Friday, May 05, 2006

Do you chew you?

Since it's Friday and I've expended today's liberal vitriol by writing angry letters to the Post, I thought I'd bring up an issue that's been kicking around Bee Policy HQ: Would you eat human meat, if it had never been a person?

Bora at Science and Politics recently posted a quote of significance:
Try to go through life a little bit edible
You never know when you'll meet someone hungry.
Try to go through life a little bit hungry
You never know when you'll meet someone edible.
And of course there's been a lot of attention paid to Terry Bisson's short story "They're Made Out Of Meat", now that it's been adapted into a short film -- no better catalyst for contemplating our true meat heritage. But the question only started seeming relevant when I read this item in "News of the Weird":
In work by various labs in the United States, the Netherlands and Australia (reported by Toronto's Globe and Mail in March), meat was grown in test tubes, and such dishes may yet be a staple in progressive kitchens. "Before bed, throw starter cells and a package of growth medium into the (coffee maker-sized) meat maker and wake up to harvest-fresh sausage for breakfast," wrote the Globe and Mail. Engineered meat would taste like beef or pork, but could be created to be as healthful as salmon. One private group told researchers it was interested in growing human meat, but funding for any of the work will be difficult, said a Medical University of South Carolina scientist.
Oddly, that's not the exact wording I read, though it's off the News of the Weird site -- what I read said specifically that the funding from the human-meat group had been turned down. So we're not actually going to get vat-grown long pig anytime soon. But it's still an interesting question: Would you eat it? Would you eat it more than once?

Dan said that he might take a taste out of curiosity, but only once. Unless it's the best meat on the damn planet, he argued, you'd only eat more than that if you wanted to make a statement (i.e. "I'm a cannibal," or more likely "I'm a rebel"), and those statements aren't statements he wants to make. But John, joining us via satellite, pointed out that human meat might very well be amazingly delicious. This might not apply to vat-grown human, but real people -- or at least Americans -- must be as tender and marbled as Kobe beef. I don't want to eat real people, and I'd only consider eating human meat if it had never been real people, but if a cow tastes better when it's been idle and beer-fed, then an American must taste fantastic too.

Furthermore, as John and I determined, we don't have any good data to challenge this idea. Most written records of cannibalism have probably (correct me if I'm wrong) come from groups like the Andean rugby team, who only went Lecter out of desperation. There was a fantastic article in a recent New Yorker, unfortunately not available online, that described forensic investigations of the Donner Party site; records show that if the Donners actually did eat their dead, they only did it after first consuming their horses, roofs, and dogs. And as John pointed out, "as they got increasingly desperate, they grew decreasingly delicious." Sure, starvation salts the dish, but a stringy and ailing companion does not make for a gourmet meal, no matter how you (ha ha) slice it.

But even if the nouveau Soylent Green wasn't exceedingly tasty, I might still have to eat it -- yes, to make a statement, but not the statement that I'm an eccentric or a sociopath. I have green hair; I don't need to make that statement. No, I feel like I might have to eat my fellow man for science, liberalism, and all that is good. Though it's true that I don't believe in zombies, I do still think it's important that not everything that's human-like has personhood. Like I said, I wouldn't eat people. Too much work, for one thing. But "human" meat grown in a test tube is human only in cell structure -- it's identical to other chunks of homo sapiens on a micro level, but it isn't a person, it was never a person, it could never feel pain, it doesn't have nerves for crissakes. I might have to scarf it down just to make the point that consciousness has significance, that not everything people-esque is people, and that you can't kill something that was never alive. I think you catch my drift.

Now that said, I don't eat red meat very often. But would I munch a humanburger for science and social justice? You bet I would.

Image copyright Ryan North; click it for the only webcomic you'll ever need


Robin said...

The ethical quandary of whether to eat so-called human meat that's been grown in a petri dish is obviously not so different -- to my mind, not at ALL different -- from the ethical quandary over whether to grow human embryos to derive their stem cells for research and treatment. I agree with you that neither of these cell cultures is human. To me, it's not enough to have human DNA in your nuclei; you have to have a brain that works, a nervous system that works; a body that's bigger and more organized than four blobby cells. But if it became acceptable to culture human meat in this way, in a country that doesn't allow federal funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research -- well, that would be just one more example of the hypocricy and inconsistency of the holier-than-thous who seem to be setting national science policy.

5/06/2006 10:18 AM  
Nick said...

When you think about it, eating human meat as a statement for science and liberalism and against superstition is a bit ironic, given the ritual of communion. "Eat of this for it is my body" and all that. Also, would this mean we'd have all sorts of goth kids going around drinking Petri-dish-grown blood?

Anyway, if you ignore the possible health issues involved, sure, I'd try some people. Like you said, it's just a bunch of cells. Maybe Charlton Heston could become the spokesperson to supplement his NRA money. And if we started eating the dead, then there could be some nice synergy there too. ;-)

5/06/2006 10:41 AM  
Rev. Tom said...

I would most certainly try human meat. In fact, I have for some time now harbored a genuine curiosity as to its taste.

For me personally, the issue of its provenance -- dish-grown versus "right off the bone", so to speak -- is important... but opposite of your stated preference. I might actually prefer to eat meat that was once a person, to be honest.

I believe that I once read an article about mourning rituals in which some group somewhere actually did eat their dead as part of the funeral; they viewed it as a sign of respect. Now, in this case, the emphasis is on mourning and ritual rather than the consumption of meat. However, I think it still says something about conscientious carnivorism. I'm mildly annoyed when people make a big deal about eating only meat that has been so processed and so removed from its original state... people who have qualms about eating meat if it resembles animal parts. I don't think those people ought to be eating meat.

Eating is so visceral and primal; it should never be a mindless affair. I like to be conscious of where my meat, and all my food in general, comes from. It's an extension of my fascination with the history of all the things with which I interact and/or own; I think about where things came from and what they were like before they came into my life. I like to know and celebrate and thank the origins of my food. Thus, the human meat grown in a culture is sort of like processed, American "cheese product". It seems like it cheapens the whole concept by introducing a level of abstraction in order to assuage the moral guilt of engaging in a tasty pleasure.

5/07/2006 6:11 AM  
jess said...

I believe that I once read an article about mourning rituals in which some group somewhere actually did eat their dead as part of the funeral; they viewed it as a sign of respect.

I think there are several, actually, most notably the South Fore, whose brain-consumption activities led to a kuru (spongiform encephalopathy) epidemic. So... more significance from real meat, less risk of prion diseases from the fake stuff.

5/07/2006 4:16 PM  

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