We humans have been tinkering with genes for a long, long time. In Shrinking the Cat, Sue Hubbell shows how this tinkering is the definition of humanness by telling the stories of four important species we created. She tells how we made cats easier to live with by making them smaller and their brains less complicated, taking out much of the alertness that natural selection had packed in. How ancient farmers turned a wild grass into corn, a tremendously important crop that can't live without us. How silkworms were smuggled from China to the West and bred to be completely dependent on us. How silk traders picked up wild apples in their travels and how we manipulated the apple's complex genetics to grow only the best-tasting ones - and then made them taste worse. Today's tools are new, but we were engineering genes even before we knew about them, and we made some mistakes along the way. For example, the gypsy moths that regularly defoliate trees arrived through efforts to breed silkworms suitable to North America.
Genetic engineering is controversial today. Some see it as a source of great benefit and great profits; others see it as a nightmare. Sue Hubbell shows that if we ignore our own history, pretending that genetic engineering is something completely new and dangerous, we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.
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Some genetic engineering projects can take millennia to accomplish. In Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew About Genes, Sue Hubbell describes how we've evolved four valuable species: corn, apples, silkworms, and domestic cats; and, along the way, furthered some less-desired species, such as apple maggots and gypsy moths. Hubbell mingles recent biological knowledge with archaeological research and glimpses into her private life (as a child, she studied a lion that was kept at a Chevrolet dealership) to produce a multifaceted and positive look at science and history. Hubbell says,
This is an interesting and hopeful time in which to live.... Genes, it turns out, are simple. But the processes of life ... do not yet seem to be. Until we can develop a deep, broad, and sensitive understanding of those processes ... we'll continue to suffer the unintended consequences of alterations.
Hubbell's brief, appealing book provides a pleasant way for anyone to learn more about genetic modification as conducted by the pre-Mayans, along the Silk Road, and in laboratories today. --Blaise SelbyAbout the Author:
Sue Hubbell is the author of, among other works, A Country Year and A Book of Bees, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. She lives in Maine and Washington, D.C.
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