Some years ago, I read a fascinating book by paleontologist Jack Horner, titled How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution. Since science has proven it is patently impossible to bring back dinosaurs using their DNA (ala Jurassic Park), Horner instead proposes an intriguing alternative: reverse-engineering dinosaurs from birds. The entire book explains how, through evolutionary development (or “evo-devo,” as Horner calls it), scientists may genetically manipulate a chicken so that when it hatches, it looks a lot more like the ancient raptor dinosaurs than a bird. Given that birds are considered to be direct evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs, especially the (in)famous raptor species like Deinonychus and Utahraptor, this idea is not too farfetched. This has given me hope of one day owning pet Velociraptors, which are vicious turkey-sized creatures armed with sharp teeth and a large claw on each foot, perfectly adapted for slashing prey open. I would certainly like to see a mugger or rapist attempt to come at me while I have one of those on a leash.
Of course, such a thing can only happen if biotech progresses at a rapid pace, since the techniques Horner says are necessary for reverse-engineering a dinosaur from a bird rely on advances made in that specific field. Unfortunately, biotech is also a field fraught with controversy, since it has some rather complicated ethics, and as a result its developments come in fits and starts, depending on who is doing what and where and how. There are very good reasons for these controversies, of course, and for the constant questioning of ethics, but in Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, Emily Anthes points out that it wouldn’t be wise to “throw out the genetically modified baby with the bathwater.” And this is the whole point of her book: to weight the pros and cons of biotech by showing the advances already made in that field, as well as raising vital questions about the ethics of it that lead, most importantly, to humanity’s relationship with animals, and nature as a whole.
Frankenstein’s Cat takes a broad, sweeping look at biotech as it stands today, and asks some interesting questions about what these technologies can do and where they are going. After the Introduction, the first four chapters deal with genetic manipulation: Chapter One deals with genetic manipulation for the pet trade by looking at GloFish; Chapter Two talks about pharming via the story of goats that have been genetically modified to have a certain protein in their milk that will help prevent deadly diarrhea in children and maybe adults; Chapter Three is about cloning pets; and Chapter Four is about cloning for conservation purposes. The next three chapters, on the other hand, are about the other ways by which humans alter animals, but without the use of genetic manipulation: Chapter Five is about tracking devices and sensors used in wildlife research; Chapter Six is about animal prosthetics; and Chapter Seven is about robotizing animals – specifically, tapping right into their brains so they can be controlled by humans. Finally, Chapter Eight is a roundup of everything that has gone before, with special emphasis on the question of ethics and why it’s difficult for humans to accept that we love animals and would like to treat them well, but at the same time view them as a resource to be used for whatever purpose we think they are suitable.
The first thing the reader will note in Frankenstein’s Cat is the overall positive portrayal of biotech. Anthes structures her book around mostly positive stories that showcase the use of biotech – especially touching is the chapter on animal prosthetics, detailing as it does the tale of Winter the dolphin, who was given a prosthetic tail after she lost hers in a fishing net while she was still a baby. While Winter has not been released into the wild, and will never be released into the wild, the prosthetic tail has certainly improved her quality of life. There are also stories of pet dogs and cats who have lost limbs and been given prostheses, and Anthes makes a reference to sea turtles that have been given prosthetic fins and then released back into the wild.
However, while there are a lot of heartwarming stories in the book that shine a positive light on biotech, Anthes does attempt to balance that positivity by discussing the difficulties involved in biotech (particularly cloning), as well as by constantly raising ethical questions about when biotech is a good solution to a problem, or if using biotech will only create more problems than solve them, or – as is the case with a product called “Neuticles” (the book will relate the whole story) – reveal that oftentimes humans do things to animals that are more for their comfort than the animal that is supposedly “benefiting” from the alteration.
And speaking of humans doing things to animals to please themselves, Anthes brings up the subject of selective breeding. She states that lots of biotech, particularly the genetic-engineering kind, is really no different from selective breeding, except that selective breeding takes much longer and is more limited in its reach than the kind of genetic tinkering that can be accomplished in a lab. She also points out that some of the fears we have regarding the health and welfare of animals that have been genetically engineered are very much applicable to selectively-bred animals, too. She calls out breeders of purebred animals (focusing on dogs, in particular), highlighting the fact that humanity has selectively bred the canine species into its wide and myriad variations for its own purposes, which are not always to the benefit of the animals themselves. After all, Anthes says, no one is going to deny that purebred dogs suffer from a whole host of genetic diseases, and that some, like the brachycephalic dogs such as the bulldog and the Pekinese, have been bred in such a manner as to actually make them suffer (brachycephalic breeds being notorious sufferers of shortness of breath – a result of their extremely short snouts that obviously reduces their quality of life and exacerbates whatever other issues they already carry as purebreds with little genetic diversity). Anthes asks: how is it that people can accept these mutations in dogs, while worrying about the mutations of animals that are genetically-engineered in a lab? Some reviewers hold this comparison against Anthes, but I, for one, commend her for it.
Despite her attempt at balance, however, I do have something of a problem with Anthes’ overall tone in her writing. There is a lightness to it that makes it obvious she is very much in favor of biotech – perhaps a little too much in favor. I myself am a proponent of biotech and a believer in all the positive things it can do for humanity and for other species, but even I find Anthes’ overall tone a bit problematic. I suppose she wrote the book with that particular tone in order to make the large and admittedly somewhat-frightening concepts behind biotech easier to read and more acceptable, but even when she does include the darker side of biotech, the overall treatment of the book makes it feel like these are problems that can be overcome, or are the result of stubborn, overly-fearful people trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. While I do partially agree with Anthes in this regard, I think the tone of her writing can make it seem like she trivializes the legitimate concerns that people have regarding the widespread use of biotech.
Another thing that puzzles me about this book is that Anthes does not tackle the role of Big Pharma in biotech. As the field continues to advance large pharmaceutical corporations have begun to cash in, going so far as to patent genes for use later on down the line. This is, I think, far more terrifying than mutant creatures that probably wouldn’t survive very long outside of a laboratory setting anyway, since it has an enormous impact on the use and distribution of vital medicine and medical treatments in the future. How Anthes could have missed this aspect of biotech, in particular, is beyond me, especially given how great its impact could be in the future.
Overall, Frankenstein’s Cat makes for an entertaining read, and, to a degree, an insightful one. Anthes’ prose is very easy to read, and many of the stories around which is grounds her investigation into biotech are heartwarming and easy to engage with, particularly for someone who does not yet have an opinion on the matter as a whole. However, that same tone may cause trouble for other readers who already do have an opinion, since some may find it too frivolous of the fears of those who oppose biotech – even readers who are pro-biotech may find themselves occasionally raising an eyebrow at the way Anthes treats these fears, which, after all, exist for a reason and are held even by biotech’s proponents. Some (such as myself) may also find it concerning that she does not address the role of Big Pharma in biotech, seemingly treating the whole matter as if Big Pharma has no stake in biotech when, in truth, they are probably the ones who stand the most to gain. Frankenstein’s Cat is really just an introduction to current ideas behind biotech, and readers may choose to read more in-depth (albeit more technical) books on biotech for further elaboration on these concepts and other issues connected to it.