Richard Dawkins is interested in whether lab-grown human meat can eliminate the social stigma associated with cannibalism.
On March 3, the outspoken evolutionary researcher shared a link to an article on the possibility of the sale of meat created in a laboratory by the end of the year 2018. Dawkins was virtually drooling, but it wasn’t because of the food: “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he said in his letter. “What if we were able to grow human meat? Would we be able to transcend our anti-cannibalism prejudice?”
He went on to say that lab-grown flesh would be an “interesting test case” in which consequentialist morality would be pitted against “yuck response” absolutism. In other words, lab-grown human meat may be ethical in the sense that no one suffers any negative repercussions — no killing, no desecration of bodies — but humans may still have an innate aversion to the thought of consuming it because it is unfamiliar.
It is not a new question, though research suggests that convincing people to consume lab-grown meat at all may be a difficult task — and that the market for lab-grown human meat would almost certainly be vanishingly small.
In the future, “you’ll read trend items like, ‘Kids these days are eating their buddies!'” said Owen Schaefer, a professor at the National University of Singapore and director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics. Real-world synthetic-human-meat consumption, on the other hand, “is going to be incredibly unusual,” according to him.
Meat in a petri dish
Lab meat, often known as “in vitro” meat or “clean meat,” is produced by growing a small number of stem cells from a living animal in a laboratory. In 2013, a news conference in London saw the consumption of the world’s first lab-grown meat. It was a burger created by Mark Post, a pharmacologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and it was described as “a little dry” by the two tasters who tried it.
According to the findings of studies, individuals are generally disgusted by any type of meat that has been grown in a laboratory. An online poll of potential lab-meat customers in the United States, published last year in the journal PLOS ONE, indicated that two-thirds of those who responded would be prepared to try the stuff, but only one-third could picture themselves eating it on a consistent basis.
The study’s co-author, Matti Wilks, a doctorate student in psychology at the University of Queensland (Australia), explained that clean meat is perceived as more ethical and environmentally friendly than farmed meat, but that it is perceived as less natural, flavorful, and appealing.
A survey conducted by Wilks found that just 16 percent of those who responded stated they would consume lab-grown meat if it were more expensive than traditional beef. This suggests that people do not place an excessive amount of monetary value on the ethical and environmental benefits of the product.
According to the findings of that study, a very tiny proportion of participants stated that they would be more inclined to eat meat from animals such as dogs, horses, and cats if the meat were grown in a laboratory. However, Wilks explained to Live Science that the figures were so little that they would be insignificant if applied to the entire population of consumers. Even more concerning, she added, was the finding that vegetarians who previously did not consume meat were among the least likely to say they would begin eating meat if it were developed in laboratories. People who do not understand the appeal of cannibalism, on the other hand, are unlikely to change their beliefs just because the meat was never a part of a real person, according to her.
I can’t believe that people who are currently opposed to eating human flesh would suddenly become enthusiastic about eating human meat if it is produced through the use of cellular agriculture, Wilks added.
Is lab-human meat cannibalism a morally acceptable practice?
Despite this, Schaefer believes that a small number of people will be interested in tasting synthetic human meat. These individuals may include performance artists who wish to serve a derivative of themselves in order to make a statement or celebrities who wish to profit by offering their fans the opportunity to taste their flesh.
His prediction: “You’re going to find some folks out there who are willing to do it.” Is it appropriate to object to this? Should people be prohibited from converting human flesh into something that can be consumed?
To that end, Schaefer and his co-author, Julian Savulescu, published a paper in the Journal of Applied Philosophy in 2014 in which they attempted to work out the ethical implications of consuming lab-grown human meat. According to Schaefer, they were unable to come up with any convincing philosophical arguments to support their claim that it was unethical. On Twitter, Dawkins brought up the concept of consequentialism, which is the notion that the ends justify the methods. In this sense, lab-grown cannibalism causes no direct harm to anyone because no one needs to die and no one’s corpse is desecrated as a result of it.
According to Schaefer, there was also no compelling deontological case against the practice. According to deontology, the means do matter – for example, even if you can rescue five people by killing one, it may still not be ethical to kill that one person. Deontological arguments are typically founded on conceptions of contempt for other people, but, as Schaefer pointed out, there does not appear to be anyone who is disrespected by the consumption of synthetic human meat.
Clean meat could be used as an argument against cannibalism, according to him, which is the belief that humans should adopt attitudes that are virtuous for their own sake rather than for the sake of other people.
“You might say that there is a disposition toward humanity that is shifting away from viewing people as people, and perhaps this is pushing us even farther toward seeing people as meat,” he explained. According to him, though, such a transition does not appear to be particularly plausible.
According to Schaefer, while cannibalism is a fascinating topic to discuss, the main question is how clean meat will transform humanity’s connection with food from something that requires animal suffering to something that can be created in a lab. He believes that if clean meat can be made to be as tasty and safe as ordinary meat while also being sold at a lower cost, it will become more widely available. (Post’s 2013 burger cost a stunning $300,000, but the technology is improving.) Wilks agreed that if clean beef is available on grocery store shelves, people will be more accepting of it.
“Right now, I feel it is perceived as a futuristic technology, but once it becomes tangible, I believe that will change,” she said, adding that she is optimistic that people will engage with it once it becomes tangible.