Eradicate cruelty: “reprogram” predators

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2009

hungry lionI’m sure that almost everyone would rather live in a world that featured less cruelty and pain for living creatures… but what if it were possible to eradicate them completely? Via Accelerating Future comes a provocative essay by one David Pearce, who suggests that not only would it be possible for us to engineer a biosphere without suffering, but that it is our moral duty to do so. Global veganism in the wake of readily available vat-grown meat would be merely the start of the project; next would be the engineered extinction of all obligate predator species. [image by Tambako the Jaguar]

Even the hypothetical world-wide adoption of a cruelty-free diet leaves one immense source of suffering untouched. Here we shall explore one of the thorniest issues: the future of what biologists call obligate predators. For the abolitionist project seems inconsistent with one of our basic contemporary values. The need for species conservation is so axiomatic that an explicitly normative scientific sub-discipline, conservation biology, exists to promote it. In the modern era, the extinction of a species is usually accounted a tragedy, especially if that species is a prominent vertebrate rather than an obscure beetle. Yet if we seriously want a world without suffering, how many existing Darwinian lifeforms can be conserved in their current guise? What should be the ultimate fate of iconic species like the large carnivores? True, only a minority of the Earth’s species are carnivorous predators: the fundamental laws of thermodynamics entail that whenever there is an “exchange of energy” between one trophic level and another, there is a significant loss. The majority of the planet’s 50,000 or so vertebrate species are vegetarian. But among the minority of carnivorous species are some of the best known creatures on the planet. Should these serial killers be permitted to prey on other sentient beings indefinitely?

There’s a whole raft of obvious objections to the idea, of course, but Pearce has covered pretty much all of them with the logic of our obligation to compassionate stewardship of our biosphere. I’m not even close to agreeing with him – frankly, the whole thing seems no less hubristic to me than believing that we have a moral right to impose cruelty by dint of our top-most position on the evolutionary chain, though (as Pearce points out) that’s representative of a fundamental bias toward the biological status quo. But it’s a fascinating and challenging read nonetheless… not to mention a spark for dozens of science fictional story ideas.

Pain-free animals and ethical carnivorism

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2009

cowsAll but the most ardent and uncaring carnivores among us would probably agree that factory farming is a cruel and unpleasant lifestyle for the animals that eventually become our food. There are numerous answers to this ethical dilemma (aside from vegetarianism, of course), the newest of which is the suggestion that livestock be genetically re-engineered so that they don’t feel pain:

“If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In a provocative paper published this month, Shriver contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering.”


Performing brain surgery on livestock wouldn’t be feasible on an industrial scale. Livestock would have to be genetically engineered to be pain-free for it to be profitable.

Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis and colleagues are identifying the genes that regulate affective pain. Already, they have engineered mice that lack two enzymes which help neuron-to-neuron communication in the ACC. When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards. This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain.

Now, I’m no militant animal rights campaigner, but Shriver’s suggestion sounds like aside-stepping of the issue rather than a solution. The ethical problem is the way we farm animals, and their suffering is a function thereof; removing their ability to feel pain would be like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than aiming to cure the disease itself, and the ethics of such a sweeping piece of genetic engineering is a whole new can of worms in and of itself. It certainly wouldn’t buy off my own guilt about factory farming… and it seems that I’m not the only one:

“Large farms have become an environmental disaster,” agrees Alan Goldberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. They generate enormous amounts of waste and greenhouse gases and breed antibiotic resistance. “I think factory farms have to go, it’s that simple.”

Goldberg also contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals.

Even Shriver (apparently a life-long vegetarian himself) agrees that the better option is to abolish factory farming entirely, which makes me wonder whether his suggestion is in fact a form of deliberately provocative rhetorical gambit. Personally, I think that vat-grown meat is the best long-term solution… as well as the only one that has a chance of scaling in response to global consumption patterns. [image by law_kevan]