When I picked up a copy of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes, I can honestly say I harbored few expectations—because I know exactly zilch about biotech. It’s one of those phrases I hear and think, “Ooooh, bio….” then the “tech” part crashes in my ear and my flicker of interest withers. But Anthes’ tour of how humans are modifying both domesticated and wild animals’ bodies hooked me from the starting gate.
Frankenstein’s Cat is written in an entirely accessible manner. It’s sometimes whimsical, sometimes humorous, deepy informing—and always understandable. Anthes’ love of alliteration is sprinkled throughout the text with cheeky phrases such as “creature copies, cloned kittens, feathered fowl, and robo rats.” She clearly explains scientific and technical processes while also probing what biotech experiments and applications mean in philosophical, moral, ethical and ecological frameworks.
Near the beginning, Anthes refers to a book called The Frankenstein Syndrome, in which the author posits that not all genetic engineering harms animals. I can only assume her own book’s title is loosely pulled from this idea. Though this review on Forbes.com offers an alternative explanation, that it’s a reference to a previous work of the same title.
Anthes explores using genetic engineering for seemingly harmless and frivolous applications, such as creating glow-in-the-dark fish whose luminescent chroma exist thanks to splicing jellyfish genes into zebrafish; and the use of biotech for things like inserting fake gonads into recently neutered dogs to make them (or their owners) feel less traumatized. But she also contemplates more productive applications of biotech, such as the genetic manipulation of goats to produce lysozyme, a component of human breast milk which has anti-diarrheal compounds; and the use of orthapedic prostheses to aid injured wildlife and pets with both “slip on” types as well as ones that are surgically implanted and fully integrated with the animal’s skeleton and tissues. She also delves into the use of remote-controlled insects as military robo-voyeuristic spies, as well as educational applications that use robo-cockroaches to bring neuroscience into any classroom or home in the world.
Anthes tackles thorny issues such as applications where livestock producers might one day be able to clone their best sheep or steer, and also explores the emotional expectations and practicalities of cloning a family pet so that Mittens can “live” on forever.
She manages to strike the appropriate notes of curiosity, awe, and skepticism exactly where they ought to be. She also doesn’t shy away from perplexing and complicated questions. I was taken with the honesty in which she communicated her own coming to terms with stances on certain biotech issues.
Anthes doesn’t push the reader to adopt her philosophies; rather, she lays bare in page-after-page a thoughtful consideration of each case-by-case scenario. She deconstructs each biotechnology application and its potential to help people or animals, and the potential for physical or emotional trauma or benefit to the animals and species involved. By asking so many questions about how biotech is used, and to what end, Anthes walks the reader through the right set of questions but ultimately leaves it up to them to decide where they stand.