Unnatural Selection, Test-tube Meat, and Human Hubris

Finding Precedent and Providence for the ‘Brave New World’ of Animal Biotechnology

With lab-grown meat and related normative nature/culture breaches increasingly in the news, I’ve been re-engaging with my now seven-year-old analysis of what’s at stake in an animal biotechnological revolution.

What follows is my 2009 senior thesis, produced in pursuit of a degree in (Anthropology) Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. Eternal thanks to Dr. Severin Fowles for his enthusiastic support and intellectual guidance on this work. Major nods to Bruno Latour, Juan Enriquez, Donna Haraway, William Gibson, Paola Antonelli, and untold numbers of dedicated paleontologists of the past, present, and future.


“Up till recent times the production of food has been the prime struggle of man. That war is won. There is no doubt that the civilized races can produce or procure all the food they require…[fifty years hence,] we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”–Winston Churchill

In the 77 years since Winston Churchill levied the above prediction, the world has been reinvented time and time again. Scientific and social revolutions have abounded, always linked but categorically separate. The invention of the computer was a triumph of science, as was the subsequent introduction of the Internet. Of course, both of these fundamentally altered the way institutions are organized, the way knowledge is disseminated, and thus the way that power operates. These ‘revolutions,’ whether ‘scientific’ or ‘cultural,’ are usually driven by technological innovation. And they seem to be occurring more and more frequently, particularly relative to the millennia of human history typically broken up through archaeological discovery into several revolutionary periods as opposed to the dozens experienced just in the past few decades.

The ‘digital revolution,’ as it has come to be known, also planted the promise of artificial intelligence into the collective unconscious, and the prophets of the late 20th century were consumed by the potential transition from machine to man. Interestingly, while the revolutionary apparatus was busy elsewhere, fascinated and fearful of cyborgs, a new scientific revolution was brewing — one that promised new hybrid forms and a new set of fears for a new century.

The telescoping nature of (r)evolution has led some to speculate that we are headed for the ‘singularity,’ an asymptotic zone representing an unimaginably fast rate of change. WJT Mitchell (2005) has suggested that we are in need of a “paleontology of the present” to navigate a global time and space in which, just as we discover more and more about the basic codes of our existence, basic definitions of ‘human’ and ‘humanity’ are thrown into flux (324). Where the digital revolution forced us to reckon with what makes human intelligence unique from computers, an emerging revolution is orchestrating an arguably more massive confrontation for human exceptionalism: what makes humans unique from nonhuman animals? (For brevity’s sake, “animal” will subsequently be used to mean “nonhuman animal.)

The question has been raised before. Research on primates, elephants, and other species have systematically defeated many of the arguments typically leveraged in support of human uniqueness. Only tiny segments of our genetic code differ from chimps, mice, and cows. Elephants can count, paint, and recognize their friends. Dogs have a sense of fairness.

And yet, the biggest challenges to this fundamental human/animal dichotomy are just emerging. The science of genetics and the industry of biotechnology have spawned a revolution that promises to be in some ways bigger than the digital. The rapidly advancing science of biotechnology will impact the way we reproduce, administer medical care, consume resources, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we conceptualize ourselves (society) and the world around us (nature). In this paper, I will not attempt to predict the future or even to suggest a way forward, as this would be premature. I intend to be not prescriptive but diagnostic. As nascent scientific discoveries split off and speed ahead, I will attempt to understand what is at stake in this new revolutionary moment.

Though we are a notoriously shortsighted species, we can certainly learn lessons from the contemporary Internet revolution, which saw a new technology almost universally adopted before its implications were fully understood. The frightening ‘worldwide web’ mosaic we see today is a piecemeal, haphazardly constructed house of cards on which our economy, governments, and institutions now rely. The Internet is unsecure, unstable, and frankly completely outside the realm of human control. It has taken on a life of its own, and ultimately, whatever will be will be. Acknowledging the uncontrollability of nascent technologies is an important exercise in humility, however this does not mean that we should not stop to ask what exactly we are dealing with as we move forward, unable to slow down but hoping to catch a glimpse of the forest through the trees.

Why are our present reality and the path directly ahead so hard to make out? For one thing, in spite of the ubiquity of human rights discourses, our ‘modern’ forms of sociopolitical organization have arguably failed to improve quality of life beyond the conditions of colonialism or even feudalism. Neoliberal capitalism, democracy, and the fundamental concept of freedom have all been effectively critiqued. Foucault’s (2003) biopolitics have arguably transformed into molecular politics, as biotechnology expands our ability to biologically intervene at the molecular level to rehabilitate individuals who would have once been marginalized as pathological (Rose 2001), reinventing norms and making bodies and cells sites for state power.

I will argue, however, that what most fundamentally obscures our view of the present are the sibling crises of breakdown and novelty that biotechnology has birthed. Moments of novelty abound; the pace of discovery and invention is rapid and gaining speed. What is important about this novelty is the threat it poses to our classificatory system. As we tighten our grasp on the most basic technologies of life, we concomitantly create new organic forms, challenging fundamental dichotomies of life and death, animal and machine, and nature and culture.

The creation of hybrid forms blurs boundaries still basic to our understanding of how the world works, creating the kind of crisis of novelty that Latour (2005a) has suggested leads to a “reassembling of the social.” According to Latour, also capable of forcing fundamental reconceptualizations are moments of breakdown, in which regardless of emerging challenges of novelty, a promised technology backfires or a system begins to disintegrate. When this happens, collective energies rush to the site of breakdown, spawning movements and outpourings of energy. The ‘Green’ movement (also often called a revolution, though it could more accurately be described as a desperate attempt at salvage) is borne out of a crisis site of ecological breakdown, which as we will see is intimately connected to biotechnology and to the underpinnings of ‘society’s’ relationship with ‘nature.’

Today, more than 6.5 billion humans roam the earth. By 2050, this number is predicted to reach 9 billion. When Thomas Malthus (1798) worried over our relationship to resources and predicted the inevitability of a future in which the human population exceeded the earth’s capacity to support it, it is unlikely he expected our ‘carrying capacity’ to become quite so large. Of course, we have managed to expand our numbers largely through technological advancements, beginning 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution and continuing through the Industrial Revolution, which sped up the process significantly. Though Malthus likely would have underestimated our ability to delay the inevitable, there are signs that our ballooning numbers are starting to seriously strain our resources. Only 1% of the water on earth is involved in the fresh water cycle; despite the vast oceans covering two-thirds of our planet, only a tiny fraction is available for human use. 70% of that water is involved in agricultural use (UNESCO 2003). Every pound of beef requires 8,000 liters of water and 16 pounds of grain to produce, and humans consume 120 billion pounds of meat each year (Macintyre 2007; Midgley 2008).

Of course, with these demands on our limited resources, not everyone is getting fresh water or meat. In fact, over one billion people lack access to fresh water and although meat consumption in developing countries has doubled in the last century, millions are starving. To make matters worse, agriculture contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and with temperatures on the rise we cannot afford to expand the livestock industry (Lamb 2008). These dismal facts point to a looming ecological and agricultural crisis, but they also present a choice: we can suffer the impending consequences of poor planning and inefficient resource management, or we can adapt. And as necessity is the mother of invention, it is likely we will once more seek a way to alter our course.

Impending ecological breakdown, particularly in terms of climate change, has received significant scientific and public attention in the last five years. The related agricultural crisis, however, while having been expected for much longer, is typically a site of hopelessness and denial, due at least in part to the global imbalance of power in which those with influence and the resources to enact change are well-fed while millions of powerless starve. Due to this regrettable inequity, the global “we” in this paper will really only refer to what has awkwardly been termed the ‘Western world.’ Though biotechnology certainly has global implications, it has importantly arisen in a particular historical and geographic context.

Interestingly, this is the same context in which biopolitics arose, which Hannah Arendt (1958) linked to the intersection of the fundamental Christian belief in the sacredness of human life and emerging life sciences, including genetics. And though “we” will refer to a cultural location steeped in biopower and indoctrinated by molecular politics, the bigger picture is the suite of impending consequences for the whole planet. Ecological and agricultural breakdown, already intimately connected by cause, will soon be analogous in effect as well. The consequences of human behavior on animals and their habitats can no longer be ignored or denied by anyone, as Californians impose water rationing and China recalls hundreds of tons of beef illegally containing Clenbuterol, an asthma medication potentially harmful to human health but capable of increasing muscle density in cows. Our long-recognized resource misuse is not being mitigated by extant technologies, regulations, norms, and, as we will see, underlying dichotomies.

What if there was a way to feed beef to everyone in the world without slaughtering a single cow? What if we no longer faced severe shortages of salmon because they grew twice as fast; if pork was rich with Omega-3 fatty acids and free of saturated fat; if goat’s milk helped children ward off illnesses? It sounds almost utopian. And this is all possible — even likely — but it comes with a warning: it will be more sci-fi than Shangri La. What if we could do all these things — by growing and stretching sheets of meat in a machine; by mixing the genes of pigs and parasites; by mass producing clones and eating their offspring? The future may be closer than we think, and the prospects are at once fascinating and nauseating. Animal biotechnology holds promise for delivering a much-needed agricultural revolution, situated in a larger ‘biocybernetic revolution’ (Mitchell 2005).

In order to begin elaborating a paleontology of the present, I will focus in on animal biotechnology and attempt to excavate the current ‘brave new world’ landscape, looking for fossils and links to the past along the way. Ultimately, my inquiry will be situated within the complex and increasingly significant challenges to the grand narrative nature/culture dichotomy and the human/nonhuman, living/machine, subject/object binaries that follow, highlighted by Latour (2005b) as the “Great Divides.” According to Latour (1993), the emergence of ‘modern’ science, with its reliance on fact and purification, brought with it a fundamental separation between nature and society, which is not only a fictional construct but also hugely problematic in the face of contemporary environmental and (more generally) scientific problems.

Anthropological theory, for its part, has largely accepted nature/culture as a fallacy, and so called ‘naturecultures’ have become sites for a new kind of analysis. To ask what is at stake in the biocybernetic revolution is to consider which fundamentals of our (constructed) world are being challenged by novelty — which of our institutions and ideals are deteriorating around us? And, just as important, what is the nature of this novelty? Using the focused lens of animal biotechnology as a natureculture contact zone, we will consider what is being created and what it might look like, and in the process we will question what it means to be human. To ask and answer these questions, we will look to science fiction — long at the frontier of the future — to art, to contemporary theory, to the ethical debates borne out in mass media and academia, and to biotechnological science itself.

The first part of this paper will examine three up-and-coming animal biotechnologies, namely cloning, genetic modification of animals, and in vitro meat production. The past few decades have seen us sequence the genome of our species and many others, master the technology of cloning, and gain the ability to alter the very DNA of organisms. Rousseau’s (1754) ideas on human perfectibility have never been so apparent as they are today, as we manipulate molecules to achieve desired results. In particular, cloning and genetic modification of organisms give us pause, as we have now effectively eliminated the need for mating and seized the reins of reproduction and genetic recombination. Most recently, scientists have theorized and developed methods to grow meat in a lab, eliminating not only the need for mating, but for sentient livestock altogether. From an anthropological standpoint, the question of why such technologies and their methods fascinate and repel us is just as compelling as the technologies themselves. We will be forced to confront a basic problem: What is ‘natural’? If everything in human history has led us here, can we characterize any of what is as unnatural? As we navigate the animal biotechnological landscape, we will encounter several problematic categories, binaries, and hybrid forms. By considering biotechnology as a natureculture contact zone and culling theory from anthropology, philosophy, and bioethics, we will consider what is at stake.

Scientific research and technological adaptation often move more quickly than changes in public opinion, and all three technologies examined here have inspired vigorous debate in both scientific and social arenas. These debates are often moralistic and framed in black and white, as can be expected when dealing with a point in time that can only be described as a revolutionary moment. Genetic modification, in particular, has been the site of much debate in the past decade, and for lack of a better precedent, has often been couched in the paradigm of corporate interest (i.e. Monsanto) vs. public good. It will be instructive to examine why these technologies inspire such a strong negative public reaction, as they not only offer the prospect of alleviating animal suffering, but human suffering as well.

The idea of eating meat grown in a petri dish inspires a range of reactions that flips the vegetarian/carnivore status quo on its head. In the second part of this paper I will consider reactions to these technologies and the scientific and cultural concerns they have inspired (and why these are distinct). At first glance, animal biotechnology seems unprecedented. Its treatment by the media as well as the scientific community has been largely reflexive; proponents of genetic modification claim we need this technology to feed a growing population, while its opponents warn of the dangers of ‘playing God.’ Moral questions aside, we are tampering heavily with our relationship to animals and, more deeply, with our relationship to resources in general, fundamentally and directly challenging the binary between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ nature and society.

Bruno Latour (1993; 1999; 2005a; 2005b), Sarah Franklin (2003a; 2003b; 2004), and Donna Haraway (1992; 2008) will all be instrumental in interrogating the legitimacy of the well-established dichotomy between nature and society through the lens of biotechnology naturecultures, and as Latour instructs us to abandon this binary paradigm altogether as we are forced to reassemble the social, we will begin to see the opportunities not to predict but to plan the future.


“‘And this,’ said the Director opening the door, ‘is the Fertilizing Room…These,’ he waved his hand, ‘are the incubators.’ And opening an insulated door he showed them racks upon racks of numbered test-tubes…‘Bokanovsky’s Process,’ repeated the Director, and the students underlined the words in their little notebooks. One egg, one embryo, one adult-normality. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress.” — Aldhous Huxley, in Brave New World (1932:3–5).

Cloning

In 1977, when John Gurdon cloned 30 albino frogs by nuclear transfer from one embryo, animal cloning shot from the realm of science fiction to reality. With this event, we stepped over a threshold into what WJT Mitchell (2005) has termed the ‘age of biocybernetic reproduction.’ Computer technology partnered with biological science to embark on a journey that had scarcely yet been imagined. However, it was 20 years more before Dolly, the Scottish clone of an adult sheep, was born (McLaren 2000). In the eyes of the public, the successful cloning of Dolly was a first step toward immortality. Suddenly, human cloning — or at least cloning of beloved pets — was a real possibility.

The Missyplicity Project at Texas A&M in 1998 set out to clone Missy, the beloved mutt of a wealthy donor. The dog died before efforts were successful (Haraway 2008). Dolly, for her part, became something of a celebrity (Franklin 2001). Cloning promised to rewrite genealogy and revolutionize animal husbandry. However, it also inspired a massive controversy and forced us to come face to face with how far we have come in terms of exerting control over animals.

Cloning may be responsible for the beginning of a revolution in self-conception, which Cary Wolfe (2003) has called “thoroughly posthuman if not quite posthumanist” (6). Humanism, after all, is predicated on what Donna Haraway (2008) has called “the fantasy of human exceptionalism” (11). This phenomenon may also have roots in Christianity (or perhaps the Bible is simply evidence of a more ancient and fundamental premise); that which is human is fallen from Eden, and thus separate from nature.

‘Modern’ science, just as it reifies and replicates the Great Divides, has largely exposed the underlying fallacy of human exceptionalism. On a biological level, we now understand many limits on our autonomy; only 10% of cells in the human body carry the human genome. The other 90% encode instructions for replicating bacteria, fungi, and other organisms now recognized as vital to our survival. On a psychological level, behavioral research on animals has forced us to confront the commonality of reason, tool use, language, a sense of justice, and adaptive capacity.

On a philosophical level, as the subject/object binary is increasingly called into question (Latour 1993), Hegel’s (1979) assertion that only humans can become subjects is challenged at its very core. Furthermore, as Hegel’s human becomes subject through a constant confrontation with death, in which he/she loses the animal element of his/her being by reducing nature to his/her own needs, the aforementioned behavioral science forces us to reckon with animals-as-subjects by Hegel’s definition. Though our classic concepts of what it means to be human have been undermined, the fantasy of human exceptionalism lives on as a fundamental tenet of humanism and ‘modern’ science, neither of which has been reassembled though we are watching them both slowly disintegrate before us.

Interestingly, we may, in fact, be forced to move past our fundamental conception of animals as others as we not only recognize that they are less different from us than we ever thought, but also as we begin to afford them rights even as we exert more control over their destinies. The potential cloning of humans has always hung like a shadow over animal cloning, which has forced bioethicists to consider new questions under discourses of inherent rights in terms of animals in order to set a precedent for the assumed inevitability of human cloning.

According to WJT Mitchell (2005), “the clone signifies the potential for the creation of…new images that fulfill the ancient dream of creating a ‘living image,’ a replica or copy that is not merely a mechanical duplicate but an organic, biologically viable simulacrum of a living organism” (13). What seems to fundamentally separate a clone from any other animal is the knowledge that it is almost wholly manmade, and further, the uncanny sense that we have breathed life into a photograph. Another binary is challenged here and we will return to it later: the dichotomy between that which is alive and that which is machine.

For thousands of years, selective breeding has been employed to maximize themost favorable traits in livestock (and in humans as well), but it has always been a game of chance. Though cloning promises an exact genetic replica of the original organism, it too can be a gamble. Though thousands of cloned animals are alive today, the success rate of cloning is relatively low. Dolly was the sole lamb to be born from 277 nuclei transfers. Of embryos placed in surrogate mothers, many die in utero (McLaren 2000). Large Offspring Syndrome, in which the fetus develops too quickly in the surrogate womb, is common in clone embryo development. Clones also often die at birth, for reasons not completely understood (Paynter 2007).

The persistently variable success rate of cloning means that the cloning of humans is still confined to science fiction, however livestock cloning is common enough that the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stepped in to regulate the production and sale of clone by-products. Since clones are expensive (it costs about $17,000 to clone a cow), they are usually used for breeding rather than slaughter.

In January 2008, the FDA released its long-awaited decision on the safety of meat and milk from the offspring of clones. Prior to releasing their decision, the department received more than 145,000 letters from the public in opposition to the approval of clone progeny byproducts (Paynter 2007). Those who understood how cloning works and how often it, in fact, does not work were concerned over genetic defects incurred during the cloning process (Ho 2003). Many clone opponents base their complaints on moralistic arguments regarding whether imperfect cloning techniques constitute cruelty to animals, and more fundamentally whether cloning is an appropriate technology to even attempt. These latter complaints, however, are not within the purview of the FDA. Ultimately, the federal agency agreed with proponents of cloning, who had produced evidence that meat and milk from the offspring of clones is safe for human consumption. Those clones that survive to reproductive age are generally free from the common defects found in clones that die young. The FDA’s endorsement, along with their decision not to require products associated with clones to be labeled as such, comes as a suggestion to US lawmakers, who will have to grapple with a potential backlash from trade partners and constituents (Lopes 2008).

As is often the case with new technologies, regulation comes slower than proliferation. Like it or not, clones are already out to pasture, making our milk and birthing future steaks and baby-back ribs. When cloning technology first became available to middle-American farmers, many who could afford it were eager to make genetic copies of their best livestock. And though a moratorium on the sale of cloned beef and by-products has been in effect, such a regulation is difficult to enforce. On a small-scale, many farmers have been quietly selling cloned by-products, though they risk getting blacklisted by business associates in the supply chain if they are discovered (Weiss 2006). FDA approval should come as a relief to these farmers, however after waiting seven years for this approval, they must now face the tide of negative public opinion that has built up in the interim.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is one of the loudest supporters of cloned meat, who see cloning as a sort of eugenics for livestock. Barbara Glenn, chief of animal biotechnology for BIO, says, “We think of this as advancing the healthiest animals, and healthy animals make healthy food” (Weiss 2006: A09).

The echoes of eugenics audible in livestock cloning discourses get louder when it comes to cloning companion animals. One of the founders of the Missyplicity Project, Lou Hawthorne, founded Genetic Savings and Clone, Inc. as a sort of bank for the tissue samples of beloved pets in preparation for the day when cloning technology is perfected and more affordable. According to Hawthorne, whose company shuttered in 2006, “Cloning companion animals is where evolution meets the free market; those who can afford it will save what they like and leave the rest to burn” (quoted in Haraway 2008: 133).

This neoliberal-critique-couched-in-a-business-plan is strikingly blasé about the long-term preservation of genetic diversity, especially for someone whose business was born out of a project intent on celebrating the mutt. Hawthorne continued, “great companion animals are like works of art…Once we’ve identified these masterpieces, then arguably it’s not just reasonable but imperative that we capture their unique genetic endowments before they’re gone — just as we would rescue great works of art from a burning museum” (156). This harkens to the oft-hailed possibility of in fact preserving genetic diversity through cloning.

Endangered species have long been the rhetorical gold standard for the value of cloning. Following this line of reason, as long as there is DNA and a suitable surrogate womb available, it will not matter if humans alter species’ abilities to mate by encroaching on their habitats. What is not clear is where to re-hang the paintings when the entire planet is the burning museum.
If cloning technology is perfected, will there still be grounds for moral objection? — A common claim centers on the immorality of creating life while knowing that will most likely quickly die, but even if it will almost surely live, there is still something vaguely troublesome about clone technology. Logically speaking, no animal or human asks to be born, nor selects their genetic material, so it seems that forcing these does not rob the organism of any autonomous claim, though this argument has been advanced (Sandel 2007).

There is also a common objection to the treatment of livestock as pure commodity rather than organisms with dignity. Says Michael Appleby of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, “These are animals. They’re not just economic units…they’re not just machines” (Weiss 2006: A09). Of course, treating animals as machines is part and parcel of the agribusiness industry. To object to this is to object to much more than cloning, and this will be an important consideration in interrogating genetic modification and in vitro meat technology.


“Veridian Dynamics: We’re the future of food. Developing the next generation of food and food-like products. Tomatoes the size of this baby. Lemon-flavored fish. Chickens that lay 16 eggs a day, which is a lot for a chicken. Organic vegetables — chock-full of antidepressants. At Veridian Dynamics, we can even make radishes so spicy that people can’t eat them. But we’re not, because people can’t eat them. Veridian Dynamics: Food. Yum.” –Opening of Better off Ted, ABC sitcom (premiered 18 March 2009)

Genetically Modified Animals

In 1997, a conference in Tahoe on Transgenic Animals in Agriculture espoused a viewpoint that would come to be seen as typical of agribusiness. Animals, conference participants argued, should be considered “bioreactors” to be manipulated without moral limit (Haraway 2008: 155). Publicized attitudes like this one, announced with seemingly little concern over how they would be received, touched off a debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that, according to the Economist (2008), directly paralleled the debate over cloning.

Genetically modified foods have DNA that has been altered in some way. This often includes the introduction of foreign genes from other organisms or other species (transgenic). In the early 1990s, California agribusiness Calgene developed a rot-resistant tomato they termed the ‘Flavr Savr,’ which was well received by the American public. In the UK, however, Dr. Árpád Pusztai released a cautionary report that rats exposed to genetically modified crops had suffered a host of problems, including precancerous cell growth and inhibited brain development (Ewen 1999). Outbreaks of mad cow disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Europe inspired more distrust in industrial farming practices (Gaskell 1999).

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, US company Monsanto had developed soybeans resistant to pesticides (allowing more pesticides to be sprayed) and was engaged in an intensive marketing campaign in support of genetically modified crops. This resulted in a large disconnect between Europe and the US in terms of the reception GM foods, which persists today. Though safety agencies in both the US and Europe ultimately attested to the safety of GMOs, the European Parliament halted their advance while they continued to flourish in the US and in countries like India and Brazil (Gaskell 1999).

India and Brazil, while major world economies, are also both countries in which millions live in poverty. The implications for GM foods in developing countries have not been fully explored, however when viewed from this perspective, the natureculture contact zone of animal biotechnology is immediately implicated. The ideology of mechanizing and altering animals is a nature-science issue, while food distribution and equity are cultural-political issues. When situating this highly controversial scientific technique in a socially contentious zone, a division between science and politics no longer makes sense. Is there room for debate where people are starving?

While GM crops are accepted — often by necessity — in most parts of the world (Europe excluded), the genetic modification of livestock animals is not as well established. Bioengineers have created pigs with less polluting manure, salmon that grow to market weight twice as fast as normal salmon, goats whose milk may help children resist disease, and cows who resist prion diseases such as BSE (Pollack 2007; Richt 2006). Such transgenic livestock have been engineered to promote health and environmental sustainability and seem likely to gain FDA approval, but like clones, they still face the court of public opinion. Critics worry about the introduction of new proteins that could cause allergic reactions, and about potential effects on biodiversity. If extra large salmon were to be introduced into the wild, they could outcompete other salmon.

The most common criticism, however, seems to revolve around the subversion of nature inherent in genetic modification. Consumers can tolerate rice implanted with genes from daffodils — this seems innocuous enough. However, introducing tubeworm genes into pigs seems like a different animal (Pollack 2007). With the vast numbers of consumers obsessed with ‘organic’ produce and ‘all-natural’ foods, it seems unlikely that transgenic livestock will become commonplace in the grocery store any time soon. Like cloning, genetic modification technology has implications far beyond creating fatter fish.

The OncoMouse, a hairless lab mouse with a human ear growing on its back under the skin, helped to set off massive debates over GMOs in the late 1990s, though no alteration of DNA was involved (ear cartilage was grown on a scaffold under the skin). Regardless, its intentional proliferation as an image of genetic engineering raised further questions on the integrity of humanness, obscuring the scientific triumph of growing a human ear on a scaffold. The OncoMouse became the poster child for the genetic engineering debate, setting off concerns that genetic human-nonhuman hybrids would “introduce inexorable moral confusion in our existing relationships with nonhuman animals and in our future relationships with part-human hybrids and chimeras” (Franklin 2003b: 25).

Here the crisis of novelty surfaces clearly — this introduction of “moral confusion” is predicated on a preexisting clear distinction between humans and nonhuman animals, or at least on a perception of stability in our relationship with them. Eventually, the technology to mix human and animal genes was developed, and interested parties have waited with a mixture of fear and fascination for new monsters to emerge (Franklin 2003b). In the meantime, scientists are hard at work creating transgenic fluorescent puppies that glow under ultraviolet light (Kim 2009).

Expensive and seemingly pointless experiments such as this one speak to the important fact that while genetic modification of animals carries promises of a healthier future, it is also inherently an exercise in power and perfection. According to Harvard philosophy Professor Michael Sandel, what is troubling about genetic technologies is the embedded notion of perfectibility — the arrogant idea that we can create something better than what was there before (Sandel 2007).

Of course, we have been attempting perfection for thousands of years through selective breeding practices, and we are only now becoming aware of the unintended consequences of our actions (Aldhous 2007). However, regardless of unintended consequences, there may be something fundamentally troubling about that which we do intend to do. In the context of genetic engineering, perfectibility starts to look like the manufacture of machine rather than the manipulation of life. As Sandel (2007) puts it, “The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery” (2).


“‘Jesus,’ Molly said, her own plate empty, ‘gimme that. You know what this costs?’ She took his plate. ‘They gotta raise a whole animal for years and then they kill it. This isn’t vat stuff.’ She forked a mouthful up and chewed.” –William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984: 133)

In Vitro Meat

When Winston Churchill (1932) envisioned a future in which we would “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” he had probably been inspired by Dr. Alexis Carrel, who successfully grew tissue from a chicken heart in a laboratory beginning in 1912. The Nobel Prize winner was able to stimulate growth and rhythmic pulsing in cells that had been outside of the organism for more than three months (Carrel 1912). In fact, a few of his cultures were so viable that they supposedly outlived him, growing for some 36 years. This has since been proven erroneous by Leonard Hayflick, who proposed the now accepted ‘Hayflick limit,’ which demonstrates that cells undergo a fixed number of divisions in vitro (Hayflick 1979). This makes in vitro tissue engineering more difficult, but certainly not impossible. Churchill predicted that the technology would be mastered by the 1980s, and though he was a few decades off, the fulfillment of this prophecy is close at hand.

As concerns over meat-borne illnesses, expanding population numbers, resource use and pollution, and animal welfare grow, scientific calls for novel methods of resource production are also mounting. Unless things become apocalyptic, humans seem unlikely to give up their meat habit willingly (currently, only about 3% of Americans are vegetarians). Scientists are already able to cultivate bladders and skin grafts from donor cells in vitro (Shute 2008), so why not meat? For one thing, the meat we eat is largely skeletal muscle. Naturally, it is attached to the bone and grows from being flexed. The process of creating in vitro meat (also called cultured meat and lab or vat grown meat) consists of the isolation of a myoblast (muscle stem cell) from an embryo, biopsy, or recently killed animal. The myoblast is bathed in a nutritional broth (Churchill’s “suitable medium”) of glucose, amino acids, minerals, and growth factors from animal or fungal sources. This is then poured onto a scaffold and placed in a bioreactor, where it is manipulated by electrical impulses to simulate flexing (Macintyre 2007).

This scaffolding technique produces a thin sheet of meat, which can then be rolled into something thicker or ground into mincemeat for use in sausages, sauces, and other products (McClinton 2008). Ground meat constitutes about half of all meat consumption — a $127 billion market (Sandhana 2006). Growing something like a steak is more challenging, since in a 3-D structure the inner cells will be cut off from nutrients, which limits substantial growth. This is, of course, unless scientists can figure out a way to grow vascular cells along with skeletal muscle tissue (Edelman et al 2005).

Though researchers have had some success with both methods, the technology is still cost-prohibitive and waiting on the results of some important research. They must perfect the growth medium; typically fetal bovine serum (fetal calf blood) is used, which is both expensive ($500 for 500mL) and at odds with many of the research goals (Pincock 2007). Benjaminson et al (2002) had some success growing tissue in a serumfree medium made from maitake mushroom extract, but this will need to be synthesized and mass produced, which is also expensive (Shute 2008). The bioreactors also need to be perfected and preferably made less costly; most of the ones in use are on loan from NASA (Edelman et al 2005).

In spite of these challenges, however, the potential benefits from the large-scale production of in vitro meat are undeniable. Cultured meat would be cruelty-free, waste-free, disease-free, energy efficient meat. One is hard-pressed to find any potential downside to the prospect of in vitro meat. Except for one thing: it’s positively stomach turning. The visual imagery of a sheet of flabby meat cells being shocked into firmness by electrical probes does not exactly make most people hungry. There seems to be no way to put an appetizing spin on cultured meat; unfortunately, this technology speaks to the heart and brain but not to the stomach. Though admittedly a by-product of myriad social constructions and ingrained hang-ups, there is nonetheless something absolutely uncanny about lab-grown meat, and many people would find the idea of eating it unsettling.

And while the prospect of chowing down on cultured meat could turn a carnivore into a vegetarian, it could paradoxically also do just the opposite. Jason Matheny, one of the leading proponents of cultured meat, doesn’t currently eat meat, but says he would if it did not involve the slaughter of livestock. As a public health worker, he has seen the inside of livestock farms and slaughterhouses, and deemed them much less appetizing than the lab (Pincock 2007). However, most of us are much further removed from the origins of the food we eat.

Many of us love our pets, oppose animal cruelty, and yet casually eat meat from slaughtered livestock on a daily basis. We act blissfully unaware of how our meat gets to the plate. In fact, we actively cultivate this ignorance. When, as a child, I grew disgusted at the prospect of dinner upon seeing the blood pooled at the bottom of the grocery-store meat packaging, my mother assured me it was “juice, not blood.” The sterilized, detached way in which meat is presented to consumers in stores and advertisements does not trigger cognitive dissonance even for those of us opposed to cruelty to animals (Hopkins & Dacey 2008).

Not only are most of us able to disregard the life and death of the animal whose flesh we consume, but we also conveniently ignore some ‘icky’ facts about other food we eat. Most of us do not internalize the fact that yeast is alive, that some cheese is mold, that yogurt contains living organisms, or that eggs are the by-product of fowl menstruation. Perhaps we would be happy enough eating in vitro meat if we did not know it came from a lab rather than from our vague pastoral image of where meat is ‘supposed’ to come from. In a country where one million chickens are consumed every hour, consumers can no longer afford such alienation from the means of meat production (Midgley 2008).

According to Matheny’s non-profit research group New Harvest, cultured meat is less unnatural than raising farm animals in intensive confinement systems, injecting them with synthetic hormones, and feeding them antibiotics and animal wastes (Kruglinski & Wright 2008). Soaring sales of ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ meat (Midgley 2008) seem to point to some increased understanding of this reality, but this does not resolve what has been termed the ‘yuck factor’ — carnivores seem to have an instinctive reaction when faced with cultured meat, and that instinct is to turn around and head the other way.

One of the only people to have tasted cultured meat is Oron Catts, who directs SymbioticA, an art and science collaborative research center at the University of Western Australia (Catts & Zurr 2002). Catts and collaborator Ionat Zurr grew frog steaks in vitro for an installation and performance in Nantes, France in 2003 called Disembodied Cuisine. The artists used in vitro meat techniques to grow two quarter-size disks of skeletal muscle tissue on a polymer scaffold, then sautéed the steaks in a honey-garlic sauce and served dinner for eight (Kruglinski & Wright 2008). Unfortunately, the experimental cultured frog meat was not haute cuisine. The scaffold didn’t degrade enough and the unexercised muscle had a texture reminiscent of snot. Catts recalls, “It was fabric with jelly…four people spit out the bits.”

That was five years ago, and Catts hasn’t eaten meat since (Shute 2008). Matheny and Catts are not the only vegetarians willing to try in vitro meat. PETA, perhaps the most well-known animal rights advocacy group, recently announced that they will award $1 million to the first person to develop and sell lab grown chicken meat by 30 June 2012. The meat must be indistinguishable from real chicken flesh and must be sold in at least ten states at a competitive price (Lamb 2008).

Willem van Eelen is also anxiously awaiting the perfection of this technology. Now 85 years old, he began working on skeletal tissue engineering at age 50 and holds one of the earliest patents for the methods needed to grow myoblasts (Heselmans 2005). However, not all vegetarians are eager to sit down to a vat-grown hamburger. Ingrid Newkirk, a founder of PETA said the decision to sponsor such a prize caused a “near civil war” in the PETA offices, since so many of their members are repulsed by the thought of eating animal tissue even if there is no slaughter involved (Schwartz 2008a).

There are those of us who are counter-intuitively repulsed by eating animal tissue especially if it has not been slaughtered — namely in vitro meat. This repulsion warrants further exploration, since our alienation from the mode of meat production helps to explain why we are not repulsed by traditionally slaughtered meat but does not shed light on why lab-grown meat in particular strikes us as uncanny and utterly unnatural. But why should the authenticity of the meat matter? I believe we have fetishized ‘the natural’ in our culture, to the point that something wholly unnatural is almost profane. Of course, one could argue that a twinkie is more unnatural than lab-grown meat, but a twinkie is a twinkie — it is not masquerading as honeycomb. In vitro meat, especially if the FDA continues its set precedent of not requiring labeling of biotechnologically-altered food, threatens to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing, or perhaps more appropriately a steak in cow’s clothing. In spite of all the potential advantages of in vitro meat, it rubs us the wrong way.

The common aversion to lab-grown meat, however, may run deeper than our cultural fetishization of the natural — so deep, in fact, that it may be coded in our DNA. A taste for meat would surely have been an evolutionary boon for our early ancestors, and selection would clearly have favored those with a penchant for hunting. From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, therefore, it makes sense that we derive some primordial sense of satisfaction from the knowledge that our meat comes from the slaughter of an animal. Of course, on another level most of us also know that there is no ‘thrill of the hunt’ associated with our hamburger, nor was the cow likely afforded much respect in life or in death. We are able to file all of this knowledge away deep enough to wholly enjoy the burger, though we are likely satisfied on an instinctual level and yet repulsed on a subconscious level. Intimately connected to the value we place on ‘natural’ is the dichotomy between life and mechanical process, a boundary we have noticed blurring elsewhere in this paper.

According to WJT Mitchell (2005), “the old opposition between the mechanical and the organic makes no sense” (172). In an example of what Haraway calls the ‘materialsemiotic,’ in cultured meat technology, bioreactors literally stand-in for animals — trope and flesh cohabiting and co-constituting a new organic-technologic hybrid. Further, by producing animal flesh without a sentient being complicates the very nature of life and death. These challenges to fundamental binaries of our worldview certainly help to explain why in vitro meat is uncanny, but it also cuts to the core of resistance to the biocybernetic revolution.

When asked about the benefits of in vitro meat technology, Jason Matheny’s response to Beef Magazine was telling: “Control is the main advantage. While we’ve gotten pretty good at controlling marbling in live animals, it could be done much more accurately in vitro. We could precisely control how much fat there is, its location, even the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids” (McClinton 2008). We must then return to Sandel’s objection to biotechnologies, to the tragic triumph of “willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding” (Sandel 2007: 85). Hopkins and Dacey (2008) have an entirely logical response: “If we are reasonably confident that we can successfully exercise control over some portion of nature, and we recognize compelling moral and prudential reasons for doing so, then to refrain from doing so out of humility would be more self-indulgent than humble, more complacent than courageous” (595).


“…While the brute, which has acquired nothing and has therefore nothing to lose, still retains the force of instinct, man, who loses, by age or accident, all that his perfectibility had enabled him to gain, falls by this means lower than the brutes themselves. It would be melancholy, were we forced to admit that this distinctive and almost unlimited faculty is the source of all human misfortunes; that it is this which, in time, draws man out of his original state, in which he would have spent his days insensibly in peace and innocence; that it is this faculty, which, successively producing in different ages his discoveries and his errors, his vices and his virtues, makes him at length a tyrant both over himself and over nature.” –Jean Jacques Rousseau, in A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind (1754: 60)

Concerns over Animal Biotechnology

Rousseau’s famous romanticization of the ‘noble savage’ is subject to debate,
however his ideas on man’s perfectibility remain nevertheless profound to this day. The idea that our inventions and adaptations enslave us rather than save us becomes more profound as we face an uncertain future and promises of ecological breakdown. Though there are many reasons to develop and implement technologies like in vitro meat, one cannot help but wonder whether this further measure of control and perfectibility merely increases the magnitude of unavoidable future consequences of our denial of the planet’s carrying capacity.

Proceeding without understanding what is at stake harkens to Sarah Franklin’s (2004) ‘designer ethics,’ in which technologies are able to bypass cultural struggle by appearing ‘just in time,’ which may turn out to be the case with in vitro meat technology (it has yet to hit the mainstream). This paper has so far introduced a few nascent and potentially revolutionary biotechnologies, but has merely hinted at the raging debates over their development and implementation. And though lab grown meat has so far avoided cultural struggle, the struggle around cloning and genetic engineering serves as an inverse reminder that cultural struggle does not equate to knowing what is at stake.

Biotechnological advances occur with such rapidity that policy and public opinion often fail to keep pace with science. On one hand, the media loves extremes: a grainy photograph that might show evidence of water on Mars is likely to receive much more coverage than severe water shortages and ensuing violence in Africa. On the other hand, society rarely seems to know what to do with extremes. In a world where almost any information is readily available in a downloadable and easily digestible format, something new, confusing, and unexplained sells papers and provokes debate, but does not necessarily lend itself to open-mindedness.

Current debates over animal biotechnology often seem unprecedented, however by examining the concerns raised by these technologies and seeking an historical parallel to our current predicament, I will attempt to bring perspective to this polarized controversy. Concerns over animal biotechnology can be divided into two broad categories: science-based concerns, and what I will call social concerns (though this latter terminology may be misleading) — concerns for the welfare of animals and/or general resistance to a change in our relationship to animals on this scale.

Ideally, the ethical and technical would go hand-in-hand, however establishing this dichotomy is important to understanding current debates, as they are analogously lived out in two forms of print media: scientific journals and mass media publications (i.e. newspapers, blogs, etc.). The ‘purity’-obsessed academic audience and authors of the former would probably rather not be impacted by the latter, however because public opinion deeply affects funding and legislation, and because the general public represents the future consumers of biotechnologically altered animal by-products, scientists are forced to contend with the court of print media in this natureculture contact zone. I will begin by discussing science-based concerns, which are sometimes speculative rather than definitive but are almost always grounded in quantifiable and researchable data and principles. I will then turn my attention to a few of the more compelling social concerns, which are much more philosophical than their scientific counterparts, and infinitely more difficult to address.

Perhaps the most immediate concern surrounding current animal biotechnologies is any potential threat to human health. According to the National Research Council (2002), meat and by-products from clones and clone progeny constitute little to no increased food-safety risk compared to non-clones. Transgenic animals, on the other hand, constitute more of a risk, though this risk is considered manageable. Some genetically modified animals are engineered for pharmaceutical purposes, and these are not considered safe for human consumption. Indeed, regulations are already in place to prevent biomedically engineered subjects from entering the food chain. Animals engineered for human consumption, however, must generally be reviewed on a case-tocase basis.

Food allergies are a large concern, as someone allergic to gluten could turn out to be allergic to meat implanted with proteins from wheat, for example. A potential problem could be the approval of a transgenic product which had been successfully tested against known allergenic proteins but which turned out to be a new allergen. Further, the hypersensitivity of people with gastrointestinal diseases as well as immunosuppressive diseases such as HIV has not yet been explored with regard to potential toxins and viral properties in genetically modified foods and animals (Ewen 1999).

Another increasingly pressing concern is the potential cost to the environment posed by animal biotechnologies. As demonstrated, in vitro meat technology would likely have a positive effect on the environment in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and freeing up freshwater resources. Even this potentially revolutionary technology, however, could come at a long-term cost. Widespread implementation of in vitro meat production could cause a loss of biodiversity (what will become of cows and sheep after they are no longer ‘needed’?), and perhaps more concerning, could lead to much larger ecocatastrophes in the future. After all, shortages of freshwater, meat, and grains are some of the last remaining limits on population expansion. If we attempt to adapt past them, what will stop population numbers from ballooning far past current estimates? In vitro meat would certainly revolutionize our relationship to resources and bandage many of our current environmental problems, but it could also set us up to much more rapidly deplete the earth’s remaining oil stores and forests; we could circumvent global warming just to end up facing a future with a shortage of oxygen.

Genetically modified animals and clones present more immediate environmental concerns. The release or escape of genetically modified organisms into wild populations could cause unprecedented biodiversity losses and affect delicate ecosystems on a scale we can scarcely imagine. Specifically, a genetically engineered organism released into an ecosystem either intentionally or unintentionally would undoubtedly affect competition for resources within the species, as well as sexual selection, which would then alter gene frequencies. Indirectly, it could cause changes in external biotic factors of the ecosystem affecting all organisms within it (NRC 2002). Such risks will have to be evaluated depending on the genetic fitness of the species in question and the likelihood of escape or release.

Another concern bridges the divide between the scientific community and the public: concern for animal health and welfare. Aside from the potential effects on wild populations of escaped or released genetically engineered organisms, scientists are also concerned by the potential for new diseases that could affect humans and animals. When manipulating amino acids and therefore proteins within an organism, the possibility exists for unintended and unforeseen consequences. Additionally, scientists must be concerned about any consequences of genetic modification that could cause pain, distress, or behavioral and physiologic abnormalities. By these criteria, many of the procedures involved in cloning (i.e. electroejaculation, embryo implantation, etc.) may be grounds for an animal welfare dispute, though they are not necessarily unique to cloning technology. In vitro fertilization is also linked to difficult births, and clones in general may be at higher risk for deleterious genetic mutations (NRC 2002).

However, in order for any of these concerns to even give us pause, we must agree that animals deserve lives free from human-induced suffering. This may seem obvious in normative theory, however in practice livestock are routinely subjected to painful procedures, living conditions, and deaths completely independent of new biotechnologies. The fact that concern for animal welfare is a major point of debate and source of unease for both scientists and laypeople in the animal biotechnology debate speaks to a shift in cultural norms and an underlying breakdown in self-conception. In fact, with the arrival of the biocybernetic revolution has come bioethics, the set of ‘social’ considerations that seek to limit the revolutionary power of biotechnology even as they are consumed by it.

According to Haraway (2008), bioethics are “boring” because they tend to act as a regulatory discourse after “all the really interesting, generative action is over” (136). This is partly due to the sheer speed at which biotechnological advancement occurs, and partly because Franklin’s (2004) designer ethics allow necessity and convenience to control technologic implementation, sometimes rendering bioethical discourses effectively irrelevant. As Haraway (2008) puts it, “While the bioethicists wax eloquent about supposedly compromised human uniqueness or excessive control of natural processes, the scene of ontological reshaping mutates once again under their feet, leaving ethical inquiry to play catch-up with odd abstractions and bio-think-tank scenarios” (137). Regardless of relevance, the persistence of the bioethics discourse highlights the juxtaposition between our escalating concern for animal welfare and our continued and increasing dominion over animals.

As Cary Wolfe (2003) has described, our domination over animals as well as humanism and social sciences are all dependent on the otherness of animals, which is the basis of what Wolfe has termed speciesism. Not only do scientists struggle to define what a species is (as opposed to a breed or relative), but all of those qualities which have historically been held up as evidence that humans are of a higher order than other animals — language, reason, tool use, etc. — have been systematically shown to exist outside the human realm. If animals are others, why would they deserve humane treatment? Conversely, if they are not others, why have we domesticated them at all? If we cannot separate ourselves from other animals then by extension we cannot deny them rights, and a right not to suffer seems a basic place to start.

In an age where we cannot logically justify our consumption of animals, should we embark on a massive project to further control them through genetics and cloning? There is also the question of the lived experiences of cloned subjects, which problematizes still more precepts of our worldview. What of individuality? Personality? Determinism? Rearing of young has never been more prescriptive, and yet research increasingly suggests that nature directs our development, not nurture — and so the problematic dichotomy resurfaces.

In a more metaphysical extension of this argument, Hopkins and Dacey (2008) review the concern that if these biotechnologies are implemented en masse, we will rob animals of their remaining integrity by controlling not only their movement and death, but also their reproduction and ability to pass ancestral genes down to future generations. This argument presupposes that unrefined DNA recombination is a right, and furthermore one that animals would object to losing. It also arrives late to the game, as the art and science of animal husbandry has been reining tighter control over domesticated animals’ reproduction for more than 10,000 years. This does not necessarily invalidate the concern, however it speaks to a fact often forgotten: animal biotechnology is simply an admittedly dramatic continuation of our long tradition of control over other species.

In 1754, Jean Jacques Rousseau addressed an audience after having been asked to meditate on the origins of inequality among men. In the state of nature, Rousseau contended, man was one with other animals, a stupid but happy brute noble in his reliance on instinct. What Rousseau claimed has drawn man out of this state of nature — this ‘noble savagery,’ was not the capacity for language or tool use but the capacity for self-improvement: perfectibility. And yet man does not stop at perfecting himself, but rather exerts control over other organisms by attempting to fit them to his version of perfection as well.

If we trust Rousseau, then animal biotechnology, regardless of its potential to expand carrying capacity or improve the quality of human life, is a rather large step in the wrong direction. Rousseau would have us simplify rather than complicate, and rely on nature rather than man-made machine. This notion of perfectibility, along with the seemingly telescoping nature of change which sees major revolutions in behavior and culture occur in the evolutionary blink of an eye, speak to a larger undercurrent of fear running through debates on animal biotechnology: how did we get here? What’s going on? And what’s next? The polarized, moralistic debates around animal biotechnology have so far been largely blind to the past and the future; it often seems we can only stand at the sidelines and mumble irrelevantly as we watch dichotomies crumble, new hybrids proliferate, and even our notions of what it means to be alive challenged.


— So, we looked at what we have in the pipeline, and the only food product that’s close to ready is beef grown without cows. 
 — Beef without cows? I’m listening. 
 — We take bovine cells and, surrounding them in a bed of rich nutrients, grow them into fully developed cow tissue, or ‘beef.’ 
 — Oh, that’s creepy. …Right?
 — Tastes…familiar. 
 — Beef? 
 — No. 
 — Chicken? We’ll take chicken.
 — No.
 — Well what does it taste like?
 — …Despair….
 — Is it possible it just needs salt?
From Better off Ted, ABC sitcom (25 March 2009)

Art and (Tissue) Culture

While crises of novelty and debates over animal biotechnology are born in labs and fleshed out in mass media and politics, none of these sites have proved very instrumental in answering questions of what is at stake. Often, early attempts to integrate revolutionary technology into the culture of a rapidly changing world can be seen in contemporary art and popular culture. Artistic expression seems to be one of the first social forms to recover from and grow out of crises of breakdown and novelty.

The connection between creative destruction and creative expression is clear, and archaeological finds support it as essential to ‘the human condition.’ Art has arguably been an outlet for existential angst since the Neolithic, when increased competition and (relatively) rapid evolution saw the beginnings of art and ‘culture,’ as it is now conceived (Wade 2007).

Artistic works, including painting, sculpture, multimedia, fiction, and even television, are the fossils of my paleontology of the present. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr are two scientists poised on the artistic edge of the current revolutionary moment. Their Tissue Culture & Art project, based at the University of Western Australia, “was set up to explore questions arising from the use of living tissues to create/grow semi-living objects/sculptures and to research the technologies involved in such a task” (Catts & Zurr 2002: 365).

In other words, Catts and Zurr are utilizing nascent in vitro meat technology to make art, like the mouse tissuecoated Neolithic stone tool replica pictured above. The juxtaposition of revolutionary technology against some of the oldest known human technology is no accident: these artists are very aware of the position they occupy on the revolutionary edge, and have done important philosophical analysis of how deeply in vitro meat technology has the potential to shake the foundations of human culture. Catts and Zurr (2002) have been inspired by the technology to question the meaning of life and death; as they put it, tissue cultures “blur the boundaries between what is born and what is manufactured, what is animate and what is inanimate and further challenge our perceptions and our relationships with our bodies and our constructed environment” (366).

A few decades ago, the classic sci-fi monster was a cyborg, an artificially intelligent machine like those in Bladerunner. In today’s sci-fi, the setting has not changed, but the monster has morphed. We are now in a different moment, one in which biotechnology blurs the lines between organic and mechanical in the opposite direction, as we increasingly mechanize the living bodies of animals and ourselves. Margaret Atwood’s (2003) sci-fi novel Oryx and Crake projects a dystopia in which humans play God for pleasure and profit. She uses dark humor to explore the possibilities of a future in which our most base tendencies — greed, hatred, lust — are taken to their extremes. She also predicts lab-grown meat, taking a scenario straight our of Winston Churchill’s prophesies.

“…Next they went to NeoAgriculturals. AgriCouture was its nickname among the students. They had to put on biosuits before they entered the facility, and scrub their hands and wear nose-cone filters, because what they were about to see hadn’t been bioform-proofed, or not completely…What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing. ‘What the hell is it?’ said Jimmy.’ Those are chickens,’ said Crake. ‘Chicken parts. Just the breasts on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve on a growth unit’” (202).

These ‘ChickieNobs’ are the face of sci-fi’s new reverse-cyborgs — not intelligent machines but mechanized intelligents. In the sitcom quoted at the beginning of this section, the globule of beef that “tastes like despair” is named Blobby by laboratory technicians, who nurse it with nutrient broth like proud parents. The fact that these lifeless meat blobs are named in creative representations speaks to the questions this technology raises about the nature of being alive. Though meat blobs do not think, feel, or breathe, they are encased in an animal ghost; animals did not ask to be merged with machines, and the resulting hybrid — meant for our consumption — is neither alive nor dead, though it is still organic. When even concepts of life and death are challenged, the crisis of novelty has reached epic proportions.

Confronting the problematic dichotomies upon which we have structured so much of our culture and politics requires reimagining our relationship to animals and technology (exemplified by animal biotechnologies). As we increasingly mechanize the animal world, Bruno Latour’s (1999) description of technology as “nonhuman” rather than machine becomes ever more apt in its breadth (176). Art is uniquely poised to grapple with questions of object and subject, which are polemical entities — “the object is there to protect the subject from drifting into inhumanity; the subject is there to protect the object from drifting into inhumanity” (294).

It is clear now that the revolution will not be one-sided as envisioned: the turning of machine into organism, but also the turning of organism into machine. This is Mitchell’s (2005) biocybernetic revolution, and with it comes not only the specter of the living machine, but also the reanimation of organisms dead and extinct and the destabilization of species identity. Catts and Zurr, who once ingested in vitro frog tissue, may seem to exist at the fringes of science and art; certainly not the mainstream.

However, they were featured last year in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The special exhibition, titled Design and the Elastic Mind, included sections called “Growth/Aggregation,” and “The More the Merrier,” containing works like “Epidermits Interactive Pet,” “Victimless [in vitro] Leather,” “Utility Pets,” and “Steak Zombies Equisite Corpse” (MoMA 2008). The exhibit also featured the work of James King, another researcher-cum-artist involved with the creation of in vitro meat (Schwartz 2008b).

Interestingly, where Catts and Zurr are attempting to ascertain how far from our perception of ‘nature’ in vitro meat takes us, King seems to hope it will instead bring us back to nature — that it will remind us of where meat comes from. King’s project, which he calls “Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow,” hinges on the built-in capacity of in vitro meat technology to grow tissue in any shape; the scaffold to which cells are attached dictates the structure of the end product. He envisions growing steaks that resemble the cross-section of a cow, imagining a future in which “the most interesting and aesthetically pleasing examples of anatomy are used as templates to create moulds for the in-vitro meat (we wouldn’t choose to eat the same old boring parts that we eat today). The result is a satisfyingly complicated and authentic form of food” (King 2007). King’s choice of adjectives for this imagined future-food — “complicated” and “authentic” — are indicative of some of the deeper issues at play, issues being explored and engaged by these artists.

What is the task of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction? In a general sense, the creative forces in society are already helping us to work through the questions — pragmatic and ethereal — raised by animal biotechnologies. Even more broadly, art can help us broach existential questions and apparently false but fundamental dichotomies; art has been able to mitigate the nature/culture divide more smoothly than any other discourse. Biocybernetic art, with its typically deadpan delivery, has the potential to rearticulate what we mean by ‘human,’ ‘humanism,’ ‘humanities,’ and species identity in general.

Moving forward may require making room for Latour’s nonhumans in ways we could not have imagined even a few years ago. In his request for an elaboration of “a paleontology of the present,” Mitchell (2005) argues compellingly that the present is even more remote from our understanding than the past. We need to “rethink our condition in the perspective of deep time” (324).

As novel as cloning and lab-grown meat may seem, and as confusing as this moment is, we are not completely without precedent. To calm our fear of an assuredly uncertain future, we must in fact look to what seems like the distant past. The Neolithic is not just a parallel in the emergence of novel art forms it encompassed. Ten thousand years ago, and perhaps without knowing they were revolutionizing the world, our Neolithic ancestors gradually stopped hunting and began domesticating. As hunting and gathering turned to sedentary agriculturalism, our ancestors embarked on a massive revolution that rocked humanity and nonhumanity alike to the core, and I will argue that viewing technological change through this ancient lens is perhaps the only way to grasp the enormity of the current moment. Interestingly, what we now recall as a giant leap forward may in fact have felt to early farmers like a move of desperation, borne out of necessity.


“From about 12,000 to 8,000 years ago, agriculture became the established way of life for the great majority of the world’s people — and when I say ‘way of life’ I mean that in the fullest sense. Agriculture was not simply a way of getting food, satisfying one basic human need. Agriculture cemented in the human mind the psychology by which people understood their world: it was we who chose what seeds to plant and where, what forests to cut down…in short what species were to live and die, and when and how. Agriculture was a superb demonstration that humans could control nature (or believe they could); that humans could literally domesticate nature and place it under regular and systematic human will and design.” –Kirkpatrick Sale, in After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination (2006: 97)

Domestication of Livestock

It is true that as we speed towards the proposed asymptotic ‘technological
singularity,’ it seems we are also poised on a precipice of finally paying the price for millennia of ecological misuse. Our population size has grown to the point where there are no new pastures left to pillage. From deforestation to water shortages, we could be forced to face the consequences of our lifestyle within the next several decades. Is genetic modification an answer? If we can clone meat without it needing to be born, fed, or killed, should we? In order to gain perspective on biotechnology debates and situate the current revolutionary moment in evolutionary history, we must look to the Neolithic, when we first began to practice applied evolution.

In contrast to the handful of years it has taken to master cloning, the agricultural revolution spanned thousands of years. Domestication of animals surely seemed like a positive advancement to its early proponents, even as agriculture itself presented a possibly unwelcome departure from hunting and gathering. Unwittingly, early farmers were exerting control on the evolution of these animals by influencing their selection pressures — a more crude form of what we do today with selective breeding. Furthermore, cloning and genetically modified animals are influenced in many of the same ways in a laboratory, albeit much more precisely. By considering the development of domestication during the Neolithic and its aftermath, we can learn valuable lessons about resource management. After sections on molecular manipulation, it may not seem obvious to progress to a technology 10,000 years old. However, there is an historic parallel to be found in the domestication of animals during the agricultural revolution.

Domestication of animals largely allowed us to become sedentary, and therefore to grow in numbers. Though we were probably unable to realize it at the time, domestication also allowed us to seize the reins of evolution. In 1960, ecologist Edward Deevey (as quoted in Kates 1996) identified three major periods of human population growth. The first lasted about a million years and was enabled by the tool-making revolution, during which human numbers ballooned to about five million. Over the next 8,000 years during the agricultural revolution, the population grew by a factor of 100 — to 500 million people. We are still in the third swell, which began in the 19th century and is expected to continue for only a few decades more to a century more. In this relatively brief period of the scientific-industrial revolution, our numbers have grown to 6.5 billion and are expected to reach 11 billion before leveling off. That is, of course, unless we develop a way to further expand the earth’s carrying capacity.

Technological revolutions, then, drive massive shifts in populations and lifestyles, and the archaeological record provides us with a history of these revolutions. If we became a new species by virtue of the toolmaking revolution, and the industrial revolution ushered in the ‘modern age,’ what will the current revolution bring? Condensing human history in this way begs the question of whether our Neolithic ancestors would recognize us as humans, members of their species, especially in light of questions surrounding their interactions with Neanderthals, who were much more similar to them than we are today.

Interestingly, it is especially easy to relate to these ancient humans in light of biotechnological change. In drawing this seemingly suspect parallel, it will be productive to first examine what prompted the agricultural revolution, particularly because it is now believed that hunting and gathering had been less work with a bigger payoff (Kates 1996). If farming was a downgrade in lifestyle, why did it systematically replace hunting and gathering as a way of life? The obvious answer is that humans were beginning to extend themselves past carrying capacity within the confines of extant technology. To imagine a world in which humans turned to frightening and in some ways less successful technologies to avoid starvation and collapse sounds eerily familiar. That agriculture and domestication enabled sedentary populations with dramatically increased reproductive yields may or may not have been an unexpected consequence.

The archaeological record provides further room to draw parallels. As
populations became sedentary, art began to proliferate. The wall paintings and sculpted animals at Çatalhöyük reveal a consciousness of changing human-environment relations. Their art exalts wild animals; cave paintings of bulls and leopard carvings provide clues to the glorification of a vanishing way of life, especially in light of the plentiful evidence that domesticated sheep and goats were increasingly depended upon for sustenance (Hodder 2006). This phenomenon is repeated at other sites. At ’Ain Ghazal, one of the largest known farming settlements in the Levant, more than 150 clay animal figurines have been recovered. Of the identifiable carvings, 90% (56/61) were cattle and several were bulls, neither of which were domesticated at the time. In fact, the only physical evidence of cattle domestication at the site comes from the remains of a few calves that show signs of having been tamed and reared in captivity. Interestingly, a few of the cattle figurines show imprints from threads tied around their necks, quite possibly a nod to a changing relationship to cattle (Rollefson 2000).

Perhaps most compelling is Kfar HaHoresh, the PPNB burial site dated to the first half of the ninth millennium BP. It may have functioned primarily as a funerary site for nearby communities, and seems to contain primarily the remains of young males, perhaps hunters. Like many other sites including ’Ain Ghazal, most skulls were removed from their graves after the soft tissue had decayed. However, the burials at Kfar HaHoresh are far from ordinary. So far, two skulls have been found plastered to resemble human faces. Even more amazing, one of these was interred with a headless but otherwise complete Auroch. The other was found overlying a pit of 200 postcranial Auroch bones. Not only did wild beasts and humans share this burial site, they were intentionally interred together as hybrids.

Like at ’Ain Ghazal, the presence of non-intentionally interred goat remains suggests that domestication had begun though hunting continued (Goring-Morris 2000). This compelling archeological record comes to us in the form of revolutionary art, lending support to the theory that the shift to domestication was accepted begrudgingly out of necessity, while the old ways were glorified and celebrated. Hunting had begun to fail, producing a moment of breakdown, which inspired spiritual fervor. Through art and ritual (analogous for these purposes), the old ways were bade goodbye as a moment of novelty emerged. These were the artistic expressions of a species in flux; out of fundamental economic change came a reassembly of the social.

It is not hard to imagine a future in which the ability to consume ‘real animals’ is celebrated on an almost spiritual level. As William Gibson (1984) predicted, “Jesus…You know what this costs? They gotta raise a whole animal for years and then they kill it. This isn’t vat stuff” (133).

Though selective breeding and animal husbandry probably followed naturally from domestication, our ancestors almost surely did not understand (at least to the extent that we do today) the profound control they were exerting over the very evolutionary processes that governed these animals. When left to its own devices, evolution is a relatively slow process. In a stable population of a healthy size, the forces of evolution are gentle, with novel genes entering via mutation or migration, and allelic frequencies changing due to genetic drift. However, something strange seems to happen when humans come into contact with another species; we manage to impact its very evolutionary trajectory. Whether via hunting or taming, human domination and dominion is unrivaled in the animal kingdom.

Understanding of just how dramatically we can affect the species around us is a recent phenomenon. In the mid-20th Century, Russian experiments on silver foxes revealed that by selectively breeding foxes with amiable temperaments, morphological changes began to take place that seemingly had nothing to do with temperament. Within a few generations, ears changed in shape. Novel colorings emerged. Brain chemistry and gene expression underwent significant shifts (Lindberg 2005). We were beginning to see how 10,000 years of living with ‘man’s best friend’ had produced incredible breed varieties where once there were a few species of wild dogs. Surely our ancestors had not knowingly bred Pomeranians for their tendency to yap or Poodles for their haughty nature — these variations must have come part and parcel with other selected traits.

Hopkins & Dacey’s (2008) impassioned argument in support of human domination hinges on the existence of “compelling moral and prudential reasons” for exerting control over nature. How do we know what constitutes a moral reason or a prudential one? How far in the future should we look to make our cost-benefit analysis? If our Neolithic ancestors had the foresight to know what a stress we would end up putting on our planet’s resources, would they still have settled down and planted seeds? The answer is probably yes. Human beings have never been great with foresight or long term planning — in fact, as we have seen, it is hard enough to conceptualize the present, let alone plan for the future. We may not be exceptional; uniqueness is not on our side. What we do have is incredible adaptive capacity and plenty of hubris.


“There is a future, and it does differ from the past. But where once it was a matter of hundreds and thousands, now millions and billions have to be accommodated — billions of people, of course, but also billions of animals, stars, prions, cows, robots, chips, and bytes…That there was a decade when people could believe that history had drawn to a close simply because an ethnocentric — or better yet, epistemocentric — conception of progress had drawn a closing parenthesis will appear as the greatest and let us hope last outburst of an exotic cult of modernity that has never been short on arrogance.” –Bruno Latour, in Pandora’s Hope (1999: 299)

Conclusion

When are we? As Latour (1993) has famously asserted, we have never been modern. According to WJT Mitchell, “we live in a time that is best described as a limbo of continually deferred expectations and anxieties. Everything is about to happen, or perhaps it has already happened without our noticing it” (Mitchell 2005: 321–22). On the edge of the new millennium, there was a pervasive sense that things were quite likely to spin out of control in the near future. Nearly ten years later, in spite of a sense that most things are, in fact, outside of our individual control, life goes on. As philosopher and futurist Bruno Latour implies in the quote above, the close of the 20th century was permeated by an indoctrination that we had reached the summit — any recognition of how truly tiny we are in relation to the vast span of human and nonhuman history was always just that: a comparison to the past made as if to say “look how far we have come in such a tiny sliver of time.” There was little ability to rationalize our relative insignificance against the future.

Though we recognize that we are tiny, by looking to the past and considering the ramifications of the present, it has become clear that we are in a meta-revolutionary age, though this is not very descriptive by itself; revolutions come fast and furious and our concepts and institutions are being continually challenged. What is interesting about animal biotechnology, situated in the wider biocybernetic revolution, is that we seem to have come full circle. We have seen how the reassembly of the social that emerged in the Neolithic arose out of novelty and breakdown eerily similar to the circumstances affecting us today.

Contrary to our now ingrained sense of domination (and indeed dominion) over the earth, man has never really controlled his environment. Science has helped us realize that we have never been human (in the sense of an autonomous species) — just as no man is an island, neither is Man an island. We do not operate in a vacuum and we are not all that special. Our evolution and path has always been shaped by our necessary use of the resources available to us. However, what seems to define us as humans (if not separate us as such) is our ability to endlessly manipulate the world around us to serve our ends. As a species, we have continually enacted influence upon the world around us, in ever-more complex and more rapid ways.

Along with the evolutionary development of human dominance came an
increasingly institutionalized almost orgiastic consumption of resources — essentially, we consume because we can. When shortages or obstacles arise, we adapt and reassemble. Of course, there are both benefits and consequences to our adaptations. Difficulties in long-term planning seem to be ingrained in human nature and are visible throughout human history; despite our best adaptations (or perhaps enabled by them), we are a decidedly shortsighted species. Often, our manipulation of nature begets a vicious cycle in which we must exert more and more control to avoid disaster. As we control and adapt, our institutions and norms are continually challenged. Driving these changes are moments of breakdown and moments of novelty, which can require a reassembling of the social.

We are facing ecological collapse, and our responses have so far been ineffective. Novel adaptations, while promising and fascinating, are actively attacking our boundaries and fundamental discursive categories. The fundamental nature/culture divide and our heretofore inability to see the forest through the trees have prevented us from utilizing nascent technologies to make a better world. As a science, ecology has recognized the problem, but its method for subverting it is often counterproductive; the contemporary ecological paradigm asks us to halt ‘progress’ and withdraw from nature — situating us as distinctly separate from nature (Latour 1993).

As Haraway (2008) puts it, “for [radical environmentalism], the way out of culture’s deep commitment to human exceptionalism is a one-way rapture to the other side of the divide” (11). Rather than propose a fundamental restructuring of our relationship to nature, the environmental movement has too often positioned itself in opposition to humans, replicating the categorical dualism of nature/culture rather than altering it. This is largely a design flaw — ecology is not only steeped in nature/culture but is founded on it (Latour 1993). We now find ourselves in a revolutionary moment in which the “evolutionary play of rescripted naturecultures in technocultural, biosocial modernity” (Haraway 2008: 133) is forcing fundamental shifts.

These same tensions are visible in the biotechnology debates reviewed herein, which center on a tug-of-war between the next necessary step and fear of the future. If we accept Latour’s assertion that ‘modernity’ is and was an arrogant myth, we must confront the road ahead. In so doing, we will inevitably run up against the nature vs. society dichotomy, which we have seen to be immensely problematic but have not yet been able to overcome.

As Donna Haraway writes in The Promises of Monsters (1992), “Excruciatingly conscious of nature’s discursive constitution as ‘other’ in the histories of colonialism, racism, sexism, and class domination of many kinds, we nonetheless find in this problematic, ethno-specific, long-lived, and mobile concept something we cannot do without, but can never ‘have.’ We must find another relationship to nature besides reification and possession…immense resources have been expended to stabilize and materialize nature, to police its/her boundaries. Such expenditures have had disappointing results” (296).

Haraway effectively problematizes the concept of nature, and we have witnessed its inadequacy as a discursive category in our examination of natureculture contact zones, in which “The Great Divides of animal/human, nature/culture, organic/technical…all flatten into mundane differences — the kinds that have consequences and demand respect and response — rather than rising to sublime and final ends” (Haraway 2008: 15).

Bruno Latour is instrumental in theorizing the project of nature and how is has been utilized. “Nature now appears as what it always was, namely the most comprehensive political process ever to gather into one superpower everything that must escape the vagaries of the society ‘down there’” (1999: 297). In Latour’s analysis, the dichotomy between nature and society was essentially a modernist political construction, which served to cement human domination and reify human exceptionalism even as the latter began to slip away.

The project that remains is perhaps not to predict but to plan the future — to prepare for a reassembly of the social and the emergence of novel forms of social organization. Perhaps the real hubris lies in exercising increasing control over the world around us while denying that it is a part of us, that we are a part of it, and that we have any say in its future. Rather than expend energy and resources on self-flagellation by way of extant ecological discourses, we must rather embrace the emerging hybrids of our crisis of novelty.

As nonhuman animals begin to resemble nonhuman machines and vice versa, we need to reconsider not animals and machines, but rather the distinction we make between them and further the wall we have built between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Perhaps true humanity lies in the crossover. As opposed to the desperate and uncompromising strategy of ‘purification’ that has characterized ‘modern’ science, we should instead focus on careful and fair management of human, nonhuman, and hybrid forms.

After all, by shaping animal bodies into sites for the replication of power, we are already on the way to making them subjects, if not citizens. Only when we embrace our hybrid nature and the dissolution of many of our boundaries will we attain Latour’s modernity. Animal biotechnologies and their promising new monsters lie inherently in a rapidly evolving natureculture contact zone. As novelty turns to opportunity in the face of necessity, the persistence of nature/culture in science may experience a breakdown itself.

“Instead of two powers, one hidden and indisputable (nature), and the other disputable and despised (politics), we will have two different tasks in the same collective. The first task will be to answer the question: How many humans and nonhumans are to be taken into account? The second will be to answer the most difficult of all questions: Are you ready, and at the price of what sacrifice, to live the good life together? That this highest of political and moral questions could have been raised, for so many centuries, by so many bright minds, for humans only without the nonhumans that make them up, will soon appear, I have no doubt, as extravagant as when the Founding Fathers denied slaves and women the vote.” –Bruno Latour, in Pandora’s Hope (1999: 296)

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