Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts
Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
256 pp., $26.00
Science in Focus: C. Ben Mitchell
Frankenstein's Cat, Part 2
Designer animals are here! GloFish, for instance—a variety of zebrafish native to South Asia—are a highly marketable commodity in pet stores around the country. What makes them glow so brilliantly is not a result of millions of years of evolution or even selective breeding by enthusiastic collectors. Instead, GloFish are genetically engineered by adding a bit of sea anemone DNA, causing them to radiate under black lights. Electric Green, Sunburst Orange, Cosmic Blue, and Galactic Purple are a few of the possible color choices.
Although GloFish may be America's first genetically engineered pets, they are far from the first animals to be manipulated biologically. China's Fudan University hopes eventually to create 100,000 strains of genetically modified mice, while scientists at the University of California, Davis, are using the "tools of pharming" to reduce the number of children who die annually from diarrheal diseases. That's no mean feat since more than 2 million die each year from those causes. Since infants who drink breast milk for the first thirteen weeks of life are less likely to have gastrointestinal problems, the UCD researchers are attempting to engineer goats that produce milk containing higher levels of lysozyme, an enzyme that is especially concentrated in human breast milk.
Today's biotechnologies offer the power to do what other methods could not—and to do so efficiently. As Emily Anthes writes in Frankenstein's Cat, "selective breeding was a blunt instrument, one that required us to transform animals using educated guesswork, breeding desirable hounds together, over and over again, until a puppy we liked squirmed into the world. It took thousands of years to turn wolves into dogs. Now we can create novel organisms in years, months, and even days."
Anthes is an MIT-trained science writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York with her dog, Milo. In her informative and entertaining romp through the zoo of designer animals, Anthes traces the contours of Western biotechnological development, including genetic engineering, prosthetic technologies, robotics, and even efforts to create human-animal chimeras. Along the way she shows us our somewhat schizophrenic view of animals and their welfare. Although increasing numbers of Westerners view animals as worthy of moral consideration and protection against abuse, they continue to instrumentalize them, both through eating their flesh for food and, more recently, manipulating their biology at will.
In the end, Anthes favors genetically engineering animals: "If we use our scientific superpowers wisely, we can make life better for all living things—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." The "if" in that conditional sentence is a big one. Wisdom seems to be in short supply in an age that is more concerned with the satisfaction of desire than with doing the right thing.
C. Ben Mitchell is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. With Edmund D. Pellegrino, Jean Bethke Elshtain, John F. Kilner, and Scott Rae, he is one of the authors of Biotechnology and the Human Good (Georgetown Univ. Press), a subject on which he has published widely.
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