“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” -Douglas Adams “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
Nonhuman animals raised for meat have been domesticated for thousands of years. Some characteristics that have been artificially selected for are earlier maturation, tolerance for crowding, reduced exploratory behavior and docility including an almost across the board decrease in brain size (and arguably intelligence, compared to their wild cousins).
As much as we have changed the behavior and responses of animals bred to be eaten we have not been able to breed out of them the desire to carry on living. What if animals could be bred who had no preferences about existing and who wanted to be eaten?
Depictions of animals that want to be eaten or facilitate their own preparation aren’t uncommon. In science fiction, most famously, Douglas Adams wrote about a pig who wants to be eaten as well as a large bovine animal asking guests at a restaurant to eat him in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (abbreviated passage, film clip). An older manifestation of this idea is the Shmoo, a cartoon critter who not only can taste like steak, pork, chicken, catfish or oysters but blissfully lays eggs and gives milk.
More commonplace is “suicide food”, depictions of animals like the one above who seem to delight in being prepared for consumption. There’s a marvelous collection over at suicidefood.blogspot.co.uk.
From a utilitarian perspective would it be ok to eat animals that wanted to be eaten? From the way it’s depicted by Douglas Adams these animals have a sense of ultimate purpose, a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that has at its pinnacle the self actualization of being delicious. Arguably, engineering an animal like this would require at least human-like levels of consciousness making the problem of reducing dissonance about eating animals by discounting their self-awareness even more difficult. One would essentially have to increase the sentience of animals to make an Adams like scenario possible. Not to mention that this would only increase the animals’ desire to be served up but not limit the pain of slaughter (among other things).
Hal Herzog, who spends a lot of time thinking about human-animal relationships floated a thought experiment at a meeting, Sadomasochistic Pigs:
“I’m wondering if it would be unethical to genetically engineer an S&M pig that enjoys pain and suffering….Most people in the audience seemed appalled by the idea of genetically engineered but completely pain free meat. But they did not even bother to come up with a coherent rationale behind their thinking. (I’m thinking Peter Singer – ever the utilitarian – might approve, but Tom Regan — the deontologist – would not.)”
Genetically engineering humans and nonhuman animals with a higher pain threshold or some degree of analgesia isn’t new however “enjoying pain” is different. While there might be some genetic basis for finding pleasure in pain an animal that had the pain and pleasure wires crossed could be wireheading by simply engaging in self-harm. Furthermore masochistic nonhuman animals might fix the problem of pain but would arguably not fix the problem of wanting to carry on living. Even masochists don’t off themselves for the ultimate pleasure of death.
Adaptive behaviors are those that help an organism propagate their genes and the functional purpose of pleasure is to motivate, cue up and reward an organism for doing something adaptive (e.g. sex, grooming, eating and drinking). Conversely, pain does the opposite, indicating maladaptive behavior or consequences. It’s hard to disentangle pain from death because death (and being eaten) is one of the worst outcomes for one’s reproductive success. As David Buss likes to say “It’s bad to be dead”.
Is there an animal for whom being eaten is adaptive that we could reverse bioengineer? In the Australian Redback Spider one of the male’s most adaptive options is to be eaten by the female. That’s because he has such a high possibility of mortality just finding female #1 (and thus it’s very unlikely that if he lives another day he’ll mate again). Being eaten also prolongs his mating and it increases the probability that the female will reject other males after him. Eating a member of your own species may offer the perfect balance of nutrients. In other sexually cannibalistic species it’s been found that males devoured by their mates have healthier, more fertile offspring. In the Redback Spider the male doesn’t just passively allow himself to gobbled up but often actively somersaults onto the female’s mouthparts (a little like the shmoo who will immolate himself the moment he sees a hungry human).
Let’s ignore for the moment that sometimes even after he somersaults the male tries to get away and that natural selection is unlikely to endow an organism’s last moments with anything consistent (after all it cannot influence future behavior). If being a tasty morsel for the female is, for the most part, adaptive for the male one might imagine that being devoured in this context isn’t painful but pleasurable for the male. If goats can be genetically engineered to produce spider silk in their milk could we genetically engineer animals who enjoy being eaten? Aside from the tenuous series of links I’ve walked through in this blog in practical terms I think the best way forward is to completely divorce animal protein for human consumption from any sentience at all like invitro meat.
Another issue that I have been thinking about more recently is wild animal suffering. Mostly people concerned with this issue describe finding alternate food sources for or genetically engineering predators. But the flip side would be changing prey animals. What if wild prey animals could feel pleasure when they finally meet their demise in the mouth of a predator? One of many reasons that nature is cruel is that any genetic variant that limits pain and thus makes a wounded prey animal less likely to escape and live another day will likely be selected out.
Note: Thanks to Hal Herzog for the quote as well as telling me about shmoos