Expert Voices

Humanity in the Age of Frankenstein's Cat (Op-Ed)

close-up of cat face
Close-up of a cute cat face. (Image credit: © Pavalache Stelian |

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I finally got around to reading a book with the catchy title, "Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts" (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) by journalist Emily Anthes, and I'm sorry I let it sit on my cluttered desk for as long as I did.

Highly-acclaimed, packed with a lot of information, very well-referenced and an easy read, this book made me think hard and deep about humanity's relationships with other animals (the focus of the field of anthrozoology) and just which interactions are okay and which are not.

In an NPR interview about her fascinating book, Ms. Anthes talks about one example: "One lab in China is even tackling the human genome by way of the mouse genome. There, researchers are randomly disabling mouse genesone at a time, in order to identify the function of each gene. By essentially throwing darts at a genetic dartboard to see what happens, the researchers have filled 45,000 mouse cages with mutant mice." Oh my. And, we know mice display empathy for other mice in pain.

She also correctly notes, "The implications of such bioengineering projects are complicated and still unfolding. On the one hand, research being done with bioengineering could potentially help cure cancer or give blind people the gift of sight. At the same time, it heralds unprecedented new territory with regard to human interference with nature. It also forces some tricky questions about animal welfare."

My own take is that biotechnology has gone way too far, and in many cases demeans nonhuman animals (animals) as people manipulate and control animals' lives. Biotechnology objectifies them and doesn't allow us to appreciate animals for who they really are I don't see genetic engineering playing much of a role in our reconnecting with nature and rewilding ourselves (see also).

Rampant animal bioengineering also can shift attention from the numerous ways in which humans otherwise manipulate and harm other organisms, and can make it seem that the wanton and wide-ranging destructive ways in which we use and abuse animals aren't all that bad because we can change our behavior or at least try to do so.

Our brave new world

I know people will disagree about which bioengineering experiments are permissible and which are not, and "Frankenstein's Cat" will surely stimulate just the types of discussions and debates we sorely need before things get out of hand and we wake up one morning and ask, "Where have all the animals gone in our 'brave new world'?" [ For Modern Society, Are Animals 'The Ghosts in Our Machine'? (Op-Ed ) ]

Ms. Anthes nicely summarizes the material she covers by writing, "Biotechnology is not inherently good or bad; it is simply a set of techniques, and we have choices about how we employ them. If we use our scientific superpowers wisely, we can make life better for all living beings — for species that walk and those that fly, slither, scurry and swim; for the creatures that live in scientific labs and those who run them. So it's time to embrace our role as the dominant force in shaping the planet's future, time to discover what it truly means to be stewards. Then we can all evolve together."

I couldn't agree more — evolving together would be a wonderful state of affairs but not at the animals' expense. I favor evolving together via peaceful coexistence that does not involve using and abusing animals however we choose and distorting and misrepresenting them "in the name of science."

I agree biotechnology isn't "inherently good or bad" but I'm not so sure that "we can make life better for all living beings" (my emphasis) because surely some individuals will suffer and die for the good of their own or perhaps other species. We play the central role in deciding who lives and who dies and why, and my heart breaks when I think of all the mutant mice languishing in cages in a Chinese laboratory and all of the other animal beings who are victims of genetic engineering.

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I'd also change some wording in this phrase: "... for the creatures that live in scientific labs and those who run them." (my emphases) The nonhumans are referred to as "that" and the humans as "who". Many people including myself have argued that humans should refer to other animals as "who" to be sure they are not objectified and thought of as mere possessions such as backpacks, couches and tables with which we freely do what we please. I'm making note of this because, while I'm sure Ms. Anthes does not take this point of view, the words we use to refer to other animals surely can influence how we view them and how we treat them and allow for some of the horrific manipulations for which genetic engineering is infamous.

Despite these quibbles, I highly recommend "Frankenstein's Cat" and hope it enjoys wide readership among those doing genetic engineering research and those who will be influenced by it, a sizable percentage of humans around the world. It also would be a wonderful book for undergraduate and graduate-school classes in a wide variety of fields.

People must responsibly deal with all of the challenging questions that biotechnology brings to the table, because a world in which this sort of research runs wild will surely remove a lot of wildness from our magnificent planet. And, human and nonhuman animals will suffer the consequences of people's self-serving and anthropocentric arrogance (often run by financial interests) that because we can do something, we must. We cannot be too cautious.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Kiss the Pig Contests, Cheap Laughs and Bullying." This article was adapted from "Frankenstein's Cat: Biotechnology, Strange Creatures, and Us" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.