Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts By Emily Anthes, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 232 pages, $26.00
Neon glowing fish, dolphins with prosthetic limbs, and computer-controlled beetles as military spies are just a few of the peculiar creatures that Emily Anthes highlights in her intriguing new book, Frankenstein’s Cat. As the title implies, Anthes, science journalist, explores the vast ways in which scientists have used biotechnology to alter some of our non-human cohabitants of this planet. We’ve come a long way since Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996, she shows in her fast-paced book, but the ethical issues surrounding bioengineering are no less complicated today.
Biotechnology itself isn’t “good” or “bad”; rather, it’s how we use it, argues Anthes. There’s a difference, she says, between creating a neon-glowing fish to sell at pet stores and developing a prosthetic tail for a dolphin calf whose appendage was sliced in a crab trap. Similarly, there’s a difference between breeding dogs to fulfill desires of convenience and aestheticism to the point of inflicting disease on them, and developing goats that produce protein-rich milk that could help fend-off disease and malnutrition in infants in poorer nations. “If we use our scientific superpowers wisely, we can make life better for all living beings for species that walk and those that fly, slither, scurry, and swim; for the creatures that live in scientific labs and those that run them,” she writes.
Anthes views biotechnology as a way for humans to combat some of the messes we’ve made, such as by using satellite tags to help decrease sea turtle bycatch, or storing DNA from endangered species means that we could potentially clone them and bring them back if they blink out.
“Humans are a force of nature—we are, in some senses, the force of nature—and we influence animals whether we intend to or not,” she writes. “So the real question, going forward, is not whether we should shape animals’ bodies and lives, but how we should do so—with what tools, under what circumstances, and to what end. Are the needs of other species truly best served by leaving them to fend for themselves in a world that we have come to dominate?” In Anthes’ opinion, the answer is clearly ‘no’.