Beyond vegetarianism

by Anders Sandberg

A vegetarian 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 cooking.

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 become untenable.

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 desire, can and should determine in what directions we autoevolve.

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 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 vegetarian.

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.

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