Cover image for Shrinking the cat : genetic engineering before we knew about genes
Shrinking the cat : genetic engineering before we knew about genes
Hubbell, Sue.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Physical Description:
xiv, 175 pages : illustrations, map ; 22 cm
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
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S494 .H83 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

Sue Hubbell was born Suzanne Gilbert in Kalamazoo, Michigan on January 28, 1935. She received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Southern California in 1956 and a master's degree in library science from Drexel University in 1965. She worked as a librarian at Trenton State College and as a periodicals librarian at Brown University.

In 1972, she and her first husband moved to a farm in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and took up beekeeping. To supplement the income from honey sales, she wrote freelance articles for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. After they divorced, she continued to run the large beekeeping operation. She also wrote several books including A Country Year: Living the Questions, A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them, Far-Flung Hubbell: Essays from the American Road, and Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys Into the Time Before Bones. She suffered from dementia and decided to stop eating and drinking on September 9, 2018 because she did not want to eventually be placed under indefinite institutional care. She died on October 13, 2018 at the age of 83.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Nature writer Hubbell is fascinated by domesticated creatures and has already portrayed her beekeeping experience in A Book of Bees (1988). Here she ambles through four more examples: corn, silkworms, cats, and apples. Although she talks about breeding within the context of contemporary controversies about genetically modified organisms, her explanation of genetics is unexceptional. Much more lively and appealing is her contention that humans have been tinkering with genes for a long time. The sight of abandoned mulberry trees in the Ozarks piqued Hubbell's curiosity, and she discovers the efforts made to create a silk industry in America, which were a total failure because the silkworm is very picky about its environment--but the Chinese knew that, having profitably cosseted it for thousands of years. (Americans did better borrowing another people's successful domestication of maize.) The cat story will surprise owners who delight in their tabby's smarts: domestication has actually dumbed down the creature, its noggin being appreciably smaller than that of its ancestor, the North African wildcat. An engaging synthesis of material that will appeal to Hubbell's well-established audience. Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

What do corn, apples, silkworms, and domesticated cats have in common? They are all examples of early genetic engineering by humans. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
1. Of Humanity, Tazzie the Good Dog, and Cornp. 1
2. Of Multicaulismania, Silkworms, and the World's First Superhighwayp. 37
3. Of Lions, Cats, Shrinkage, and Ratsp. 81
4. Of Apples in Heaven's Mountains and in Cow Pasturesp. 121
Afterwordp. 155
Appendixp. 161
Sourcesp. 163
Indexp. 170