Shrinking the Cat

Hubbell, Sue. Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew About Genes. Mariner Books, 2002. In Shrinking the Cat, Hubbell follows the natural history of several species, including the silk worm, corn, the apple, and the cat. Indeed, the book might have been titled Mutating the Moth, except that I suspect that cat books sell better. It’s a fascinating look at how human beings have interacted with nature to produce results that are, usually, more beneficial to ourselves---but perhaps less so to the animal or crop itself; for example, we’ve mutated corn to the point where it cannot reproduce without human intervention. Shrinking also delves into the difficulties that scientists face with understanding the natural world, where our very definitions of “natural” and “species” become increasingly strained as we look closer at actual situations. Hubbell’s premise is that people have been manipulating nature long before the term “gene splicing” had meaning. While I agree that genetic engineering has long been part of the human endeavor, I still contend that there is a significant distinction between choices made at the macro level and those made directly to the DNA. Hubbell doesn’t really dispute this position, and she certainly concludes that both can have long reaching (and often negative) consequences. Despite my minor misgivings, Shrinking is an excellent introduction for the non-scientist and non-historian into the sometimes strange world of human experiments on the natural world.