Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew about Genes

Overview

In this timely and controversial work, Sue Hubbell contends that the concept of genetic engineering is anything but new, for humans have been tinkering with genetics for centuries. Focusing on four specific examples — corn, silkworms, domestic cats, and apples — she traces the histories of species that have been fundamentally altered over the centuries by the whims and needs of people.
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Overview

In this timely and controversial work, Sue Hubbell contends that the concept of genetic engineering is anything but new, for humans have been tinkering with genetics for centuries. Focusing on four specific examples — corn, silkworms, domestic cats, and apples — she traces the histories of species that have been fundamentally altered over the centuries by the whims and needs of people.
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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
A few years ago, when Monsanto created a strain of genetically modified corn that was resistant to caterpillars, the media suggested that scientists were inventing "frankenfoods" and playing God in their laboratories. Hubbell points out that humans have always tinkered with the world to make it better suit our needs and tastes, including changing the basic genetic programming of other species. The author tells the story of a few plants and animals (including the cat) that wouldn't exist but for genetic modification and selective breeding. With verve and wit, Hubbell reveals just how deeply the natural order is entangled with human hopes and ambitions, and her book provides a context for the current debate over the proper limits of genetic research. Fascinating and delightful, this is natural-history writing at its finest.
—Eric Wargo

Publishers Weekly
In this fresh and personalized take on genetics, Hubbell (Waiting for Aphrodite, etc.) argues that "we have been `genetic engineers' in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future." There is currently a spate of books weighing in on both sides of the controversial genetic engineering debate, and this one stands out for its memoir feel as well as its straightforward thesis, which aims to put the debate firmly in the context of past genetic tinkerings. Hubbell shows how farmers 7,500 years ago engineered what came to be known as corn from a botanical anomaly of a kind of "naturally occurring" grass (though when finished with this book, readers may find themselves second-guessing what constitutes "natural"). The result was a dependable and essential man-made foodstuff, which, because of its genetic enhancement, cannot reproduce itself each planting season today without human help. A similar case of mutual dependence resulting from our ancestors' genetic tinkering, Hubbell shows, is the silkworm, a species "minted by human ingenuity" to spin its costly trade commodity, but at the expense of its protective coloring and ability to fly. Today, the silkworm depends on its human keepers for its food and shelter, as does Hubbell's next case study, the house cat. Like the silkworm, the modern-day cat lost its edge in the wild through domestication, in the cat's case through diminished size, sight and reflex ability. Finally, Hubbell shows how apple growing in America was perhaps "the greatest genetic experiment ever performed by human beings," yielding as many as 7,000 genetic varieties by the 1800s, a number that has since been narrowed by market demand to about a dozen. Throughout,Hubbell delves into the history behind her case studies, interspersing her narrative with her accounts of living in Washington and Maine. (Oct. 15) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618174485
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 10/1/2001
  • Pages: 256

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