The more interesting question: what are the second-order consequences for society?
Clean Meats — that is, animal products grown in a lab through cell culture — are morally acceptable and preferable to the status quo because they involve no unnecessary animal suffering and have orders of magnitude lower negative externalities than traditional livestock agriculture.
While still in the early stages of development, lab-grown meat has already been developed for beef, chicken and duck. Clean Meat is a technology, and it appears to be following the incredible cost curves of the technologies of the past 50 years (semiconductors, solar panels etc…). We will probably see Clean Meat on our grocery shelves within 5 years that is tastier, healthier and cheaper than the meats we eat today, which is unquestioningly a huge positive for society.
But why stop there? The initial focus has understandably been on the most widely consumed meats, but once perfected, is there anything wrong with developing more exotic types of meat? Would you balk at the idea of “Clean Elephant”? Does Clean Tiger sound delicious? Is Clean Panda too far? To take the argument to its logical conclusion:
Is Clean Human an acceptable (albeit exotic) part of the diet of the future, or does it remain taboo?
There is a serious health argument to be made in favor of not eating human meat. From a 2008 article entitled “Not that I’m thinking about trying it, but is cannibalism unhealthy?”:
“Other than the social stigma of cannibalism and, you know, the murder part, there is another important reason why consuming human flesh is not a universal practice: it can be deadly.
“Prion diseases, a group of uncommon and deadly brain diseases, can be spread by eating the contaminated flesh of humans or other animals. The human brain is more contaminated with prions than other body parts, though bone marrow, the spinal cord and the small intestine also contain these fatal brain-eating malformations. Prion diseases occur when the prion protein misfolds, causing a cascade of misfolding prion proteins that clump in the brain and damage or destroy nerve cells, creating sponge-like holes. Current examples include kuru and Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in humans, and mad cow disease in animals, both of which cause brain deterioration, loss of motor control and ultimately death.”
That said, it seems to me as though human meat could be lab-grown and tested for Prion diseases prior to consumption. Perhaps it could never be made truly risk-free, in which case it could possibly serve as a delicacy akin to the Fugu fish, the Japanese puffer fish whose liver contains a neurotoxin 1,000x more powerful than potassium cyanide. The fish has enticed diners for centuries, lured both by its taste and the flirtation with death.
Regardless of whether or not we ultimately eat Clean Human, I think the moral argument for doing so is valid for the exact same reason that Clean Meat is morally preferable to the status quo — no suffering would occur in the process of developing Clean Human and it would produce just as few negative environmental externalities as any other Clean Meat.
Working on the assumption that Clean Human is both feasible and morally acceptable, the more interesting question is what second-order consequences would arise as a result?
- Animal Welfare takes a big leap forward. While Clean Meat is primarily being developed as a solution to the “big problem” of an unsustainable food supply, the improved animal welfare associated with the reduction and eventual disruption of “factory farming” is a huge secondary benefit. This is already widely touted, but the introduction of Clean Human to a menu alongside Clean Chicken, Clean Beef and Clean Turkey may fundamentally alter how humans view their position atop the food pyramid. By abstracting away the need to kill an animal in order to produce meat, while simultaneously lowering the sanctity of “human” flesh, it is possible that mankind becomes more conscious of the fact that animals are sentient beings just like us, feel pain like us, and don’t deserve to suffer because of us. This argument has been made for decades by philosophers such as Peter Singer, but Clean Human might propel the argument into the mainstream.
- Humans may begin to disassociate themselves from their bodies. One of the wonderfully futuristic concepts in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the evolution of David Bowman, the astronaut who successfully disconnects HAL 9000, from human to “Star Child” — an immortal being who resides in space — at the behest of a civilization who long ago progressed from biological bodies to a non-physical form altogether. Eating Clean Human is not going to get us any closer to evolving as a species, but it may loosen the sense of unity most humans currently feel between their mind and body. By showing that our bodies are made up of meat just like any other animal, we may begin to identify who we are more by our intellect, personality, and memories. This could pave the way for greater societal acceptance for lives led entirely as avatars in VR or Second Life than IRL. If Elon is as successful with Neuralink as he is with accelerating the advent of sustainable energy or enabling the spaceflight capacities necessary to make human life multiplanetary, we could be one step closer to removing the need for physical bodies altogether — the morality of which is a separate question for another time.
- Cannibalism may see a resurgence. Despite the aforementioned risks associated with cannibalism, the proliferation of Clean Human may lower society’s intolerance to genuine cannibalism. While it would undoubtedly continue to be ruled illegal be governments throughout the world, I can envisage a black market for “Authentic” Human springing up. In fact, the extent to which this is true could actually invalidate the assumption that Clean Human is morally defensible.
The first instances of Clean Human on a menu will surely provoke a backlash in tabloids and the sensationalist wings of the media, but I will strongly support the right of anyone who wants to offer or consume Clean Human as a morally acceptable choice to make. Personally, I would try Clean Human if offered at a high end restaurant from a Chef whom I trust to do something both respectful and unique — something that isn’t just a gimmick.
As we wait for Clean Meat to hit our restaurants and grocery stores, now is the time to reevaluate our current taboos and examine how technological advances could produce secondary-order impacts on society.
Thanks for reading! Please share any additional thoughts in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this, you may be interested in my 4 part argument to myself on why I should give up beef.
Post originally published on Medium. Read it here.