Human Nature

The Conscience of a Carnivore

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

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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.

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.

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.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.