by Emily Anthes
Scientific American / Farrar, Straus & Giroux
241 pages, 2013
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Among the advantages of reviewing Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts five years after initial publication is the opportunity to see how accurately author and biotech enthusiast Emily Anthes used what she termed her “crystal ball of biotechnology” to forecast what has happened in the interim.
Anthes in her title echoed Mary Shelley, who published her novel Frankenstein in 1818, setting the tone for 200 years of apprehensive literature, to date, about the possible consequences of technologically altering life.
Yet Anthes broke with Shelley et al in taking a mostly optimistic view, including of quite a lot that most animal advocates, even those generally favorable toward biotechnology when used with care, would consider ethically questionable.
Anthes’ eight-chapter overview of how animals and biotechnology might evolve together, under human direction, opened with a look at fish bio-engineered to glow in a variety of colors, already popular then among fish tank hobbyists.
Subsequent chapters looked mostly at medical applications, including the use of biotechnology to improve prosthetic devices; the prospects for growing organs for transplant in non-human animals; and the use of genetically modified goats to produce milk with medicinal qualities.
Later in Frankenstein’s Cat, Anthes described various uses of radio transmitters to track wildlife and direct the behavior of insects, notably large flying beetles and cockroaches.
The beetles were, and perhaps still are, foreseen as a breaking-edge surveillance technology, with potentially longer flight range than strictly mechanical drones.
The cockroaches were essentially biotech toys. Anthes anticipated that they might stimulate a generation of young biotech hobbyists to advance the field much as the computer hobbyists of the 1970s and 1980s built the computer industry of today.
Anthes’ final chapter advocated for bio-engineering to reduce the suffering of animals raised and slaughtered for meat, specifically in the direction of reducing animals’ capacity to feel pain. Anthes went on to theorize that biotechnology might be used to improve dogs’ vision, produce faster racehorses, and help endangered wildlife to cope with climate change.
Most of Anthes’ forecasts either pertained to technologies that even in 2013 were already established, or remain the occasional topics of “golly-gee” speculative articles about “maybe some day” ideas that various people around the fringes of mainstream science are still tinkering with, as the mainstream moves on.
Overlooked “clean meat”
Overlooked entirely in Frankenstein’s Cat, despite Anthes’ expressed concern for farmed animals, was the entire spectrum of research in the direction of developing “clean meat,” leather, and dairy products through cellular processes not involving the use of live animals.
At least as regards animal issues, this is today the leading edge of biotech.
Leaders in these still experimental but fast-growing industries have attracted unprecedented investment capital, including from some of the powers in mainstream agribusiness, with the promise that molecularly identical “chicken” can be produced with stem cells from a single feather, blue suede shoes can be made with cells from dandruff, and milk chemically indistinguishable from cows’ milk can be brewed like beer, from yeast.
“Not inherently good or bad”
“Biotechnology is not inherently good or bad; it is simply a set of techniques, and we have choices about how we employ them,” Anthes finished. “If we use our scientific superpowers wisely, we can make life better for all living beings.
“So it’s time,” Anthes wrote, “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.”
One can generally agree, and at the same time be uneasy about the scarcely moderated optimism of a prophet who did not see coming what should have been the biggest item in her crystal ball.
As Mary Shelley intuited, the future of biotechnology scares us because of the high risk of unforeseen consequences when new things are tried with insufficient ethical concern and caution.