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Frankenstein's Cat: Biotechnology, Strange Creatures, and Us

What does genetically engineering animals—glowing fish, frozen zoos—mean?

I finally got around to reading a book with the catchy title, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts, by journalist Emily Anthes, and I'm sorry I let it sit on my cluttered desk for as long as I did. Highly-acclaimed, packed with a lot of information, very well-referenced, and an easy read, this book made me think hard and deep about our relationships with other animals (the focus of the field of anthrozoology) and just what is okay and what is not. 

Some of the examples about which Ms. Anthes writes include cloning endangered and other species, creating frozen zoos, using prosthetics to help injured animals, supplementing their natural senses, and engineering mutant animals and glowing cats.

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In an NPR interview about her fascinating book, Ms. Anthes talks about another example:  "One lab in China is even tackling the human genome by way of the mouse genome. There, researchers are randomly disabling mouse genes one at a time, in order to identify the function of each gene. By essentially throwing darts at a genetic dartboard to see what happens, the researchers have filled 45,000 mouse cages with mutant mice." Oh my. And, we know mice display empathy for other mice in pain.

She also correctly notes, "The implications of such bioengineering projects are complicated and still unfolding. On the one hand, research being done with bioengineering could potentially help cure cancer or give blind people the gift of sight. At the same time, it heralds unprecedented new territory with regard to human interference with nature. It also forces some tricky questions about animal welfare."

My own take is that biotechnology has gone way too far and in many cases demeans nonhuman animals (animals) as we manipulate and control their lives. It objectifies them and doesn't allow us to appreciate them for who they really are. I don't see genetic engineering playing much of a role in our reconnecting with nature and rewilding ourselves (see also). 

Rampant engineering also can shift attention from the numerous ways in which we otherwise manipulate and harm other animals and be used to make it seem that our wanton and wide-ranging destructive ways aren't all that bad because we can correct them, or at least try to do so. 

Where have all the animals gone in our "brave new world"?

I know people will disagree about what sorts of engineering are permissible and those that are not, and Frankenstein's Cat will surely stimulate just the types of discussions and debates we sorely need before things get out of hand and we wake up one morning and ask, "Where have all the animals gone in our 'brave new world'"?"

The final paragraph of Ms. Anthes's book nicely summarizes the material she covers. She writes, "Biotechnology is not inherently good or bad; it is simply a set of techniques, and we have choices about how we employ them. 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 who run them. So it's time to embrace our role as the dominant force in shaping the planet's future, time to discover what it truly means to be stewards. Then we can all evolve together."

I couldn't agree more—evolving together would be a wonderful state of affairs but not at the animals' expense. I favor evolving together via peaceful coexistence that does not involve using and abusing animals however we choose and distorting and misrepresenting them "in the name of science."

I agree biotechnology isn't "inherently good or bad" but I'm not so sure that "we can make life better for all living beings" (my emphasis) because surely some individuals will suffer and die for the good of their own or perhaps other species. We play the central role in deciding who lives and who dies and why, and my heart breaks when I think of all the mutant mice languishing in cages in a Chinese laboratory and all of the other animal beings who are victims of genetic engineering.

I'd also change some wording in this phrase: "... for the creatures that live in scientific labs and those who run them." (my emphases) The nonhumans are referred to as "that" and the humans as "who". Many people including myself have argued that we should refer to other animals as "who" to be sure they are not objectified and thought of as mere possessions such as backpacks, couches, and tables with which we freely do what we please. I'm making note of this because while I'm sure Ms. Anthes does not take this point of view, the words we use to refer to other animals surely can influence how we view them and how we treat them and allow for some of the horrific manipulations for which genetic engineering is infamous.

Despite these quibbles, I highly recommend Frankenstein's Cat and hope it enjoys wide readership among those doing genetic engineering research and those who will be influenced by it, a sizeable percentage of humans around the world. It also would be a wonderful book for undergraduate and graduates classes in a wide variety of fields.

We must responsibly deal with all of the challenging questions that biotechnology brings to the table because a world in which this sort of research runs wild will surely remove a lot of wildness from our magnificent planet. And, human and nonhuman animals will suffer the consequences of our self-serving and anthropocentric arrogance (often run by financial interests) that because we can do something, we must. We cannot be too cautious.

 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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