Mendelian genetics is not as sexy, quote unquote, you know? Arpita: 17:04 Not as appealing. makes a lot of sense. This is like early GMOs basically? Aarati: 17:10 Well, not even, because he's not even saying genetically you can modify them. He, he's also against genetics. Lysenko's against genetics too. He's just like, if you make the seed cold and then hot again, and then twist it around in a different way, then all of a sudden it's going to become rye. And it's like, no, it's not. Arpita: 17:28 Oh yeah. So this is all garbage. Aarati: 17:29 Yeah, this is all garbage. It's complete crap. Um, but also Lysenko was from a peasant family. So he hadn't attended a university. He had no science degree. And like Stalin, he had this view that scientists were bourgeois tools of the upper class who are using the idea of genetics to keep the lower class in their place. He like gave speeches, um, equating genetics with being anti Marxist. And all of this made Stalin a really big fan of Lysenko and his work, even though it was pseudoscience at best. Arpita: 18:03 That makes sense. Right. It's like along with his other ideals of, like, no religion and, like, making sure that everybody is quote unquote equal in a Soviet regime. That makes sense. Aarati: 18:12 Yeah. And it's like very appealing to elevate this man who comes from this very, um, like peasant background, you know, it's Oh, I'm elevating one of you. One of you can rise to the ranks, you know? Um, so Stalin throws his weight behind Lysenko. And he eventually becomes Director of Genetics for the Academy of Sciences, which gives him pretty much total power over genetics research being done in Russia. And it starts this trend called Lysenkoism, which was basically a political campaign against geneticists. So, no one was allowed to study Mendelian genetics or genetic inheritance in the kind of traditional sense. Geneticists would lose their jobs and get arrested, and in fact, in 1937, Dmitri's older brother Nikolai was arrested on a trip back to Moscow, denied a trial, and executed because he dared speak out against Lysenko's ideas. Arpita: 19:12 Oh my goodness. Okay. Definitely like a good sense of what was going on under Stalin's rule. Aarati: 19:18 Yeah, very, very scary. So it's an extremely dangerous time to be studying genetics, but Nikolai's death kind of instilled this fire in Dmitri to fight against Lysenko and avenge his brother, um, but he was also smart enough not to poke the bear, so to speak. Arpita: 19:39 Yeah. Aarati: 19:39 He knew that if he started yelling about genetics, he'd probably just be jailed and executed too. So he took a sneaky approach instead and started to cloak his genetics research under the guise of animal physiology and behavior studies, both of which Lysenko and Stalin were fine with. Arpita: 19:58 Mm hmm. Aarati: 19:58 For his dissertation, he framed his studies as experiments to improve the thickness and quality of silver fox fur, which was a very lucrative export for Russia at the time. So they were all for that. They were like, yes, make the fox fur better. We'll get more money. Excellent, excellent job, you know, and it's definitely has nothing to do with genetics, according to them. Arpita: 20:22 Um, was it actually about, you know, like crossbreeding and making, you know, Aarati: 20:28 Secretly, yeah, secretly yes, but... Arpita: 20:32 So if they didn't believe in genetics or didn't believe that genetics are true at all, there's no way they would have figured out that what he was doing was selecting for desirable traits and breeding based on that, right? Aarati: 20:44 Yeah, I don't think so. I think they were just like, Oh, you're just doing this based on like, you know, examining the quality of the fur, which we're fine with. And they didn't look much deeper into it than that. For now. For now they didn't. Arpita: 21:00 I mean, it makes sense, right? Cause if they don't have a framework for thinking about genetics, then they wouldn't have probably picked up on that. Aarati: 21:05 Exactly. Um, so in 1939, Dmitri gets a job at the USSR's Department for Fur and Animal Breeding in Moscow and is assigned to work at a government fur farm. Then shortly after, World War II breaks out and Dmitri is drafted into the Russian army. He joins the war effort initially as a machine gunner and then quickly rises through the ranks. He earned many medals of valor and decorations for his service. Years later, Dmitri's son wrote that his father didn't like talking about the war and said it was all"blood and dirt", although he did attend Victory Day celebrations and stayed in touch with his army friends later in life. After four years of fighting on the front lines and sustaining multiple injuries, Dmitri was honorably discharged as a highly decorated war hero. And he returns back to his laboratory at the fur farm. And now he has this reputation for not only being an excellent fox breeder, but also a man that has this outstanding military record. So he knows how to get things done. And those two things combined promotes him to Head of the Department of Fur Animal Breeding. Arpita: 22:17 This is just such a random department. Aarati: 22:19 Fur Animal Breeding. But apparently, I was reading like, you know, these fox pelts could go for thousands of dollars for one pelt, depending on you know, how, how good it was or how beautiful and luxurious it was. So it's a very lucrative, you know, export for Russia at a time when again, people are struggling. So the Russian government's all for it. Arpita: 22:42 It is interesting because I feel like even in TV shows in like the 60s, 70s, even up to the 80s, they talk a lot about furs and how they're unethical and like how people are like, Oh, you shouldn't have like a fur jacket or whatever. And I feel like that's so much less common, but was definitely a thing for a long time to wear real furs. Aarati: 23:04 Yeah and I can totally imagine like silver fox fur sounds so exotic, you know, and would definitely, I feel like be something that you would brag about. Arpita: 23:14 A hundred percent. Aarati: 23:16 On par with mink or something. I don't know. I don't know anything about... Arpita: 23:20 I don't know either. Aarati: 23:21 It sounds, it sounds impressive, I feel like. Arpita: 23:23 It sounds cool, like it sounds luxurious. Aarati: 23:26 Yeah. So now he's the head of this Department of Fur and Animal Breeding, which is a very important position. It's a very important department to Russia. And so this new position made Dmitri a little bit more confident that maybe he could start speaking out against Lysenko's ideas and not be executed. Arpita: 23:46 Cause he's like a big deal now. Aarati: 23:48 Like, he's, an important person. Um, but actually the war had just made things even worse for geneticists because Russia had been fighting against the Nazis and probably the biggest thing we all know about the Nazis is that they believed in maintaining the purity of the quote unquote master race. So Stalin and Lysenko both start pushing this idea that genetics as a whole was evil because if the Nazis believed in genetics, then it must be terrible. Arpita: 24:18 That's not even a crazy leap. Aarati: 24:20 Yeah, I know. Sadly, it's not. Arpita: 24:23 Yeah. It's not a crazy leap. Aarati: 24:25 Um, so in 1948, studying genetics in the USSR was banned completely. Dmitri was furious and he made a passionate speech about the importance of continuing genetics research, which pissed Lysenko off. Yeah. It also brought Dmitri's work under scrutiny and people realized that his dissertation thesis, which was entitled"The Variation and Inheritance of Silver Colored Fur in Silver Backed Foxes", was in fact heavily rooted in Mendelian genetics. Arpita: 24:56 Okay. So they finally like put it together. Aarati: 24:58 They finally put it together, like, yeah, as you were saying, like, I'm not really sure how they missed that, but yeah. So they figured out his thesis was rooted in Mendelian genetics, and he was banned from teaching at the Moscow Fur Institute. Any scientific articles he tried to publish were instantly rejected, and he was removed from his position as head of the department. Arpita: 25:22 So at least he wasn't executed. Aarati: 25:24 Exactly. At least he executed. Arpita: 25:27 Just fired, not executed. Could be worse. Aarati: 25:30 Yeah. So, for the next several years, Dmitri kept his head down. He tried to stay on the good side of the communist officials, although behind their backs he called Stalin a quote unquote bastard and Lysenko a scientific bandit, which I just love it. Yes. Arpita: 25:51 Are these all translated from Russian? I assume? Aarati: 25:54 I assume so, yeah. Arpita: 25:55 I assume so. Like, that's like so funny. Like, I feel like when you think about insults, like... Aarati: 25:59 I would love to hear it in Russian. Somebody tell me. Arpita: 26:03 Or curse words like I want the direct translation, you know It doesn't always translate. Well, if you are directly translating like swear words. Aarati: 26:11 Oh yeah, I'm scientific bandit is so much worse in Russian. Arpita: 26:15 Oh, yeah, can you imagine probably terrible? Aarati: 26:18 Yeah. So he continues to breed foxes for their fur and continues to frame his research as research in animal physiology. Um, and slowly again he starts climbing through the ranks and becomes a lead scientist at the Central Research Laboratory on fur breeding animals in Moscow. Arpita: 26:39 Okay, like this is a different institution, but this kind of sounds a little bit same same but different And nobody cared about that? Aarati: 26:46 I guess not. I think, I think because he, he kind of must have known how to play the game and been like, you know, Oh yeah, I did a bad thing. My bad. I promise I'll never do it again, you know? And they were like, we believe you because you're so amazing at breeding foxes for their fur. Like you're so good at it. So we believe you, you know, you're making Russia so much money. Okay. Like slap on the wrist. Go about your business. So... Arpita: 27:15 Okay. Yeah, I was like, that sounds like a little too similar. I'm not gonna lie. Aarati: 27:20 Yeah. I think he was just too good of a fox breeder for them to like, get rid of completely, it sounds like. But in 1952, he secretly launches one of the most famous experiments in genetics. Dmitri had been breeding silver foxes for some time now, and he had read a lot about breeding and animal domestication, but even though humans had been breeding silver foxes for their fur for a really long time. The foxes were not at all domesticated. They would bite and snarl aggressively as humans approached them, or they would react fearfully and try to hide in a corner. So caretakers at these fox farms had to wear two inch thick gloves in case the foxes tried to bite them. Arpita: 28:07 Oh, gosh. Aarati: 28:08 Yeah, but here's the question that fascinated Dmitri. He was like, foxes are actually very closely genetically related to dogs, and it's well known that dogs were domesticated a long time ago from wolves, which are very much wild animals, just like the foxes are. So you could imagine if you met a wolf in the wild, it would probably react the same way as the foxes were. They would either try to attack you or they would run away, right? So, the question was, how were humans able to domesticate wild wolves and over time make them into these loyal, loving companion dogs that we have today? And the other question Dmitri had was he had also observed that in addition to their tameness, domestic animals often started exhibiting physical changes. One really big one is that many animals would retain their young baby features even as adults, like floppy ears on a dog or curly tails on a pig. Arpita: 29:10 That's really cute. Aarati: 29:11 I know! Many also developed patches of different colored fur, and these changes seem to arise spontaneously because it's not like humans centuries ago would have selected for these traits. Arpita: 29:24 Right. Aarati: 29:25 For example, if a shepherd wanted a dog to protect its herd of sheep, why would floppy ears be an advantage in that job? They wouldn't have cared about that. They would have just cared about who's the best protector. Arpita: 29:37 It is a good question, because like, if, like, dogs all share a common ancestor in a wolf, there's so many breeds of dogs that were like bred to do specific tasks and for different reasons, and they all have very different, you know, phenotypes or features. So it's like a great question. Aarati: 29:54 Yeah. And it's like, it's not just dogs too. Like he was also observing other domesticated animals like cows would develop these spots. Like we think of a cow, we think of the black and white cow, but that's not how cows look in the wild. Over time as they were domesticated and farmers kept cows for their milk, they developed these patches, but it's not like the farmer would care, right? Like why would a care if they're, if they're cow looked brown or black or white or who cares. I just want the milk. So that's, that's a weird thing that all these physical changes had appeared kind of spontaneously and were persisting in these domesticated animals. Arpita: 30:34 Amongst, like, generations. They persist, and then they also are then inherited by future generations. Aarati: 30:39 Yeah, exactly. And it seems to be some sort of like selective advantage that these domesticated animals have, but like for what purpose? Why? Arpita: 30:48 Mm hmm. Aarati: 30:49 Um, and the other thing that Dmitri noticed was that domesticated animals have a much longer reproductive period than their wild counterparts. So wolves and wild foxes, for example, have a very specific mating and breeding window. Um, but dogs can pretty much be bred at any time of the year. So, That takes a pretty significant change to the animal's reproductive system, so why was domestication changing that? Um, seems kind of random. So, Arpita: 31:23 Mm hmm. Aarati: 31:24 Dmitri wanted to try an experiment to see if he could domesticate the silver fox and get an answer to some of these questions in real time. But, you know, he had to keep this experiment on the down low. Nobody could know about it. So, um, He contacts a trusted colleague, Nina Sorokina, who was the chief breeder at a commercial fox farm that he collaborated with. Her farm was in a little town called Kohila in Estonia, which was on the other side of the Iron Curtain that separated the eastern and western parts of Europe during the Cold War. Arpita: 32:01 Mm hmm. Aarati: 32:01 And Dmitri figured that if the experiment was actually being carried out at her farm, it would be a little bit safer than trying to conduct it literally under the nose of Lysenko and Stalin in the Soviet Union. Arpita: 32:15 That makes Aarati: 32:16 Yeah. Although he was completely transparent with Nina and made sure she was fully aware of what they were doing was, like, pretty much illegal, and that if they got caught, it could end badly for both of them. Arpita: 32:29 Yeah. Aarati: 32:30 You know, she was on board, fully. Arpita: 32:32 She was on board, ok. Aarati: 32:32 Yeah. So for the actual experiment, they decided that Nina and her workers would slowly approach the fox cages and reach out their gloved hands and foxes that tried to attack or shrank away in fear would be left alone. But foxes that tolerated the hand coming into the cage would be bred together in hopes that their pups would also show the same kind of acceptance to humans coming near them. Arpita: 32:59 Yeah. Like breeding for temperament, you know. Aarati: 33:01 Yeah, exactly. Breeding for their behavior. And this would be repeated for many generations. And so from the get go, this was already going to be a long, long term experiment, because the foxes breed only once a year. And we know in nature that evolution takes place over thousands of years. So even if they saw results, Dmitri knew it could take decades, and he might not even see results in his lifetime. So it''s a long shot. Arpita: 33:33 This is why people do research in C. elegans. Aarati: 33:35 Yes, exactly. It's like within a week you have thousands of them and then of can make thousands more the next week. But same with like cell research, like cell research and things like that. Like, Oh my God, once a year is just like a ridiculous amount of time for... and you have to catch them in that window have to like, they breed, I think it was like January to February or something is their breeding season. I could be wrong about that, but something like that. Arpita: 34:04 It's just like, I'm I'm just thinking, like, imagine writing a grant for this experiment and be like, we can really only collect data once a year, but the rest the time we need millions of dollars to keep these foxes alive. Like, can you imagine? Aarati: 34:18 No, which is maybe why it's a good thing he was doing this kind of secretly on the down low. Arpita: 34:23 That's I don't think anyone would fund this. Aarati: 34:26 Yeah, no one's going to fund this. I just need, um, cooperation from some other renegade scientists. Um, also one quick distinction that I want to make here is that there is a difference between training an animal to obey you and domesticating them. Because it would be one thing to take like one fox or even many foxes and teach them not to attack or be scared of humans. But actual domestication is something that humans have only been able to achieve with a few animals. We've been able to do it with dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, some birds, and even some insects have been domesticated. But some of their closest relatives, like wolves, lions, zebras, have not been able to be domesticated. Arpita: 35:12 People have tried, like, to domesticate a zebra? Aarati: 35:14 Yeah, they have, actually. Um, Apparently, for zebras, they have such a strong, like, prey instinct that if, like, a lion comes after them, they are conditioned to kick out at the lion or whatever tiger that's trying to attack them. And that instinct to kick is really hard, apparently, to get over. So, I think there was a scientist, or not a scientist, but some lord or something that was able to train some zebras to pull a carriage, but they've never actually been domesticated. Arpita: 35:49 Right, I feel like I've read this about natural prey animals. Like I know that sometimes like rabbits and guinea pigs can be challenging because they are prey animals as opposed to cats and dogs that are predator animals and they are less likely to be afraid of humans. I'm not really sure what that means for cows because I feel like they are also prey animals, but they're so big, like it's just like not... you know, but it is interesting. Aarati: 36:15 Yeah. It kind of sounds like if you're a prey animal, you have to get over the fear instinct and the instinct to protect yourself. And if you're a predator animal, you have to get over the instinct of attacking everything. So yeah. Arpita: 36:28 That makes sense. Aarati: 36:29 Um, so Dmitri knew that even though foxes were genetic cousins of dogs and therefore a pretty good candidate for this type of experiment, they may not be able to be domesticated at all, just like wolves, but he still thought it was worth a shot. So Dmitri and Nina started this experiment in 1952 and in 1953, a couple of major things happen. First of all, Watson and Crick, and I really should mention Rosalind Franklin here as well, so Arpita: 36:58 Snaps. Aarati: 36:58 Yes. Uh, they revealed the double helix model for DNA, and this, of course, was a huge breakthrough. It helped geneticists clearly understand where mutations came from and how they were passed down through generations. Secondly, Joseph Stalin died and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, and Khrushchev was not against Lysenko, but he didn't give him the kind of total support that Stalin had. Khrushchev saw the need to revitalize Soviet science, especially when it started to become clear that Lysenko hadn't actually made any headway in increasing crop yields. Whereas the Westerners who are following Mendelian genetics and now had created this new DNA model, they were growing bumper crops every year. So, you know... Arpita: 37:47 There's, like, clear evidence to support one theory now, and the turn a seed around in your hand four times is Aarati: 37:54 Yeah, not, it's not working. Shockingly, shockingly, it's not working. Arpita: 38:00 But now there's data, so I love that. Aarati: 38:02 Yeah. So even though Lysenko was still unfortunately held at this position that had a lot of power and respect, Khrushchev was more tolerant to scientists who opposed him. So Dmitri could tell the winds were changing and starting to shift in his favor. And even more exciting, within three years, Nina reported that the fox experiment was already starting to yield promising results. They had picked the calmest foxes and bred them together for a few generations, and the new fox litters were already starting to show calmer behaviors towards humans than even the foxes just two generations back. And to be clear, they weren't friendly foxes, they were just not aggressive. They were... Arpita: 38:47 Just not aggro. Okay. That's a good distinction to make though. Aarati: 38:51 Yeah, they were mostly indifferent to humans and maybe having a little snarl here and there, but it was a huge step forward from the default behavior of biting and running away. Arpita: 39:04 This just sounds like a cat. I think these are just cats. Aarati: 39:06 Yeah, he's achieved cat level. Arpita: 39:08 I think that he just bred cats at this point. Aarati: 39:11 But yeah, within three, within two or three years, like, great. You've made foxes into cats. So great. Excellent. Excellent progress. So Dmitri also now feels brave enough to speak out against Lysenko again and his methods. He starts giving lectures on fox breeding and genetics and geneticists as a whole are starting to come out in the open more. Okay, here comes a word that I'm not gonna be able to pronounce, but in 1957, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics was founded in the city of Akademagorodok.. Think I said that right? Um, okay. Akademagorodok. I wish I could do a Russian accent like make me really sound like I knew what I was talking about. Arpita: 40:00 That's a hard accent to fake though. I don't, I don't know. A lot of people could do that if they're not actually Russian. Aarati: 40:06 Yeah. I can't even do an Indian accent. I'm Indian, so terrible at that. I'm terrible it all. Um, so yeah, this city was starting to become like a kind of scientist Mecca in Russia, and the founder of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Nikolai Dubinin, another Nikolai, tapped on Dmitri to be deputy director and start an evolutionary genetics lab there. So genetics is really starting to make a comeback, and this really irritated Lysenko, as you can imagine. He actually formed a quote unquote committee to go poke around the new Institute and interrogate the researchers and then wrote a report about how the Institute's research was going in all the wrong directions and everything was terrible there. And Khrushchev heard of this report, so he decided to visit the Institute himself. Khrushchev was apparently a very hot tempered man, and when he saw that everything at the institute wasn't running perfectly smoothly, because, you know, it's a big institute and it has... Arpita: 41:13 Yeah. Aarati: 41:14 Budget issues and construction projects were running behind schedule, like, a lot of things are happening. It's not, it's not all perfectly smooth. Arpita: 41:22 This is just a normal university. Aarati: 41:23 Exactly. It's just like, what institute doesn't have problems? Um, but that was enough for Khrushchev to threaten to shut the whole place down. Luckily, he was traveling with his daughter, Rada, who was a biologist and a journalist, and she understood that the work being done at the institute was very important, so she convinced her dad not to shut them down. But since Khrushchev had basically thrown a man tantrum, he still felt he had to do something. So... Arpita: 41:52 Yeah, that this makes sense, He made a fit. So how can he do nothing now? Aarati: 41:57 Yeah, you can't just back down and, you know, be like"oh okay, I wrong". He's never wrong. Arpita: 42:02 Because that would be emotionally mature. So, you know... Aarati: 42:05 A trait that we know that all world leaders have, right? Emotional maturity. Um, but yeah, so Khrushchev fired Dubinin, the director of the Institute, and made Dmitri director instead. Arpita: 42:21 So he went from getting fired and almost executed to now promoted. you know, we've really come a long way. Aarati: 42:28 Yeah, it's, it's really good. So this allowed Dmitri to launch a full scale fox domestication project within Russia. And by this time, Nina's team had bred eight generations of calm foxes, and they transported about a dozen of them to a fox farm in Lesnoi, Russia. To carry out the actual project, Dmitri hired a young scientist by the name of Lyudmila Trut. And Lyudmila was very young and very surprised at how nice Dmitri was as a person. Cause he's this really big director and she's this young scientist. Um, but he was very caring and very transparent with her about this research. Um, not only is it borderline illegal, but it was, you know, a very intense project. It would mean long days away from her family, um, and they possibly would never see results, which could essentially kill her scientific career if it went nowhere. So just, like, really wanted to make sure she knew what she was getting into, especially she's so young and just starting out. Arpita: 43:41 Yeah. I mean that's like a really big deal. I feel like for you know, a mentor and a really young scientist to just be so forthright about this. Um, I had a question about Nina and the eight generations of foxes. Are they, so she's breeding for calm behavior and temperament. Are they getting more calm by the generation or is it kind of about the same. Aarati: 44:05 I think it's, it's very slow progress, and that was something that Dmitri and Lyudmila would have talked about as well, like Dmitri would have said,"we think we see results. They seem to be calmer, but this could still amount to nothing." So it's still kind of like borderline, like we think they might be getting calmer, but we're not a hundred percent sure. So we hope so. Arpita: 44:30 Yeah, I guess I was just wondering how, how they were measuring it, if it was just how they behaved or if there was maybe some sort of objective measure they were using to calculate calmness and then if they were selecting for the same traits over and over again, if it was changing over time, which it sounds like it was. Aarati: 44:49 Yeah. I think at this point it is mostly all about the behavior and even that it's like very hard to regulate that, right? Because all the caretakers have to be on board about how fast they approach the foxes and like how fast they stick their hand in there and do they try to touch the fox? Do they not? Like does a snarl constitute as being aggressive or do they have to full on bite you? Like what is the threshold there? So i think there's a little bit of a gray area which is part of the reason why Dmitri was kind of hedging his bets with Lyudmila and saying like, just want to let you know, this may not go anywhere. Um... Arpita: 45:28 Yeah. Aarati: 45:28 You know, but we're trying to be as objective as possible, but like right now in terms of like physically like measuring a protein or measuring something in their blood or something like that, there's none of that going on. It's really just all behavior. Arpita: 45:44 Yeah. Aarati: 45:45 Yeah, but, so, Dmitri really wanted to make sure Lyudmila knew what she was getting into, but Lyudmila was fascinated by this work and she was desperate to be a part of it. So, just to be safe, he told her that for now they would still be doing research under the disguise of an animal physiology experiment, just in case Lysenko came up with some more crazy ideas and schemes. Arpita: 46:07 I can't believe this guy is still in the picture. Aarati: 46:09 I know. So from the first day Lyudmila started working with the foxes from Nina's farm, she immediately noticed how much calmer they were than the rest of the foxes. She kept the experiment going, and in 1963, which is now the 11th generation of foxes, one of the baby foxes named Ember started to wag his tail whenever Lyudmila came close. Arpita: 46:34 Stop. This is so stinking cute. Aarati: 46:38 Yeah, so very exciting, and it was a very dog like behavior, right? And that seemed to have arisen spontaneously, because where did that come from? None of the other foxes had been wagging their tails, so he was the first one. Um, Lyudmila told Dmitri about it, and he decided that it was time to share his experiment with the world, finally, after 11 years. Arpita: 47:03 So he's admitting that he's been thinking about this even before it was like, I feel like he's gotten to the point now where these results exist in a time where it's slightly more acceptable for him to be doing this, but he's admitting that he's been thinking about this even when it was it's very illegal. Aarati: 47:18 Yeah, definitely. So for the first time, the Soviet government was allowing a group of geneticists to attend the International Congress of Genetics and Dmitri gave a talk about the work that he and Lyudmila were doing. And his talk gained a lot of attention with many scientists remarking on how original and ambitious his work was. And this was also, again, at a time where it was very difficult to share the research between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world due to the Cold War. So Dmitri was like thrilled to have this opportunity to share his work and set up some collaborations with Western scientists. Arpita: 47:54 Yeah. Aarati: 47:55 Yeah, really exciting for him. Okay, you're gonna explode from cuteness. So, two years later and two generations of foxes later, the new pups were starting to exhibit even more dog like behaviors. They tried to nuzzle up against their caretakers, licked their hands, would roll on their backs as if asking for belly rubs, and would whine when Lyudmila and the other caretakers tried to leave them. Arpita: 48:20 Oh, that's very cute. I also feel like the belly exposing is very vulnerable. Like they are willingly showing their belly to, you know, humans that might hurt them. They don't know. Aarati: 48:33 Yeah, it's big sign of trust, I think, even dogs, if they to show you their belly, it's like, I trust you, I'm surrendering to you, like, you know... Arpita: 48:43 Definitely. I mean, I think my cats do it to be really annoying and they know that they'll get attention if they do that because we'll give them belly rubs. Um, so, maybe a little different, but... Aarati: 48:51 Yeah, um, a few generations later, more foxes were starting to wag their tails, and a new physical characteristic was starting to appear. Their tails were curling. Arpita: 49:03 So like a, like a C, as to just like a straight line. Aarati: 49:07 Exactly, they were starting to curl up. Uh, the tame foxes were also keeping their young pup like behaviors, like playing and exploring, well into adulthood. And they started even going for walks on leashes, or coming when their name was called. Arpita: 49:22 So cute. Aarati: 49:22 Yeah, So all of these changes had happened in less than a decade since the experiment had started in Lesnoi with Lyudmila. Arpita: 49:29 I mean, yeah, it's like a very short period of time when you think about it. Aarati: 49:33 Evolutionarily speaking? Super short. Yeah. Um, and in 1916, a fox with floppy ears was born. Arpita: 49:44 This is too cute. This is too cute. Little floppy eared fox with like a little wagging tail. That's just a puppy. You're describing a puppy. Aarati: 49:51 Yeah. It is a puppy. Um, they named her Mechta, which translates to dream. And Dmitri started using her pictures in all his presentations and that made her sort of like a celebrity throughout Russia. Arpita: 50:05 Why would you not? Aarati: 50:06 Yeah, like the famous fox with floppy ears. Um, but again, the question is where are these changes coming from? Lyudmila and Dmitri had not been trying to create foxes with floppy ears or curly tails. They had only been selecting for behavior and not these physical characteristics. So Dmitri had come up with a pretty radical explanation for all of these changes. He realized that the common denominator as to why an animal would retain babyish features or why their reproductive system would start to change was that their hormones were changing, because hormones are known to regulate everything from stress responses to reproduction to the timing animal transitioning from baby to adult. So... Arpita: 50:52 Right. Aarati: 50:52 And they found that this was indeed the case. The tame foxes had much lower levels of stress hormones and higher levels of the happiness hormones like serotonin and oxytocin. Arpita: 51:05 Like they're like genetically predisposed to have these different levels and then you keep selecting for those things. Aarati: 51:10 Well, he did take it a step further than just hormone levels. So he theorized that somehow the levels of these hormones were being controlled by genes, and that was serious out of the box thinking because it meant that these changes were happening without a genetic mutation in like the traditional sense of the word. Arpita: 51:32 Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. Aarati: 51:35 Yeah, so he's hypothesizing that instead of like a genetic mutation, genes that are already present in the animal were becoming activated or deactivated, which in turn would regulate hormone levels. Arpita: 51:50 That is really impressive because I feel like they discovered gene activity so recently compared to when he's making these leaps. Aarati: 51:58 Oh yeah, it's like, just a couple years after figuring out the structure of DNA, he's proposing this like pretty radical theory. Arpita: 52:07 Which is very sophisticated given that this field of study is like in its very early stages. Aarati: 52:13 Yeah, very, very out of the box. I think like when he first proposed this, people had to sit and have a think about it. They were like,"just blew our minds." What? Um, so Dmitri hypothesized that this was due to something he called destabilizing selection. So a fox in the wild has a very stable physiology and behavior that is perfectly suited to its environment. But if you suddenly change that environment to one where, for example, it's more advantageous to be tame around humans, the fox's gene activity would change, which would result in its hormone levels changing. And that would result in the physical and behavioral changes that was better suited to this new environment. And so, like, if you now extrapolate that to the overall question of how did dogs get domesticated from wolves, we could imagine that wolves that were curious about human encampments and got close to them might have gotten some scraps of food and realized that, hey, it's actually advantageous to be around humans because they leave behind food or they actually give us food. Um, so they naturally slowly started to become less afraid of humans and started developing these like really cute, and protective characteristics that endeared them to the humans. And... Arpita: 53:38 Yeah, like, make them more appealing. Aarati: 53:40 And that was advantageous. It was advantageous if you had a wolf with floppy ears that the humans thought were cute and then the human would give it more food or something. You know? Arpita: 53:50 It's good to know that even our ancestors, how many ever thousands of years ago, were also just as susceptible to cute... Aarati: 53:58 Big eyes, floppy adorable. Yes. Arpita: 54:03 So it's not just you and me. Aarati: 54:04 Yeah, it's not. No, definitely not. Um, yeah, so over tens of thousands of years now we have loving, loyal dogs that used to be wild wolves. And same with cats, and same with cows, and everything else. Arpita: 54:20 Wow. That's so interesting. I was, I feel like I read something, I don't even remember where, but about how, you know, Cats and dogs, I guess maybe less dogs, but they get smaller as they're domesticated, like wild cows are larger in size domesticated cows. And like, I mean, for cats, it's definitely true. House cats are just so small relative to, you know, wild cats, but did you find anything about size? Aarati: 54:46 I didn't find anything about size, but that would make a lot of sense because like, maybe you don't need that bulk to fight off predators or to have that muscle mass to catch your prey. Arpita: 54:57 Right. Aarati: 54:58 That, that would make a lot of sense actually. Um, the only thing I read about that was like the kind of babyish features that they would retain, but I don't think they were really talking about that in terms of size. They were more talking about that as like, young puppies had floppy ears that would eventually stand up straight, but then these floppy ears are now being carried over into adulthood and the ears would never stand up straight and things like that. Um, that's really interesting. I, I would be interested to look more into that because it makes a lot of sense. Okay, so in the following years, Dmitri built a fox farm just four miles away from the institute where he and Lyudmila could conduct experiments. They hired a bunch of local women from nearby towns to come be caretakers, and soon the foxes and the caretakers were forming emotional bonds with each other. Arpita: 55:48 Of course they were. Aarati: 55:50 Yeah. The women would also help with collecting blood samples and stuff when needed for experiments. And Dmitri would bring visitors to the farm, including visiting scientists, government officials, and even military generals who would all just melt over these really cute, adorable, tame foxes. Arpita: 56:09 We've really come such a long way from people being such naysayers and also his brother being literally jailed and executed over doing this type of research, but then all he had to do was bring really cute animals into the mix and people were like, do whatever you want. Do whatever research you want. Aarati: 56:23 Yeah, come play with the cute, tame foxes, look. Um, eventually Lyudmila even brought one of the foxes named Pushinka to live with her to see if the fox would form a stronger bond to her specifically, rather than just being happy with all humans in general. Um, the same way a dog is loyal and loves its family more than other people. And it did! Pushinka trusted Lyudmila, but was wary of strangers when they came to the house. She would greet Lyudmila at the door when she came back from being out. Um, she got jealous if she saw Lyudmila give her attention to other foxes. And it's Arpita: 57:05 That's so funny. Aarati: 57:08 So funny. And one night she even started barking when she heard footsteps outside of Lyudmila's house and it turned out to just be a night guard but very dog like, very protective behavior. Arpita: 57:22 Definitely. Aarati: 57:23 Yeah. Uh, Dmitri also started setting up more experiments in behavior, like instead of creating friendly, tame foxes, he started breeding together the most aggressive foxes to create a line of super ferocious foxes. Arpita: 57:37 This is unhinged. Aarati: 57:39 I know, it's like All right, let's go. Let's take this in every direction. Well, he also starts asking questions about nurture versus nature. So, for example, what if they took the embryos from the aggressive mother foxes and implanted them into the tame mother? Would the pups that were born be aggressive? Um, and vice versa. So he's really getting to that question of like how much of this behavior is genetic and how much was taught to them by their mother. Arpita: 58:08 Yeah, what was the answer? Aarati: 58:10 Uh, interestingly, when the aggressive mothers gave birth to tame pups, the tame pups were immediately trying to be friendly with the caretakers and the aggressive mother started punishing them for that behavior. What are you doing, you stupid fox? You're supposed to hate the humans. Arpita: 58:30 And then did it work? Aarati: 58:31 Yeah, so vice versa, like the pups were behaving like they're genetic mothers, showing that this behavior is at least partly genetic, so it's not, like, just learned. Arpita: 58:42 That makes sense. Aarati: 58:42 Yeah, so these experiments were mind blowing, not only because, as we mentioned, how fast the results were being seen, but also because they finally seem to be getting answers about how animals could be domesticated, which had been a really big question mark in science for a long time. Dmitri was really excited to share his research, but that was tough because of the Cold War. Um, but since Dmitri was director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, he was one of the few Soviet scientists who at least got some leeway to travel internationally to conferences. So, he was invited to give talks at the University of Edinburgh and at UC Berkeley and scientists were just fascinated by his work. Soon Dmitriri and a bunch of the other Soviet scientists banded together and proposed that the 1978 International Genetics Congress should be held in Moscow, not only to expose scientists in the Soviet Union to the rest of the world, but also to show everyone that Lysenkoism was now officially dead. Like, he has no power anymore. Arpita: 59:46 That took way too long. Aarati: 59:49 It really did. It really did. Let's just, thank God, finally. Dmitri was very dedicated to not only showing Western scientists how far Soviet science had come, but also he really went out of his way to show foreign scientists that Soviet scientists were not plotting against America and Europe like much of the Western media claimed. Dmitri and his wife Svetlana, who was also a biologist, and also it's a very Russian name. Arpita: 1:00:19 This is such a Russian name. Aarati: 1:00:20 Yes, um, they would host visiting scientists at their own home, or if they were staying at a hotel, Dmitri made sure they booked the finest rooms at the expense of the institute. They really pulled out all the stops, making sure that they had the best food and entertainment. Because he very much believed that war and politics between countries should remain separate from science and the sharing of knowledge. Arpita: 1:00:45 That makes a lot of sense. It also definitely feels like the political angle here of demonstrating what the Soviet Union is capable of and that they're, you know, reassuring people that they're not actually plotting I think really huge, like that messaging is really of like the signal that that sends to the Aarati: 1:01:03 Yeah. And I think especially at an individual level, it would work because scientists like from Europe or from America who'd come visit him and play with his foxes were like, you guys, like, calm down CIA. They're not doing anything. They're playing with foxes. It's fine. Arpita: 1:01:20 They're playing with foxes. Yeah. Aarati: 1:01:22 They're really cute. They're really tame foxes. By 1978, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics had 500 domesticated adult female foxes. 150 domesticated adult males, and 2000 young foxes that were all showing traits of domestication. Arpita: 1:01:41 Wow. Aarati: 1:01:42 Towards the end of his life, Dmitri started to expand his destabilizing selection theory to humans, which I thought this was fascinating. So he wondered if maybe humans were just more domesticated or a tame form of ape, because after all, we are like over 96 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees. So at least some of our differences would be the result of changes in gene expression rather than actual DNA mutations. Arpita: 1:02:12 Yeah, this, this story took a left turn, but I'm here for it. I'm going, yeah, let's go for it. Aarati: 1:02:16 It just, like, blew my mind when I read that. I was like, what? But in this case, we would have domesticated ourselves. So our early predecessors who started using tools and standing upright and were forming social bonds would probably naturally mate with others like them. Arpita: 1:02:34 Mm hmm. Aarati: 1:02:35 And although Dmitri could never actually set up an experiment to study this because of obvious ethical concerns... Arpita: 1:02:42 Many, many concerns. Aarati: 1:02:43 Yeah. still a fascinating, fascinating idea. Arpita: 1:02:47 It is a fascinating idea. I feel like stuff like that even exists in social science now that. People who are college educated tend to, you know, marry other people who are college educated or, um, certain value sets. sort of beget themselves, you Yeah. like, um, Aarati: 1:03:05 Yeah, you look for people who are kind of like you. Arpita: 1:03:08 Similar to you. Yeah. And things like education, I dunno, just the types of people who, you know, value certain things tend to find each other. Aarati: 1:03:18 Yeah. So it makes a lot of sense. Like, I can totally see it. Um. In 1985, at the age of 68, Dmitri was hospitalized with severe pneumonia. He never fully recovered, and so he went to see a specialist in Moscow, where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Dmitri had been a heavy smoker, a habit that he refused to give up, despite his son, who grew up to be a physician, asked him numerous times to give up smoking, but he refused outright. Before his death, he gave one final press interview where he was asked what he wished for mankind in the 21st century. He said, quote,"Be kind and socially responsible, strive for mutual agreement with all people, live in peace, carry a full and sincere responsibility for our younger brothers, all living creatures on earth. We should never forget that we are just part of nature and we should live in harmony with nature when we study its laws and use this knowledge to our service." Arpita: 1:04:18 Wow what a A) great question and B) what a great answer. Like he really covered all his bases Aarati: 1:04:28 Yeah. I was like, that should be emblazoned on like every institute, every university ever. Don't forget that we are also part of nature. Arpita: 1:04:37 It's like social responsibility, caring for each other. Yeah, that's a great answer. I like that. Aarati: 1:04:44 Dmitri died on November 14th, 1985, surrounded by his friends and family. Tons of people showed up to his funeral, including staff and scientists from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, and many of his World War II comrades. In 2017, a statue depicting Dmitri and one of his tame foxes was built near the Institute of Cytology and Genetics to honor his 100th birthday. Arpita: 1:05:08 Very sweet. Aarati: 1:05:10 And Lyudmila Trutt took over the fox domestication project and keeps it running to this day and is still working on uncovering more of the genetic secrets behind animal domestication. Arpita: 1:05:24 Wow. That's crazy. I do love that the Fox made it into the statue with him because that's very but I find that very endearing. Aarati: 1:05:30 Yes, it's a really cute statue. I'll put a picture of it on the website. It's like, he's sitting on a bench and he's like reaching out to this fox who's looking at him. It's really cute. Arpita: 1:05:40 That's really cute. Um, yeah, it's like really crazy that this experiment is still going. I feel like there's so few like this that are not, you know, population based human studies that are still going on for such a long time. I just find that so impressive. I feel like there's so many barriers, like funding and staffing and institutional access. And I'm very impressed by the fact that they have kept this going to answer all these cool questions. Aarati: 1:06:05 Yeah. I think even after he died, it was still a bit of a struggle to keep it going, but you know, lyudmila was just like, no, this, this experiment is too valuable. We need to, we cannot just scrap it now. We have to keep it going. And she worked really hard to, you know, make sure that it didn't fail because of budget issues or something like... she was like, no, this is too important. Yeah, Arpita: 1:06:32 That's awesome. Aarati: 1:06:33 That's the story. I really enjoyed researching this one for obvious reasons. Arpita: 1:06:40 No, that was a great story. It was so interesting and really different from stuff we've talked about before. Like, I know I really enjoyed it. Thank you for such a great story. Aarati: 1:06:50 Yes, and thank you for listening. And also, I just want to mention that we will be taking a break for two episodes. So we will be back with you all in June after Arpita gets married. Arpita: 1:07:05 Yes, just a little, little life and then we will be right back with lots of fun episodes. Um, and we can't wait to reconnect with all of our listeners in just a few short weeks. Thanks for listening. If you have a suggestion for a story we should cover or thoughts you want to share about an episode, reach out to us at smartteapodcast. com. You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter at smartteapodcast and listen to us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Leave us a rating or comment. It really helps us grow. New episodes are released every other Wednesday. See you next time.

Sources for this Epsiode

1. Trut, Lyudmilla; Dugatkin, Lee Alan (23 March 2017). How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution (1st ed.). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-0226444185.

2.  "Dmitry Belyayev (zoologist)." Wikipedia. 

3. "Dmitriy Konstantinovich Belyaev." Science First Hand: 27 Oct 2017 , On What Cannot Be , volume 47, N2/3.

4. Gorman James. "Why Are These Foxes Tame? Maybe They Weren't So Wild to Begin With." New York Times. 2019 Dec 03.

5. Ptushenko VV. The pushback against state interference in science: how Lysenkoism tried to suppress Genetics and how it was eventually defeated. Genetics. 2021 Dec 10;219(4):iyab162. doi: 10.1093/genetics/iyab162. PMID: 34739057; PMCID: PMC8664584.

6. Dugatkin, Lee Alan and Trut, Lydmilla. How People Fought the USSR's Descent Into Pseudoscience and how it started in the first place. Slate Science. 2017 June 02. 

7. Dugatkin, L.A. The silver fox domestication experiment. Evo Edu Outreach 11, 16 (2018).

8. The Silver Fox Experiments. ucbooks. YouTube. 2017 Feb, 15.


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