The science behind cyborg animals

Under society’s growing demands, animals are being modified to be meatier, two of a kind, bionic, “glow-in-the-dark”, robotic and more.

As Emily Anthes writes in her new book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, “Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life, and we have the power to modify animals in profound new ways.”

The book itself is written as a short guide to these profound new ways of animal experimentation. Although she does not provide an extensive list, Anthes hits the major scientific animal modifications that society is grappling with today.

Through each chapter, Anthes explores the interesting but sometimes inhumane ways that people modify animals and insects, as well as the ethical debates surrounding these experiments.

“So the real question going forward, is not whether we should shape animals’ bodies and lives, but how we should do so…”

In her first chapter, Anthes strolls into a pet shop to buy herself some genetically modified GloFish. As with every other chapter, Anthes delves into the science behind the animals, in this case a transgenic fish carrying the fluorescent proteins of the crystal jellyfish.  She meets the creators of the GloFish and finally ends the chapter with the extensive ethical debate on genetically modified pets.

Anthes walks out of the pet shop with some GloFish of her own, and a bright coloured plant to match because she figures she might as well “go all in”.

This comedic flare, as well as a sarcastic edge, is injected into many aspects of the book.

In one of her chapters on cloning, she goes to meet CC, the world’s first cloned cat. She writes, “I’m nerdtastically excited. I’m about to meet my first cloned cat! I pause to collect myself before heading inside to meet Kraemer; I want to play it cool. (Blurting out, “So let’s go see the Frankencat!” would be a tad unprofessional.)”

Not only does Anthes have a humorous and lively writing style, it is also extremely easy to understand.

The writing is targeted to readers who are interested in science, but are not themselves experts in the scientific fields she covers. She hits an appropriate balance in her explanations between addressing the complex scientific principles, while presenting them in a way that is comprehensible.

In her “Got Milk?” chapter she explores the world of “pharming” , a type of genetic modification where animals are engineered to produce certain protein in their milk that is medicinal for humans.  It is a complicated procedure to edit the animals’ genomes and identify the correct protein. However Anthes’ explanation of the process is informative and understandable.  She compares “zinc finger nucleases” to small molecular scissors, which are used to cut strands of DNA, so preferred genes can be inserted.

Despite being written in a journalistic style, Anthes approaches each ethical debate from her own viewpoint. While she does present both sides of the debate, she has a strong and controversial view on animal experimentation.

She takes a “pain versus gain” approach to each ethical dilemma in her book.  In other words, invading a rat’s nervous system and remote controlling it to find bomb victims is acceptable regardless of the rat’s pain or exploitation because human life comes first. She presents this approach in a convincing manner.  She quotes Harold Herzog, a psychologist specializing in human-animal relationships, saying that people are uneasy with animal testing, but at the same time will do anything to find a cure for cancer.

However, this still allows for inhumane animal treatment to exist. Her main argument in the book is very controversial and leaves little room for animal rights.

“So the real question going forward, is not whether we should shape animals’ bodies and lives, but how we should do so…”

Anthes concludes that animals are essentially doomed to be controlled by humans, regardless of the animal rights advocacy efforts to put a stop to animal experimentation and exploitation. This conclusion lessens the credibility of the ethical debates she presents in her book. Her conclusions make the animal rights side of the debate, rooting for “noninterference” with animals seem rather pointless.

While her conclusions can be seen as quite controversial, the book was a fascinating read with a thorough but clear explanation of the science behind the experiments.

Anthes certainly opens up the debate around current and future animal modifications, one that must be discussed in a world with such rapid scientific discoveries.

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