Skip to main content

Frankenstein’s Cat – Emily Anthes ****

In my experience, more scientists like dogs than cats (a dangerous assertion, I admit), which is why, perhaps, a cat ended up on the receiving end of the most famous thought experiment in history, Schrödinger’s Cat. Although the cat in Emily Anthes’ title obviously owes its existence to its hypothetical quantum cousin, though, this isn’t a book about thought experiments, but the real things. From fluorescent fish to cyborg animals, this is the story of what we are really doing – or planning to do – to modify nature.
For me, Anthes gets the balance just right in the book (though that ‘Frankenstein’ in the title is totally misleading in this respect). There are real moral issues to be considered in what we do to animals for our own benefit, but provided we take animal welfare into account, there is really no reason why we shouldn’t modify animals for our purposes. After all, we’ve been doing it for millennia through selective breeding – this is just a matter of doing it much more quickly and effectively.
Anthes covers all sorts of possibilities, and is at her best when she’s dealing with the everyday life side of the experience. So, for instance, her opening story of the fluorescent Glo-fish (despite headlines beloved of tabloid editors, they don’t glow in the dark, they re-emit light at a different frequency) is totally fascinating in part because of the legal challenges faced by the entrepreneurs looking to bring the fish to market (something that still isn’t legal, for instance, in the EU).
Making pets more interesting to look at may be fairly trivial (though as Anthes points out, it is surely more humane to make happy, healthy glowing fish than it is to distort goldfish into weird shapes so they have pop-eyes, as selective breeders have done for years), but we also meet much more useful possibilities in pharming – animals that have been modified so, for instance, their milk contains medically important proteins. Inevitably some animal rights types will moan, but surely it’s easier to justify keeping goats to produce medicine (in a normal and pleasant enough goaty life) than keeping rabbits as pets in cages (for instance).
Then we get to the real heavy stuff – implants that turn animals into controllable devices. Here, rightly, the moral discussion comes very much to the fore. However, where the animals in questions are insects, as many of them are, most of us have relatively few qualms. I’d certainly rather an insect was wired up as a drone than was used for entertainment in I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here. Again, it’s the entrepreneurs that fascinate – specifically a pair that sell a ‘control your own cockroach’ kit to turn a cockroach into a remote controlled object and learn a bit about neuroscience along the way.
Just occasionally I found the interest levels dropping a bit, and the way the book is pitched is just a little too casual for me with not quite enough science. But this is a very important area that is not going to go away and that we all ought to be thinking about. The way we have handled GM crops has been disastrous, resulting in the pathetic scene of supposedly humanitarian organizations preventing the use of crops that could help millions of people survive. We need to do better with modified animals – and this book is a good eye opener on the possibilities and the debates we will face. Recommended.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…