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.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Making Eden - David Beerling ****

I'll be honest up front - I found parts of Making Eden hard work to read. But the effort was more than rewarded. David Beerling makes a good case that botany is unfairly seen as the Cinderella of biology - it simply doesn't get the same attention as the animal side. I realised how true this was when I saw a diagram of a 'timeline of evolution of life on Earth' the other day. Out of about 30 entries, arguably three of them applied to plants. And yet, as Beerling makes clear, without plant life, the land would still be barren and the seas far less varied. No plants - no animals.

As someone with a very limited background in biology, I learned a lot here. The sophistication of some plant mechanisms are remarkable. Beerling dedicates a chapter, for example, to what he describes as 'gas valves', the stomata that open and close on the underside of leaves, allowing carbon dioxide in. The apparent downside is that they let moisture out - but as Beerling describes this …