660: Shrinking the Cat by Sue Hubbell

by Gerard


660.65: Hubbell, Sue. Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew About Genes. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 160 pp. ISBN 0-618-04027-7.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 600: Technology
  • 660: Chemical engineering and related technologies
  • 660.6: Biotechnology
  • 660.65: Genetic engineering

Every living thing on the planet has been genetically modified. Each generation forces changes on the next. Most of the time, this modification is natural and inevitable, but sometimes a helping hand intervenes. Ever since humans learned how to grow food, they have been selectively breeding crops that begat more and more resources. In Shrinking the Cat, Sue Hubbell looks at the history of genetic engineering through four species—the corn plant, the silkworm, the cat, and the apple—to get a better sense of the ethics and benefits of human tinkering.

Hubbell’s dubs the human race homo mutabilis: human that changes things. We cannot help but modify our environment to suit our needs, but so does every other animal (although not nearly on the scale that we have). Each living thing has found a way, at least for now, to sustain itself, grow, and proliferate. But human intelligence has allowed us to change more than just the environment; we can change the core of things. Hubbell’s look at a few modified organisms gives us a chance to step back and assess how those changes have affected the present. The hybridization and genetic modification of corn has led to disease-resistant strains and high-yield crops, but basically inaugurated the age of corn syrup. Breeding silkworms to produce a good amount of fiber kick-started trade between Asia and Europe.

Genetic engineering has been around for ages, but only now are we doing it more precisely and more deliberately. Those who oppose genetically-modified organisms will be hard-pressed to find something that isn’t modified in some way, but do have valid concerns about the possible side effects of said modifications. Hubbell’s book tries to create a more balanced picture of genetic modification by giving a deeper historical context and interesting connections to sociology, art, and anthropology. This book is short enough to keep your attention, but does well not to become a sermon on the “good of science.” All in all, quick and enlightening read.