A review of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
An unusual cat lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. Named Mr. Green Genes, he looks like your average orange tabby. But under dark light, he has a neat parlor trick: his eyes, nose, and ears glow green, Rudolph-the-reindeer style. This is because scientists tinkered with his DNA to include a jellyfish gene for fluorescence. Although a silly outcome, it was a serious study monitoring how the glow gene would express itself in foreign species.
In recent decades, other house cats have been subject to seemingly strange science experiments. They have been cloned, surgically altered to include microphone implants, and given pirate-peg-leg-looking prosthetics limbs. These feline Frankensteins offer a taste of the wild things people are doing to animals these days in the name of science, wildlife conservation, medicine, national security, consumerism, and animal love. In her riveting first book, Frankenstein’s Cat, Emily Anthes explores these colorful cats and a menagerie of other animals—from dogs to goldfish, dolphins to seabirds, goats to grizzly bears—at the forefront of this animal biotechnology explosion.
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A review of The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers – How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death by Dick Teresi
368 pages. Random House, 2012
Dick Teresi will hold your hand, incite you to argument, and dare you to contradict him. But first, he needs to be perfectly blunt. “You, the reader, will die,” he proclaims within the first five pages. He wants you to think about death as much as he does, which is quite a lot, according to his therapist who declares him not so much clinically depressed as exceptionally morbid. But for Teresi, it’s not so interesting that you’ll die but rather, how we’ll know you’re dead.
Known for his journalistic musings on the God Particle and our understanding of the number zero, in his humorous and extensively researched third book, The Undead, Teresi tackles how modern society and its past counterparts have decided when people are dead. As it turns out, it’s not nearly as straightforward as it sounds and most people can’t tell the difference between a dead guy and a plate of jello (really, they have similar brain scan readings). While he states at the beginning of the book, “My job as a journalist is to reveal data. You can do with that information what you wish,” it is clear he has strong opinions on the matter.
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A review of The Species Seekers, by Richard Conniff
464 pages, W. W. Norton 2010
Last week brought word of several new discoveries in the animal kingdom: leaf-cutter bees in Texas, transparent fish in Brazil; mouse-like lemurs in Madagascar; spiders in Sri Lanka described (worrisomely, to this reader at least) as “face-sized.” It should hardly come as a surprise that novel forms of life continue to crop up. Scientists identify over 15,000 new species each year, making it highly likely that another fascinating critter will have been uncovered in the time it takes you to finish reading the morning newspaper.
And yet, no matter how many times we hear of such discoveries, each one still carries a thrill, a small feeling of delight. For who doesn’t enjoy it when another exotic member of our teeming menagerie is uncovered? This instinct is an old one; humans have long sought to compile encyclopedic knowledge of all creatures great and small. From Aristotle’s earliest biological sketches, to the richly illustrated bestiaries of the Middle Ages (which included fantastical sea monsters and unicorns drawn from apocryphal stories), to the sixteenth century zoological work of Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, progress was consistent if uneven up until Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his first rigorous taxonomical classifications in 1735.
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I was born at the tail end of the creation of the world. Back then, most people could live in only one way, in the dull reality of one single place at a time. But I had a choice. In my dirty socks, I made regular pilgrimages to the basement, sidling past broken toys and half-folded linens. Our computer was, if I remember correctly, a dusty old Dell. I booted it up the way my mother had taught me. I waited. There was always that chance the connection wouldn’t make it—that AOL’s eerie mechanical music would suddenly falter, buck up, and die, taking all of my hopes down with it.
Back then, I thought that I was a regular earthly creature. I am an animal, therefore I must belong outside with the other animals. I should have known better. I should have known the first time I visited a beach in August heat, slathered in and reeking of high-powered sun goop. Children shrieking everywhere, while tears of sweat ran down the seam of my back. I waded into the ocean and asked for relief, and then it gagged me with salt instead. The message was loud and clear: This sloppy world is no place for someone like me.
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