Monday, April 19, 2010

"Shrinking the Cat" - Sue Hubbell

“Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew About Genes” is a great little book that attempts to address cultural hysteria about genetic manipulation by means of a very interesting history lesson.

Taking four specific examples of plant and animal species (or strains or breeds) that have been created by humans – meaning selectively bred to achieve certain desirable qualities such as colour, taste, quantity – Sue Hubbell makes her case that humans are born “tinkerers”. Long before we knew, or could imagine, the mechanisms involved, we were already changing our reality: choosing certain species and destroying others, “improving” and nurturing crops and animals that were useful or struck our fancy, often altering them so radically that, after centuries (or millennia) of human interference there is sometimes little resemblance between human manipulated species and their wild progenitors.

(As a side reference, I learned in the “Guinea Pig Handbook” that cavies had been domesticated some three thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans in America – they diverged so much from their wild “cousins” through artificial selection that, to this day, scientists have been unable to definitely pinpoint the cavy’s wild progenitor – it is believed that it probably went extinct.)

Taking the specific examples of corn, silkworms, cats and apples – all of them continually altered by humans – Hubbell always asks in each particular tale of genetic manipulation (for that is undoubtedly what happened): “If little green men were to swoop down and kidnap all of humanity in their spaceships [would] our descendants – brought back to the planet after five thousand years of good behaviour (…) find”…corn, apples, silkworms and cats as we know them?

The answer is definitely not – for we have created them and they depend on us to propagate and reproduce. Corn, for instance, and silkworms, have been altered to the point that they would not be able to reproduce without human assistance (neither would enormous cows and pigs which are now routinely artificially inseminated – and French bulldogs that cannot deliver the big-headed puppies without c-sections).

Cats are, of course, survivors, and would probably still be around. Of course no snub nosed Persians or hairless Sphinxes would last for long without human protection. Cat colour would probably be less diverse and exotic, too. One of the most fascinating passages connects coloru and pattern propagation with human commercial routes, referring to an academic study which found increased numbers of orange cats in cities with large ports and along rivers with increased commercial activity.

Apple trees are hardy plants, native to central Asia. They are naturally so diverse in colour, texture and flavour (with a majority of not very tasty ones) that it almost seems a crime we have reduced the species to the bland, gigantic red ones. Did you know there are apples that are naturally white? Most wild apples are small and gnarled and once in a while there is one that produces incredible fruits.

This is what we do: we create conformity in some species, incentivize diversity in other. We created tens of cat breeds, but are hard pressed to find an exciting apple in the market. We like to change things, see what happens when we cross different breeds, take them out of their place and grow them elsewhere, propagate something just because we like its colour or because it gives more fruit.

If there is one decidedly human characteristic, Hubbell argues, is that we like to change things around us, mix it up just to see what happens. And it’s nothing new either – with whatever crude tools and little knowledge it possessed, mankind has been doing it, it seems, forever.

We now can reach “inside” species and alter them directly in their matrix – but it’s not that surprising. “Shrinking the Cat” shows that we’ve been dreaming of this almost since we first opened our eyes and looked around.

1 comment:

Jeane said...

This sounds like just the kind of book I like to read! I've heard about the spread of orange cats before, and I think I read about how apples were developed in one of Michael Pollan's books. I'd love to read Hubbell's take on all of this.