Genetically engineered glow-in-the-dark fish for your fish tank. Cyborg beetles concocted by the Defense Department. Five hundred different strains of transgenic mice caged in a Chinese laboratory. Science journalist Emily Anthes has a knack for ferreting out such eyebrow-raising specimens, and she makes the details of her complex subject matter highly readable in “Frankenstein’s Cat,” her first book as a solo author.
Technological manipulation of animal species — for food production, for medical research and to further a host of far more unusual objectives — is underway to an extent most of us would never have imagined. Who knew, for instance, that researchers in the United States are using cloning techniques to preserve exotic, endangered wildcats and bringing the cloned embryos to term in the wombs of housecats?
Given that, as Anthes tells us, Americans spend $48 billion each year on their pets, and about $300 billion on animals to eat, our economic stake in these issues is enormous, and she has many subjects to cover here. The material is not just surprising, though. It is also fraught with weighty ethical issues about human hubris and our relationship to the other species with which we share the planet. While Anthes frequently refers to these philosophical issues, her breezy approach to the subject matter does frustratingly little to plumb their depths. But first, more on what’s good here.
Anthes is enough of a self-described nerd to revel in such details as the names cloners have chosen for their high-tech offspring, such as “Ditteaux” for a cloned cat in Louisiana and “CC” (as in “carbon copy”) for another she visits at Texas A&M University. She is also enough of a solid journalist to balance technical accuracy and accessibility, offering enough detail to inform readers without overwhelming them.
Her deft touch is in evidence when she deals with the vexing area that has come to be known as “pharming,” describing it as work “to coax all sorts of curative compounds out of animal bodies.” As an example, Anthes reports on research underway at the University of California at Davis to engineer goat’s milk to carry the enzyme lysozyme. She describes not only the science involved but how the resulting “anti-diarrhea elixir” could eventually help save some of the 2 million children who die of diarrheal disease each year worldwide.
In the wake of the tremendous success of nonfiction authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan who artfully blend first-person vignettes with reportage and solid research, there’s been something of an uptick in a subgenre that might be called the “techno romp” book. “Frankenstein’s Cat” fits squarely within it. One of the better-known practitioners in this field is the science writer Mary Roach, whose popular books such as “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” and the more recent “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” mine little-known areas of scientific endeavor for their offbeat humor. While “Frankenstein’s Cat” generally follows the genre’s often-bemused, loose, reporter-at-large style and brims with jaw-dropping detail, Anthes’s earnest tone can be disconcerting. There are few laugh-out-loud moments here, even though there certainly might be in other hands. But Anthes is not out to amuse readers so much as impress them, and the effort leads to some dissonance.
Maybe it’s the blithe way she embraces a world with biochip sensors embedded in your pet that will ping your cellphone when Garfield or Fido has a fever. Or the way she sends up longevity research in rodents for its promise to “nudge all the world’s animals one step closer to immortality.” What are we to make of it, for instance, when Anthes paints a rosy picture of a future when people pick out “the perfect animal from a catalogue of endless options. . . . Avid nighttime reader?” she asks. “How about your own Mr. Green Genes so you can stay up late, reading by the light of the cat?” My guess is that most readers will consider the prospect disquieting at the very least.
In “Frankenstein’s Cat,” we meet researchers with life-threatening diseases to cure and bionic animals to build. But the book is more interested in the technology involved than in questioning the motivations of the human practitioners. I missed the voices of devoted pet owners, dairy farmers or even those whose impassioned concerns for animal welfare prompt them to protest or vandalize biomedical laboratories. Humans’ relationships with animals are often so deep, powerful and contentious that it’s a shame to exclude this emotional dimension from a story otherwise so well told.
Ultimately, though, Anthes does almost everything she set out to do in “Frankenstein’s Cat.” The subtitle — “cuddling up to biotech’s brave new beasts” — proves an apt precis of the author’s perspective. Unfortunately, for all her engaging reporting, she may be more willing to embrace this brave new future than most of her readers are.
Cuddling Up to Biotech’s
Brave New Beasts
By Emily Anthes
Scientific American/Farrar Straus Giroux. 241 pp. $26