Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review of Anthes, "Frankenstein's Cat"

FRANKENSTEIN'S CAT: CUDDLING UP TO BIOTECH'S BRAVE NEW BEASTS by Emily Anthes(Scientific American/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013).

This book is light, but good (nice summer reading, perhaps).The topic is technology and our genetic cousins (mainly animals), including genetic and transgenetic manipulations, including cloning, and on- and in-the-body sensing and effectors.The book gives a quick and shallow tour of recent examples of applying biotech to modify and manipulate the body and mind of animals. But the technology itself isn't covered in detail (though there are plenty of notes).

Much of the book considers the ethical questions that arise.When we monkey with our fellow animals, who benefits and who suffers?Who has the right to decide?These issues are not trivial, and most of us do not have a consistent stand.As my father--a psychologist--used to tell me, the University protects animals better than it protects human research subjects,But that is only true for "cute" animals (dogs, cats, bunnies, horses).You can do anything you want with a Gila monster or a cockroach, he said.

In addition, there is a tendency to sensationalism in the media which does not aid understanding or rational decision making.Cloning any mammal leads to news stories that talk about "armies of Hitler clones", computer implants will cause talk about "armies of robot soldiers", and so on.And the Pentagon's interest in augmented animals will, with more justification, be discussed in terms of "armies of robot rats/bugs/fish".

Anthes contributes useful salve to these feverish dreams.She takes the radical step of going to see in person, talking to the scientists and technicians, vistiing labs, and meetingactual human-modified animals.This isn't a perfectly objective method, but it does help to bring things down to Earth:meeting a cloned kitty certainly doesn't seem as dramatic as the science fiction fantasies. She's just cute and totally feline.

This is not to say that Anthes avoids the tough issues. She gives a clear explanation of the serious questions about many of these technologies.

She is particularly clear on the questions around "who benefits" from these interventions. Many cases are more or less obviously in the interests of people, not the animals themselves. For example, when we clone a favorite pet, it is clearly for the benefit of the person, not the pet.Even the relatively benign case of electronic tracking of wildlife has only limited benefit for the animals. It may help humans "manage" them, and also might help the public identify with endangered species.These human feelings and actions may "help" the wildlife, but only in the sense that better prison conditions help the inmates.

On the other hand, if we have powerful biotech tools, is it right to keep them to ourselves, and not help other animals when we can? Shouldn't animals have the same right to medical care as any other dependents in our care?

In the end, we have to try to determine the costs and benefits in all sorts of currencies, including morality as we see it.

Anthes herself seems to come down on the geeky side, fascinated by the technology, and willing to have humans do a lot--but not everything--with animals.Since humans already dominate, control, and often own animals, there is little question of not intervening.Rather, we are considering what the limits should be, and what our motives should be.(She clearly loves and respects animals herself.)

This book is worth the read, and there are plenty of end notes for deeper digging.
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