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In the future, will we all be cannibals?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Brett Israel, blogging for Discover magazine, calls it the worst science article of the week: a report in the Sunday Times of London and elsewhere that Mark Post of Eindhoven University and his colleagues had grown "a soggy form of pork" in the laboratory, with the eventual aim of cultivating meat in vitro for human consumption. Israel’s main complaint was that the story is old; indeed, Brendan Borrell wrote about it for us earlier this year. But what’s really bad about is that it augurs an era when restaurants will serve human flesh.

Even if chicken from a test tube can’t compete with the products of factory farming, the technology lets you grow meats you can’t get any other (legal) way. Some of us, inevitably, would want to try them. Hank Henna, blogging for h+ magazine, speculates about dinosaur and Komodo-dragon burgers. But the ultimate taboo is the most mouth-watering. NPR’s Ira Flatow recently interviewed Carole Travis-Henikoff, author of Dinner With a Cannibal. She told Flatow:

Cannibals usually say it’s the best meat they’ve ever tasted…. I can’t tell you what it would taste like, but I know what it looks like. And there is no reason on Earth that it wouldn’t be good. We’re only 1 to 3 percent different in genetics from chimpanzees. And in Africa today, a person will give up a whole year’s wages for a carcass of a chimpanzee.

That said, there is another possibility. By reminding us what meat really is, the prospect of eating human flesh might turn us all into vegetarians.

Leonhard Kern sculpture photographed by Andreas Praefcke, from Wikimedia Commons

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  1. 1. bmo 1:57 pm 12/3/2009

    We’ll all be seeing "Ambrosia Plus" by Triplanetary Foods soon.


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  2. 2. krabcat 2:57 pm 12/3/2009

    i am willing to try it. I can imagine that it would be quite good as long as you avoid certain parts such as the brain.

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  3. 3. meatman 3:35 pm 12/3/2009

    I grew up in a family that had a butcher shop. In later life I did medical work and was exposed to recently deceased bodies, opened up with muscle exposed.

    I have discussed this with professional in the field: no one wants to openly admit it but there is very little noticeable difference between the meat we eat and human flesh. Close your eyes or let your mind wander and the smell is appetizing.

    The first time I noticed this I was very disturbed but got over it when I rethought the situation and realized the similarities.

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  4. 4. Soccerdad 4:52 pm 12/3/2009

    Actually, the worst science article of the week is this one:

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  5. 5. modernevil 6:07 pm 12/3/2009

    I actually wrote a SciFi short story over a year ago about a chef who incorporates lab-grown human flesh into his menu.

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  6. 6. EvolvingApe 6:14 pm 12/3/2009

    About 7 years ago, I stopped eating meat (and a bit later, fish.)

    The reason was, that I realized, that each sentient creature, just like you and me, fears death and feels the pain of death.

    I have been a happy vegetarian since, my LDL/HDL ratio has significantly improved, and my overall cholesterol has dropped under 180.

    Lab-grown meat (not necessarily human,) would at least not cost a sentient life. A good thing, IMO.

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  7. 7. sunny strobe 8:51 am 12/4/2009

    Frankenstein meat , rare, medium, or well done? Bon appetit! It reminds me of Jonathan Swift’s "Modest Proposal", in which he suggests to eat surplus unwanted babies…
    The fact remains that our species , by design, is not carnivorous; otherwise we would not run such life-shortening health risks as, coronaries, colon cancers, osteoporosis, etc. which the China Study has shown to be clearly linked with meat eating.
    For a more species-specific nutrition, see under Yanchep Diet, Youthevity . com

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  8. 8. estrickland 11:19 am 12/4/2009

    Sorry to be a stickler, but can you please change the post to reflect that Brett Israel blogs for Discover magazine, not DiscoverY? We get that a lot.

    Thanks, Eliza, Discover online news editor

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  9. 9. nfiertel 2:43 pm 12/4/2009

    Hmmm… on the menu tonight is a nice slice of sauteed human liver with a lung dressed with capons…Of course lab grown..ha ha..I love human imagination. Apparently those who were once cannibals ( and might still be as far as I know in New Guinea) refer to humans as long pig so I guess that describes its taste. Growing cells in a lab has a way to go before one can get a nice steak that is not just a mush so I guess the next move is to find a way to exercise the muscles cells..Before you know it there will be gyms for steak cells and maybe some sort of force feeding for fois gras labs…Seriously though growing sushi sounds great for soon the real thing will no longer exist.

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  10. 10. byronraum 5:20 pm 12/4/2009

    You say you became a vegetarian because every "sentient" creature fears death, and, I presume, you empathize with creatures made of meat. What makes you think that plants aren’t sentient, or that plants are less sentient than other animals? Look up Mythbuster’s testing of how plants responded to fear and pain.

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  11. 11. alinctout 8:03 pm 12/4/2009

    Why not? One, it would nourish some people and two, we would have a way of decreasing world population, which is the worst problem on earth at this time.

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  12. 12. EvolvingApe 8:05 pm 12/4/2009


    I am not sure of the point of your question, but please enlighten us.

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  13. 13. slvrwraith 6:13 pm 12/5/2009

    Humans, as a species, are wasteful, gluttonous, environmentally unsound and to a certain degree, too plentiful for the global ecosystem to support… I declare hunting season open, only one rule applies, you have to eat/use the entirety of whatever you kill. That includes skin, bones, hair, teeth, etc. I have almost 600in^2 of grilling space waiting… Who’s hungry?

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