The Samovar

Meat without the nervous system
May 10, 2007, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Ethics, Food, Morality, Philosophy

A thought strikes me – would it be OK to eat meat if it came from an ‘animal’ without a nervous system (central or otherwise)? This may seem a silly question to ask because all the animals whose meat we eat actually does have a nervous system, but what if our understanding of biochemistry were to improve to the point where we could – say – grow a steak without growing a cow? Or if we could knock out a combination of genes in an animal which produce its nervous system and get an animal to give birth to what is essentially just a meat sack? My feeling is that even a vegetarian would have to agree that the former is acceptable, although possibly not the latter.

The second question that follows on from this is: would it be OK to eat meat from an actual animal if it was possible to grow its meat without killing a whole animal? My feeling on this is that in this circumstance nobody could justify killing and eating animals.

So are we destined for a future of ethical meat eating?

Postscript: The other question this raises is: what about animals with a minimal nervous system like a snail say? How do vegetarians feel about eating these? A snail has about 20k neurons compared to about 100k for a fruit fly, 1m for a cockroach, 21m for a rat and 300bn for a human – according to this unsourced wikipedia entry. It seems to me that if you’re willing to swat a fly you should be willing to eat a snail.

Post-postscript: One other question raised is would it be ethical to eat human meat that had been grown in this way? Anyone for ethical cannibalism?


An animal without a nervous is called a plant and there are plenty of those already.

If you are looking for a meat like substance that never had a nervous system check out Redwoods or Fry’s food.

“what about animals with a minimal nervous system like a snail say”. Perhaps this is just a bad question. Perhaps the question is, “do snails avoid pain?”, which is what the nervous system is there for. In short, they do.

Comment by Stephen

The artificial human meat thing was done in an Arthur C Clarke short story.

Let me pose another question, though: What has a nervous system to do with anything?

There are various views on Animal Rights. Myself – I don’t hold any truck with the concept: Only humans are capable of granting, and therefore holding rights. To Peter Singer, this is ‘speciesist’. He grants rights on te capacity to suffer. Well…that suggests to me that a) we have to protect the rights of snails against thrushes and b) we should be trying to medically alleviate the sufferering of wild animals in the same way as we do humans. It doesn’t add up.

Then there’s the notion that the boundary between food and friends comes with consciousness…eg moves to grant human rights to chimpanzees. OK – this makes intuitive sense. But can anyone tell me how we measure consciousness? Or is there a continuum? Or whether it means that babies or comotose patients should have lesser rights?

(And let’s dismiss out of hand the percentage DNA canard. We share DNA with bananas. What’s the cut off point?)

And yet…we all agree that eating people is wrong. Isn’t that the point? We agree ethics amongst us. If we want to grant superior rights to the great apes, or if we don’t want to eat the cuddlier animals, then fine. But let’s not kid ourselves that our preference has any philosophical underpinning.

Of course…I personally don’t eat meat or fish…

Two more things:

1) Have you read Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, with the story of Cunégonde, the old lady who has only one buttock? (“I cannot ride, for I am old and have only one buttock.”) She’s in a seige and the humane but starving Mohammedans remove a buttock from each of the women.

2) As the cannibal said to the missionary: “If God doesn’t want us to eat people, then why did he make them out of meat?”

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Stephen – I’m not looking for meat substitute I’m looking for actual meat but without killing an animal to get it. Also, I’m not sure that the actual pain involved in killing an animal is the real problem. I think vegetarians would be just as unhappy to eat an animal even some way of killing them could be found where if it could be proved that they felt no pain.

Ed – ah that’s a shame you can never outdo sci-fi writers, they’ve always thought of it first, whatever it is.

I want to avoid the issue of ‘rights’ specifically, and just think about the morality of it. Most of us wouldn’t – say – torture a kitten. So although it makes sense to a priori exclude animals from having rights, it doesn’t accord with the sort of morals that people actually have.

I tend to agree that there’s not a ‘philosophical underpinning’ to this sort of thing, and I’m not looking for or advocating a grand philosophical theory like Singer’s, but take the comparison between swatting a fly and eating a snail. Many vegetarians would be happy to swat the fly, but not happy to eat the snail. Why? There doesn’t have to be a unified theory of ethics to answer this question, it is possible to at least think about it without one. Some vegetarians may not actually like the taste of meat, but some do and still would swat the fly but not eat the snail.

How do you feel about flies and snails, Ed? How would you feel about eating artificially grown meat?

I have read Candide, but a long time ago. I’d forgotten the Cunegonde story, thanks for reminding me of that! 🙂

Now – I should probably lay my cards on the table and say what I think.

I broadly agree with Ed’s take on the philosophical and legal aspects of it. I do think though, that at some point in humanity’s future we will all choose (but not be forced by law) to stop eating animals for ethical reasons. By that point, we may have the sort of technology I was talking about and so it really won’t make any difference to anyone.

The more general issue is about what and who you care about. As our personal circumstances improve (we’re lifted out of poverty for example), we gain the possibility to be compassionate towards others that we didn’t have before. The prerequisite for socialism is wealth. (Now who said that? I think there’s a famous quote from one of those old Labour dudes, but I guess the underlying idea goes back to Marx and dialectical materialism.) Is the prerequisite for universal vegetarianism then biotechnology?

Comment by thesamovar

>>Many vegetarians would be happy to swat the fly, but not happy to eat the snail. Why?

Auberon Waugh (of all people) said the definitive words on this:
“Who am I to pontificate on what vegetarians should or shouldn’t do?”
Are there any rules? If someone wants to classify chicken as a vegetable, is it anyone’s business but theirs? Typical mathematician, expecting everything to be logical.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Quite so, vegetarians can do as they like as far as I’m concerned. (I am an anarchist after all.) I’m just curious is all…

Comment by thesamovar

Well…in almost any human sphere, people come to their own accommodations. different people are vegetarian for different reasons. Ethics. Health. Over-identification with ickle cute baa lambs. Anorexia. Simply not liking meat.

But this meat substitute…isn’t that what Quorn is? 😉

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Gah! Speak not of Quorn!

My dad tells a story of me when I was little, looking at a plate of roast lamb and saying “Awww, poor little lamb” and then immediately guzzling the lot.

Comment by thesamovar

My favourite one is when people ask vegetarians “Are you allowed to eat…” There’s no rule book that I’m aware of, nor any sanctions. Oh…and then there’s “Vegetarians are allowed to eat fish!” (this after the fish has been turned down).

One time, someone asked me:
“Would you eat a sea sponge?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, sea sponges are half way between plants and animals.”
I thought for a moment.
“No. Would you?!!!”

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

There was some article I saw a while ago claiming that it had been “scientifically deduced” that lobsters don’t feel pain (the argument was that they don’t have the emotional component to pain, or something). There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of claims like this, but just as many I suppose to be skeptical of claims in the other direction. In the end, the issue comes more down to empathy for the lobster than scientifically deducing whether their brain waves are the same as our, et al. Very few people would feel much empathy for an unconscious ‘sack of meat,’ though.

Comment by Brad

OK so here’s a question following on from Brad’s point about empathy:

I’m in favour of introducing reason where possible. It’s not always possible, and IMO attempts to axiomatise everything subtly introduce a form of unreason, but sometimes we can organise our thoughts and better understand what really matters to us (in some sense) by putting things into a theoretical framework.

From this point of view: why do we feel empathy for the snail more than for the fruit fly? (I’m assuming that we do because I suspect there are a lot of vegetarians who wouldn’t eat a snail but would swat a fly, or squash a cockroach.) Is it just because it’s bigger?

Possibly my assumption about fly-swatting vegetarians is false – perhaps it’s something unique about eating rather than killing? If that were the case, we’d expect the fly-swatting vegetarians (if indeed there are any) to be happy stamping on the snail (or perhaps using snail pellets in their garden) but not happy eating one.

Another way of testing this would be whether or not a vegetarian would be happy to eat an animal that had died naturally (in much the same way that a strict Jain would prefer to only eat ripe fruit that has fallen from a tree). Incidentally, I appreciate of course that in practice this wouldn’t happen, and that many (most?) vegetarians actually get sick if they accidentally eat meat. It’s one of those ‘in theory’ questions that maybe don’t mean much.

Also – I’m not saying I’m coherent on this sort of thing either. I tend to save spiders that have got caught in a bathtub or sink, and shoo flies out of a window rather than swat them, but I eat cow and pig and all that.

Comment by thesamovar

Well…there’s little coherence full stop. For a start, I don’t believe that many vegetarians would have a physical reason to be sick after eating meat. For some, shows of disgust at (eg) finding a bit of ham in a bowl of lentil soup are more likely to be attention-getting.

I suggest that it’s largely a cultural thing. Vegetarians, depending on their personal definition, don’t eat meat/ meat including chicken/ meat or fish/ living things; Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork or shellfish; British people, in the main, don’t eat horses, dogs or insects; Chinese people don’t eat dairy products; (Although I heard only last night that they are becoming more acceptable – eg the cheese in Big Macs). Cultures are complex and not entirely rational. What’s rational about taking a dead tree into your house every December?

With that in mind…I suspect (on no empirical basis whatsoever) that many vegetarians would be prepared to eat test-tube meat provided it was marketed properly. But then, the same marketing would be needed for the non-vegetarian public; note the European resistance to GM and the middle-class trend towards organic meat.

I don’t mind swatting beasties…but I do tend to let spiders and bees go free. especially bees. I like bees. “I’ve I’d Known it was harmless, I’d have killed it myself” – PK Dick, A Scanner Darkly.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

(I meant “If I’d…)

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Well, I don’t know about the biology of eating meat if you’ve avoided it for a long time. A veggie friend of mine has said that it’s happened to her when she’s eaten meat without knowing it.

Cultural things can change, as you point out with the example of Chinese people eating dairy (something I didn’t know about). Most Brits don’t eat snails but if they go to a French restaurant and they’re reasonably open minded they will, and if it’s a good restaurant they’ll find that they’re pretty tasty. They still won’t be able to buy them in the supermarket, but then you couldn’t buy aubergines and peppers in supermarkets that long ago. (Indeed, some supermarkets still bunch these exotic and unusual vegetables together in a ‘foreign foods’ section.)

I’m sure you’re right about marketing it though. Possibly, by the time it became technologically possible, knowledge about genetic modification of food would have improved to the point where we could make rational judgements about the safety. At the moment, I think a precautionary principle with respect to GM foods is not unreasonable.

Comment by thesamovar

My girlfriend suggested that if we were trying to market this product, we could perhaps use the slogan “I can’t believe it’s not meat” rather than “meat sacks”. 🙂

Comment by thesamovar

Someone just got to my blog after searching for the phrase: “is it ok to eat rat meat”. In case that person comes back – the rat has 21m neurons, that’s more than frog but less than octopus. You decide!

Comment by thesamovar

“…biology of eating meat…”

It’s a matter of gut flora. With some foodstuffs, notably wheat and milk, humans have evolved since the discovery of agriculture so that production of the appropriate digestive enzymes is selcted for. In fact, that’s the same for all foodstuffs: humans have evolved as carnivores. Although there are cultural/geographic/economic differences in the amount of meat consumed, I can’t think of any identifiably distinct ethnic population which never eats meat, so we can discount the possibility that some people are physiologically incapable of processing it (barring exogenous medical conditions; a friend had to cut out meat after having part of his intestines removed following diverticulitis).

But our digestion is partly aided by gut flora. Different microorganisms thrive on different foostuffs. The proportions found in an individuals gut will depend on the scope of their regular diet. This is the origin of all the jokes about beans making you fart, figs making you shit etc. etc. – some people are unused to vegetable fibres, while regular eaters have no problem whatsoever. Another one is chiilies. Some can’t handle ’em. I can – but it took practice.

Now, imagine if someone were to cut out meat. The balance amongst gut flora would shift in favour of lentils, tofu and quorn. If the individual were then to eat meat, there might be a little difficulty in digesting it smoothly. However since the appropriate flora are all around us (including the stomachs of vegetarians), thew would swiftly recolonise to make use of the change in diet.

So I’m hypothesising (I haven’t done the experiment), that vegetarians reintroducing meat might experience some digestive discomfort akin to that sometimes experienced when eating abroad. It is unlikely to be severe. It doesn’t account for the attention-seeking shows of nausea and vomiting displayed by some vegetarians on encountering a wee piece of bacon in their quiche.

(OK – maybe ‘attention seeking’ is a little unfair. How would I feel if I discovered half a worm in my apple).

(Which reminds me of the time I was on the phone to a client, with a half-eaten nectarine in one hand. A large beetle emered from the stone and started crawling up my arm.)

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Nice post, Ed, very informative! 🙂 Funnily enough, I just read your h2g2 entry on ‘human effluvia’ last night. Entertaining!

Comment by thesamovar

Clarification: Some people do lack the enzymes needed to eat beans (Pythagoras was one) and it gives them lots of problems, including but not only farting. There’s a name for it, but I can’t recall it off hand.

Pythagoras thought it was because beans resemble tiny foetuses.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

[…] meatsacks already being made In a previous entry I posed an ethical question for vegetarians – would it be OK to eat meat if you could grow it […]

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Why do they need to genetically engineer meatsacks?

All they have to do is go to New Jersey.

Comment by wakawaka

Leaving aside any ethical questions, the whole idea of “meat sacks” sounds pretty gross to me!

Comment by Ren

we need animals with out nervous system

Comment by sasidhar

@Stephen May

Plants are organisms, but not animals…that’s a separate kingdom under the category “organism”.

Comment by ask123


Comment by Rus Archer

[…] Meat without the nervous system […]

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