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The Ancient Art of Biotech

By Izzat Jarudi

staff writer

Written by Sue Hubbell

Published by Houghton Mifflin


Successful engineers don’t always have to know a lot of science. Ancient and medieval mechanical engineers didn’t need Newtonian mechanics to design useful machines like catapults. Similarly, as beekeeper Sue Hubbell explains in Shrinking the Cat, ancient and medieval genetic engineers didn’t need Mendelian genetics to breed useful domesticated plants and animals like corn and cats.

You don’t have to be a geneticist or beekeeper to appreciate our long history of “fiddling” with the genes of other species through selective breeding. But in times when the science of genetics has expanded the engineer’s toolbox to the point that she can alter those genes “more precisely, more directly, and more quickly than in the past,” history has been eclipsed by the both promising and troubling potential of modern meddling. It is Hubbell’s noble mission to give us perspective on these difficult scientific and societal issues by reminding us that genetic engineering is nothing new to “the fiddlingest animal the world has ever seen.”

Hubbell begins by arguing that we have always been reshaping our world and the life in that world. Consider agriculture, whose development fueled the rise of civilization. According to Hubbell, the selective breeding in agriculture that led to the evolution of crops like corn, squash, and sweet potatoes is nothing more than genetic engineering in disguise: “the human creation of new botanical species whose genetic structures are distinct from those of their wild ancestors.”

Corn, for example, was developed by early Native Americans who tinkered with wild teosinte for thousands of years, until it became domestic corn. All these early farmers did was select “certain plants, some of which were mutants, that produced unusually good things to eat and save their seeds to plant again.” Repeating the process again and again, they were able to create dependable and productive crops.

The same fiddling accompanied our domestication of animals like the cat. Beginning with the cat-lovers in ancient Egypt, human societies gradually shrunk the ancient wildcat into the modern house cat through a long process of inbreeding and controlled crossbreeding. Artificially imposing the selective pressures for the species’ evolution, people kept as companions those smaller, more manageable mutants that weren’t frightened of humans, attacked mice rather than their kids, and lacked an annoying jungle alertness to every novel sight or sound in the household.

Hubbell provides other colorful examples of our tinkering nature, including our central role in the evolution of modern silkworms and apples.

Unfortunately, that is about all she does for the rest of the book. Occasionally, she inserts some commentary, but it is only to reassure the reader that she is not a blind follower of modern science. In one section, she mocks the nature and motives behind the rise of molecular biology in the past fifty years: “The fields of study that have grown from this new understanding are exciting and use a lot of shiny, expensive machinery. They have drawn many of our best young biologists, because it is easy to get funding for their work from the agribusiness and pharmaceutical corporations that stand to gain from their discoveries.”

Hubbell seems to get so caught up in her storytelling that she forgets to apply her detailed knowledge of the history to debates about modern genetic engineering. She prefers to list, and not attempt to answer, the crucial questions that everyone already recognizes lie at the center of these difficult issues, questions like “What gives us the right to meddle with other species in the first place?” Her concluding thoughts are similarly unenlightening, qualifying a cautious optimism about the future of our fiddling with a vague warning about “unprecedented unintended consequences.”

Nevertheless, the clear implications of the facts Hubbell’s short book gathers compensate for any shortcomings in her commentary. For example, her discussion of the evolution of corn addresses the modern controversy over the safety of genetically modified organisms. Those who want only to eat “natural” foods had better avoid all agricultural products because they are all GMOs. It is only natural for us to tinker with nature. As Hubbell effectively argues throughout her book, “we have been ‘genetic engineers’ in the past, and will continue to be so in the future.”