The future will envelope us

By Razib Khan | March 17, 2013 5:32 pm

Emily Anthes has a new book out, Frankenstein’s Cat. It looks quite interesting, but I’ll be honest and admit I doubt I’ll get to it, mostly because I am relatively sanguine about genetic modification. I don’t think it’s a qualitative difference from what’s been going on for 10,000 years. To me all genuine concerns about this area don’t fundamentally have anything to do with the core idea of genetic modification (e.g., rather, it is about control of the means of production, etc.). If you are wondering if you might like the content of Frankenstein’s Cat, I would recommend this 40 minute interview of Anthes on NPR. It strikes me that she’s presenting a rather “balanced” perspective, acknowledging the concerns of some, while attempting to highlight the genuine benefits of genetic modification.

Speaking of which, one thing which came out in the NPR interview is that some animal geneticists are actually moving to places like Brazil to do their work because of disquiet about the nature of their research. In this specific case it had to do with replicating the anti-bacterial properties of human milk for goats using trans-genic methods (I presume). The host naturally expressed difficult to suppress revulsion at the idea of “human genes” in “animals.” To be pedantic of course we are ourselves animals, and what is a “human gene” supposed to even mean? A substantial portion of the human genome does not derive from humans.

On the one hand it’s sad when American researchers have to go abroad when their work really isn’t that objectionable. If, for example, they were modifying goat milk with cow genes that would not arouse as much concern, even though fundamentally the process is the same. Intuitive folk biology and a moral sense of the special character of humanity which is somehow ineffably tied up into our form and genetic character bubble up unbidden. But in nations like Brazil where diarrhea is major public health concerns these wisdom-of-repugnance intuition lack as much relevance. There is often the presumption that genetic engineering will be accessible only to the rich. And yet I wonder perhaps if being “wholly organic” might become a sort of signal of affluence and conspicuous consumption, with those closer to the margin of poverty engaging in various transformations which are ethically, morally, or aesthetically disquieting.

Addendum: Organisms which have been modified to have human genes have been around for a while obviously. What seems new on the horizon is the industrial scale, and likely real world (as opposed to basic science) application.


Comments (5)

  1. TheBrett

    The host naturally expressed difficult to suppress revulsion at the idea of “human genes” in “animals.”

    I guess he’s not a diabetic, then (or doesn’t consider “bacteria” to be “animals”).

  2. Andrew__Ryan

    Razib, I’m not sure what you mean by “real world” application, but there are numerous medical products produced by recombinant organisms expressing human genes. TheBrett pointed out insulin, but also biological therapies like Interferons and fully human antibodies produced in mice.

    I think what is more disquieting (to some) is not the production of some useful product, but rather altering organisms with the intent of creating novel organisms combining human and animal treats. In other words, not producing medicines but rather “playing God”.

    • razibkhan

      lots of GMO/gene engineering stuff is normalized and banal. so it doesn’t seem salient. people are imagining chimeras which *are* chimeras in a visible sense i suppose. the examples i’m told to connote the repulsiveness are always farcical and strange (e.g., “fish genes in tomatoes”).

      but rather altering organisms with the intent of creating novel organisms combining human and animal.

      as anthes makes clear all of this is really oriented toward basic practical applications. like the idea of making goat milk have higher lysosome content like human milk. the practical context here was made explicit to the radio host, but she couldn’t express disquiet about the prospect of human genes in goats….

  3. Sandgroper

    A 15 minute bicycle ride from where I live (assuming you have a decent road racing bike with an acceptable range of gears) there’s a ‘science park’ where American companies are operating side by side with Chinese companies. They have to be there for a reason, and it’s not the low property rentals. They’re all inside beavering away at their Godless pursuits, the evil unnatural bastardos.

  4. chris_T_T

    I heard most of the NPR interview the other day. I really like the title Frankenstein’s Cat for some reason.

    core idea of genetic modification (e.g., rather, it is about control of the means of production, etc.)

    A bigger concern is someone will release something incompletely tested and it will not behave in the wild as anticipated (there have been more than a few biological disasters not involving GM due to a lack of testing). This isn’t an argument against GM so much as for proper quality control.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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