by D. R. Hildebrand

Earlier this month I read a new book by science writer Emily Anthes called Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.  The book, which appears to have garnered considerable praise, covers topics I’ve rarely considered and in some cases didn’t know existed, including the cloning, tracking, roboticizing, and genetically modifying of nonhuman animals, often in ways that are ethically suspect and that consistently beg the same elementary questions: Why are we doing this?  For whose benefit?  Can we be so hypocritical?  We call this science?

Ms. Anthes, who gave an interview last week on PBS NewsHour, in a tone far more somber and concerned than the one in which she wrote the book, is not exactly dismissive of these questions but rather unaware of them.  It is this fundamental difference—that my gut reactions aren’t even on her radar—that left me struggling to embrace, or even understand, her intentions.

Frankenstein's Cat

From the outset, Ms. Anthes appears determined to ease our innate discomfort with the concept of genetically modifying animals.  In chapter one, which looks at various sorts of transgenic fish, such as GloFish—actual fish that have been fixed fluorescent—and genetically modified salmon, the author comes as close as possible to equating our history of breeding to this latest pastime, genetic manipulation, ignoring a minimum of three critical facts: one, breeding, like modifying, is wrong, and two wrongs don’t make a right; two, breeding at least is reproductive, not mutant; and three, not in a million years would a jellyfish voluntarily mate with a worm, a rat, or a rabbit, the varying results of which scientists are envisioning.

Apparently, Ms. Anthes is not satisfied.  “We can have perfume, granola, and Nikes customized to our individual specifications,” she writes.  “Why not design our own pets?”  Oh I don’t know, maybe because each of these is an inanimate man-made object lacking a central nervous system whereas the creatures in discussion are alive, sentient, feeling, breathing, self-reliant individuals.  The author, however, is more interested in “animals that appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities” and in genetic altering that “shaves a year and a half off the time between when a salmon hatches and when it’s ready to garnish your bagel.”

Excuse me while I vomit.

She details the lengthy process of engineering goats built to produce milk with extra lysozyme, an enzyme that already occurs naturally in human milk.  She writes about both the successful and the nightmarish attempts at cloning sheep, cats, and dogs, and about what she calls the media’s “apocalyptic fanaticizing” of such experiments.  She highlights the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, a noble-sounding initiative that does nothing to take into account why these animals have all died in the first place, or what would happen if the Jurassic Park scenario they’re gradually forming actually occurs.  She discusses tracking, a process by which scientists capture and cut open animals, insert satellite transmitters into their bodies, and then return them to their environment so that we can feed some useless quest for endless data all while ignoring little things like emotion and existence.  She absolutely marvels at prosthetics, at how “lucky” the dolphins are who get their tails mangled in crab traps and all the horses who have been raced into leg replacements.  “There has never been a better time for an animal to lose a body part.”  And of course she writes about everyone’s favorite: remote-controlled animal-machine hybrids.

Mutant and Genetically Modified Animals

Part of my irritation with this book has nothing to do with the author’s numerous interjections and moments of ignorance.  (“In all my years chowing down on spicy tuna rolls, I had never—not once—stopped to consider the animal on my plate.”)  It has to do with the content, the facts, these asinine things that “scientists” are “discovering.”  But it is amplified because the author does not just list the senseless realities and leave them for us to evaluate, but she defends them.  She defends them to such an extent that at one point in the margin I wrote, “Is someone paying this woman?”

Far too many glaring points are either downplayed or ignored.  Ms. Anthes ventures, unwisely, into ethical issues without genuinely examining them.  She never questions the monetary motives of the industries at work, whether it is entertainment, biotechnology, breeding, research, or food, but views them almost universally as altruistic, striving entirely for good.  She never addresses the colossal hypocrisies of any of the practices mentioned, or of the public’s general responses, including the author’s own appetite for animals and her history of buying pets from breeders—even as she writes about “improving their lives.”  She hardly even notes the most basic aspect involved here: autonomy!  What is this eagerness we exhibit to intrude on another being’s life?  What is this desire to quantify, to control, to immortalize every individual, and why do we insist it is good?  She asks none of the obvious questions.  The writing is littered with aloofness.

What perplexes me more than anything conveyed here is the lengths to which we go to obliterate certain billions of animals while doing everything in our power to save or even comfort just one.  We dedicate so much time and so much money to making things exactly the way we want them even when what we want is utterly incongruous and inexplicable.  We aim to catch and kill crabs yet a single dolphin injured as a bystander generates years of research, overwhelming sympathy, and not a moment of reflection.  We are experts at destroying cows but a single cat we will clone for tens of thousands of dollars, then watch while other cats suffer as experimental surrogates.

Near the end of the book Ms. Anthes contemplates the “troubled middle.”  The term was coined by the philosopher and bioethicist Strachan Donnelly and it refers to “a place where it’s possible to truly love animals and still accept their occasional role as resources, objects, and tools.”  I see two flaws here.  First, there is nothing “occasional” about 100 million animals writhing in labs, ten billion more killed annually for their flesh.  This is systematic.  It is constant.  And it is vile.  The second flaw is even sadder, though, and even greater than the first.  This thing we call love: it unequivocally is not.