by Anders Sandberg
approached me one day while I was eating, asking me (no doubt with the intention
to sow guilt and preach a bit) "How can you eat *carrion*?". Unfortunately
for him, I responded by happily explaining that it is quite natural for humans
to eat carrion; after all, our evolutionary past suggests that we were opportunistic
omnivores, eating meat whenever we could get it. Our teeth seem to be well adapted
to chewing meat made tender by a slight rot, something we later replaced with
In fact, being purely vegetarian is unnatural. There are to my knowledge
no indigenous people living only of vegetables (something that is very hard to
do without advanced nutrition and availability of a wide variety of vegetables
around the year). Being adaptive we can become vegetarian (or purely carnivorous)
if we choose today, but it is an individual choice made based on our own values
and not on any biological support. Vegetarianism can be seen as a kind of self-expression,
a decision to overcome our biological heritage as omnivores for a herbivorous
diet more in accordance to our ethics or aesthetic.
This transhumanist way
of seeing vegetarianism is of course not very accepted by most vegetarians, of
which an eloquent subset regard un- or non- natural things as bad. To get rid
of the cognitive dissonance they attempt to show that humans really are herbivores,
and that the meat-eating establishment is wrong. It is too bad they lack the courage
to see vegetarianism as what it is: a deliberate change in our biology, based
on culture not nature.
I will not go into the health benefits and problems
of a vegetarian diet, I'm no nutritionist and this essay has other axes to grind.
Instead of looking at eating green to improve one's health I'm more interested
in strong ethical vegetarianism, the idea that it is wrong to eat meat since it
implies killing other animals. There is also "weak ethical vegetarianism",
which opposes eating meat because of the often bad conditions animals are brought
up in; if these conditions were to be significantly improved this condition would
While it is easy to point out that "natural"
predators also kill prey all the time without anybody regarding them as unethical,
I think ethical vegetarians have a point. Our ethics, a cultural construction
that can be as absurd or practical as we or our memes (Self-reproducing idea or
other information pattern which is propagated in ways similar to that of a gene)
desire, can and should determine in what directions we autoevolve (Evolution directed
by intelligent beings instead of natural selection).
My personal ethics
is based on the fundamental assumption that complexity and information is good.
What does this imply about eating? Killing other living beings is of course negative,
since we lose some of the complexity of the universe this way. On the other hand,
the nutrients making up the animals and plants we eat, and their low entropic
state, are used to sustain and develop our own beings. And humans are able to
create systems of extreme complexity and information content; maybe it is good
after all to eat chicken, since we can create more complexity in the world than
the chicken could ever do? Or maybe it is just ethical for artists, scientists,
engineers and other creative people to eat chicken, while it would be unethical
for a bureaucrat to do so?
I think we need to take the long range view of
this problem; detailed attempts to measure the complexity of different alternatives
quickly run into the same problems as utilitarian happiness-calculations. In the
long run, a temporary decrease in complexity can lead to a much greater increase
in complexity in the future (a typical example is a forest fire, which enables
many species to re-colonize a forest which otherwise would be almost a monoculture).
If we as humans can make sure the complexity and information content of the universe
increases vastly, then the small violations against the complexity ethics we out
of necessity are guilty of can be forgiven. If we just feed on other beings with
no intentions of ever changing the universe or our planet, then we are unethical.
This leads to the interesting conclusion that the bio- fundamentalists, even if
they are vegetarians, are behaving unethically as they prey upon other complex
lifeforms while trying to preserve the complexity of the world as it is, with
no increase or decrease, while it might be ethical for transhumans (Someone actively
preparing for becoming posthuman [Persons of unprecedented physical, intellectual,
and psychological capacity, self-programming, self-constituting, potentially immortal,
unlimited individuals]. Someone who is informed enough to see radical future possibilities
and plans ahead for them, and who takes every current option for self-enhancement)
to enjoy a delicious dinner if it helps make the universe a more complex place
one day. Fruitless table discussions are immoral!
Of course, it can still
be argued that eating meat is bad even if we will eventually "repay"
the universe by a huge increase in complexity. Not eating meat does however not
guarantee more complexity, since fewer meateaters would mean less livestock reared
and hence no net complexity increase. But there is a very real overhead in producing
meat the current way by growing plants to use as food for the meat animal. So
it seems like eating meat is slightly entropic, and the entropy increase becomes
smaller the more we move towards the bottom of the food-chain.
So does this
mean I have turned vegetarian? Not yet; I have never pretended to be completely
rational, and eating habits are one of the more hardwired parts of our neural
wiring. I realize that I do a lot of things each day that decrease the complexity
of the world unnecessarily; reprogramming myself to avoid them is possible, but
at present I think the mental resources needed to do it can be used in more constructive
ways (or is this just my subsystems speaking?). So while I asymptotically move
towards vegetarianism, it is interesting to consider other possibilities which
would change the rules of the game, or go much further beyond vegetarianism.
One interesting possibility is the development of cultured meat. Growing tissues
in vitro is at present a hot research subject, mainly directed toward culturing
transplants, but if it succeeds there is no reason that the same techniques could
be simplified and commercialized to meat culturing. Using a few precursor cells
meat could be grown with no need of killing any animal and no animal suffering
in a stock-yard, and likely with less waste of resources. It is interesting to
note that many ethical vegetarians still react negatively to this idea, which
suggests that it is not just intellectually considered ethics that has made them
Another possibility is to develop an animal which can produce
meat without any need for killing. The archetypal example would be lizards who
can shed their tails to escape predators; why not a meat animal which can shed
meat without dying? This is essentially cultured meat that is grown in vivo instead
of in vitro. It would in many ways be equivalent to eating fruits, which are harvested
from plants (usually) with insignificant damage. The purely biological problems
of implementing this are of course immense, since the kind of meat we usually
eat consists of muscle tissue: how to grow muscles that can easily (and with no
pain or danger to the animal) be removed, especially since muscles usually needs
to be in use to grow? Needless to say, the idea of cows with "flesh fruits"
on their backs would scare and sicken many, but ethically it is clearly preferred
over killing animals for their meat unless one takes the extreme position that
it is more wrong per se to change animals than to kill them.
In his book
Islands in the Net Bruce Sterling suggests a radical alternative to vegetarianism
based on eating yeasts and cultured bacteria (mainly for health reasons, since
plants produce poisons to protect themselves, but maybe also ethical reasons).
This may appear an extreme step, but it is possible to go one step further in
the nutrient chain.
When I get the chance I plan to become fully autotrophic.
Writers have speculated about plant-humans for a long time, but I plan something
more original. I want to live in free space, living of sunlight and the minerals
in asteroids. This way I will not need to sacrifice the complexity of any other
lifeform to increase my own. This is the logical conclusion of the line of inquiry
started by the vegetarian accusation of being a carrion-eater.