Noted atheist intellectual and totally normal person Richard Dawkins is curious about lab-grown meat. More specifically, the author of The God Delusion is curious about lab-grown human meat. That’s right, the other other white meat. On Saturday, the outspoken critic of intelligent design and creationism tweeted an article about lab-grown meat from The Independent, along with some questions meant to spur thought and discussion. “Tissue culture ‘clean meat’ already in 2018? I’ve long been looking forward to this,” he writes. “What if human meat is grown? Could we overcome our taboo against cannibalism? An interesting test case for consequentialist morality versus ‘yuck reaction’ absolutism.”
It may sound gross, but Dawkins’ cannibalistic curiosity could become relevant in our lifetimes.
With the Earth’s meat-eaters outpacing the planet’s resources, lab-grown meat could offer an alternative to beef, chicken, and pork that doesn’t put as much of a strain on the environment. And while the cost of these cultured “meats” is still prohibitively high, they have gotten cheaper and will probably continue to do so.
Dawkins’ question sounds more than a little creepy, but it’s not a terrible one. After all, even if lab-grown meat resembles human muscle, it’s not coming from an actual living person, so theoretically it shouldn’t be subject to the same disgust response that humans have evolved to avoid disease-carrying foods. Plus, he invokes consequentialism, the ethical principle that says an action should be judged on the basis of its consequences. If eating lab-grown human flesh does no more harm than eating lab-grown cow flesh, argues Dawkins, then why should the “yuck reaction” negate the potential benefit?
Unfortunately, that argument isn’t as simple as he suggests. Anyone who’s studied cannibalism — or mad cow disease — knows that cannibalism has consequences beyond being taboo. Prion disease is a well-documented neurological condition that can result from eating the flesh or organs of your same species. It’s not clear whether lab-grown human meat would cause the same condition, but it’s way too early to say.
Regardless of the consequences, Dawkins’ public musings seem kind of disturbing. As Twitter user Derek Davison points out, it’s kind of odd that human meat is the first place Dawkins goes with this information.
A 2017 study found that most people — including atheists — think atheists are more likely to be serial killers, so when a noted atheist like Dawkins brings up cannibalism, we might be more inclined to take him somewhat seriously. It’s hard to tell how serious he is here, though.
That being the case, Dawkins has never shied away from controversy. He has even referred to himself as pedantic, so perhaps he really is interested in the moral and ethical implications of eating lab-grown human meat. Whatever the case may be, he’s probably not alone in his curiosity. Only time will tell whether Richard Dawkins ever gets to eat human meat, and if he does, let’s just hope it’s lab-grown.