It's time to stop killing meat and start growing it.

Science, technology, and life.
May 27 2006 8:09 AM

The Conscience of a Carnivore

It's time to stop killing meat and start growing it.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Where were you when Barbaro broke his leg? I was at a steakhouse, watching the race on a big screen. I saw a horse pulling up, a jockey clutching him, a woman weeping. Thus began a worldwide vigil over the fate of the great horse. Would he be euthanized? Could doctors save him? In the restaurant, people watched and wondered. Then we went back to eating our steaks.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Shrinks call this "cognitive dissonance." You munch a strip of bacon then pet your dog. You wince at the sight of a crippled horse but continue chewing your burger. Three weeks ago, I took my kids to a sheep and wool festival. They petted lambs; I nibbled a lamb sausage. That's the thing about humans: We're half-evolved beasts. We love animals, but we love meat, too. We don't want to have to choose. And maybe we don't have to. Maybe, thanks to biotechnology, we can now grow meat instead of butchering it.

Advertisement

With all the problems facing humanity—war, terrorism, poverty, tyranny—you probably don't worry much about whether it's right or wrong to eat meat. That's understandable. Every society lives with two kinds of moral problems: the ones it's ready to face, and the ones that will become clear or compelling only in retrospect. Human sacrifice, slavery, the subjugation of women—every tradition seems normal and indispensable until we're ready, morally and economically, to move beyond it.

The case for eating meat is like the case for other traditions: It's natural, it's necessary, and there's nothing wrong with it. But sometimes, we're mistaken. We used to think we were the only creatures that could manipulate grammar, make sophisticated plans, or recognize names out of context. In the past month, we've discovered the same skills in birds and dolphins. In recent years, we've learned that crows fashion leaves and metal into tools. Pigeons deceive each other. Rats run mazes in their dreams. Dolphins teach their young to use sponges as protection. Chimps can pick locks. Parrots can work with numbers. Dogs can learn words from context. We thought animals weren't smart enough to deserve protection. It turns out we weren't smart enough to realize they do.

Is meat-eating necessary? It was, back when our ancestors had no idea where their next meal might come from. Meat kept us alive and made us stronger. Many scientists think it played a crucial role in the development of the human brain. Now it's time to return the favor. Thousands of years ago, the human brain invented agriculture, and hunting lost its urgency. In the past two centuries, we've identified the nutrients in various kinds of meat, and we've learned how to get them instead from soy, nuts, and other vegetable sources. Meat has made us smart enough to figure out how we can live without it.

So, why do we keep eating it? Because it's so darned tasty. Don't give me that hippie shtick about how McDonald's or Western society foisted beef on us. McDonald's didn't invent the appendix. McDonald's didn't invent all the genes we've acquired—at least eight, according to a 2004 article in the Quarterly Review of Biology—that help us, but not chimps, manage a meat diet. Look at the fossil evidence recently published in Nature. About 5,000 years ago, when people in Britain figured out how to domesticate cattle, sheep, and pigs, they promptly switched from fish-eating to meat-eating. A similar revolution swept North America about 700 years ago. My daughter has been demanding meat ever since she tasted it in baby food. I've seen vegetarian friends lust at the thought of a burger. We're carnivores. We evolved that way.

If we were just beasts, that would end the discussion. But we're not. Evolution didn't stop with our lusts; it started there. Food gave us brain power. Technology lifted us above survival and gave us time to think. We began to understand the operation of living things, even ourselves. We saw what we were, and we saw what we could be. That's the paradox of humanity: Our aspirations transcend our nature, but they have to respect it. To become what we must become, we have to work with what we are.

Anyone familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous understands this duality. It's the heart of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." Many alcoholics take this to mean that addiction can't be changed, but behavior can, with God's help. But prayers often mean more than we understand. In the case of meat, maybe we don't have to go cold no-turkey. Maybe what we're asking for, what God is giving us, is the wisdom to see that we can't change our craving for meat, but we can change the way we satisfy it.

How? By growing meat in labs, the way we grow tissue from stem cells. That's the great thing about cells: They're programmed to multiply. You just have to figure out what chemical and structural environment they need to do their thing. Researchers in Holland and the United States are working on the problem. They've grown and sautéed fish that smelled like dinner, though FDA rules didn't allow them to taste it. Now they're working on pork. The short-term goal is sausage, ground beef, and chicken nuggets. Steaks will be more difficult. Three Dutch universities and a nonprofit consortium called New Harvest are involved. They need money. A fraction of what we spend on cattle subsidies would help.

Growing meat like this will be good for us in lots of ways. We'll be able to make beef with no fat, or with good fat transplanted from fish. We'll avoid bird flu, mad-cow disease, and salmonella. We'll scale back the land consumption and pollution involved in cattle farming. But 300 years from now, when our descendants look back at slaughterhouses the way we look back at slavery, they won't remember the benefits to us, any more than they'll remember our dried-up tears for a horse. They'll want to know whether we saw the moral calling of our age. If we do, it's time to pony up.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 23 2014 6:00 AM Naked and Afraid Prudie offers advice on whether a young boy should sleep in the same room with his nude grandfather.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.