Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Dystopian Future of the Past is Now!

So far the scientists have not tasted it, but they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time. (Times Online, 9/29/09)
Some Dutch scientists backed by a sausage manufacturer have grown "a soggy form of pork" in a petri dish.  Where to begin?

Leaving aside a mostly silly dislike I have for the Netherlands (Rembrandt and Van Gogh...Awesome; pirate capital of consumption and Infernal setting of Camus' The Fall...not awesome), I think this begins with Chicken Little.

In 1952, Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth wrote The Space Merchants, a novel I've been meaning to re-read.  It's sort of a satire of consumer-advertising culture, prescient in lots of ways, that follows Mitchell Courtenay, a future-day Don Draper, as he descends from the halls of Madison Avenue power to the dystopian subterranea of "Luna City" or something like that.  Anyway, the thing I remember most about the novel is when Mitch is escorted deep beneath a food-processing plant by a worker who is secretly also a member of the conservationist, dissident underground:
I asked about the apparently immense weight of the ceiling.  "Concrete and lead.  It shields cosmic rays.  Sometimes a Gallina goes cancer."  He spat.  "No good to eat for people.  You got to burn it all if you don't catch it real fast and--" He swung his glittering slicer in a screaming arc to show me what he meant by "catch."
He swung open a door.  "This is her nest," he said proudly.  I looked and gulped.
The "Gallina" (AKA Chicken Little) is a 100-ton mound of growing flesh, fed from nutrient tubes and pruned by Mexicans with light sabers for general consumption by the people of the moon.

Now Space Merchants is undoubtedly a more sophisticated satire than I recall, but I remember being repulsed by the very idea of Chicken Little when I was younger.  Some kind of blob of meat, fed with tubes and and prone to cancer?  So unnatural and alien, thought I.  But, to quote Augustine, such a fool I then was.

According to a PETA rep quoted in the article, "if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal, there's no ethical objection."  So for someone who likes the taste of meat but draws some sort of line between animative and vegatative souls, this laboratory pork potentially solves a lot of problems.

But in fact, I'm not entirely sure what line or lines I draw.  I eat most of the usual meats, generally without compunction.  (Although I have been staying away from shrimp for the last several months, purportedly in support of mangrove swamps, but also because my brother once referred to them as the cockroaches of the sea, which maybe means that my ethics are always really aesthetic judgments in disguise).  Occasionally I try to determine a line.  Would I eat a dolphin?  Blue whale?  Elephant? Monkey? Mountain gorilla?  What if s/he knows sign language?  What about a friend of mine who died in an accident?  If something wanted to eat me after I died, I don't think I would mind.  Either that or worms anyway.  Is there a cognitive/non-cognitive line I would draw if I could decide what cognition was?  

It's probably true that the more like a human being an organism is, the more distasteful would be the idea of me eating it, which isn't to say that there's anything natural about this distaste, but I wonder if whatever explains that distaste might also explain the uncanny valley?  On the other hand, I also don't want to eat a bowl of spiders.

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