Emily Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat

Here, kitty kitty.

There’s not much to dislike about this painstakingly innocuous book, although there’s not much to feel strongly about either way–which is also essentially Anthes’s thesis: biotechnology is neither good nor bad; it’s a tool, and, as with any tool, we ought to think carefully about how we wield it.

Fair enough, and awfully hard to object to or muster up much enthusiasm about. Most disappointingly for me, Anthes never makes good on her allusion to Frankenstein. That’s a shame, because exploring in more depth the history of human objections to interspecies meddling might have given her argument more teeth, if only by introducing a coherent interlocutor. As it is, we never quite get a sense of the naysayers she’s addressing, aside from a little hemming and hawing from bioethicists and letter-writing whack-jobs.

Here’s an excellent example of style and content:

What’s more, genes from different species sometimes mingle in the natural world. Animals occasionally pursue torrid interspecies affairs, giving us ligers and tigons and zorses. (Oh my!) Different species of bacteria can spontaneously swap DNA in the wild, or transfer novel genes into insects, worms, and other animals … We can change animals faster and in more profound ways than nature does on its own, but the point is that there’s nothing inherently sacred about a species’s genome–it’s an amorphous, ever-changing thing.

Anthes’s main point here is that human genetic modification is not inherently different from “natural” genetic modification because species aren’t actually genetically discrete. But she deflates this bracing and necessary corrective with the punchy, coy language of an extended blog post. It’s almost as though she’s trying to head off criticism of the book’s science through gee-whiz wonder directed at innocuous targets: wirelessly controlled cockroaches, GloFish, and robo-rats, all of which get more genuine enthusiasm than the more useful but also more controversial possibilities of, say, using animals to produce medicines.

This is a decent introductory book, but I came away feeling that I hadn’t learned much beyond a few anecdotes. The one moment that generated a spark of excitement was this, which in modified form I used to say to undergrads:

Repugnance may be a good spark for public dialogue, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for it. Acting in an ethical manner sometimes requires rising above raw emotion … an emotional reaction [shouldn’t be] a replacement for moral and ethical reasoning.

Feeling may be first, but, pace e. e. cummings, it certainly shouldn’t be last.

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