From Cave Wall to Petri Dish
April 23, 2016
Some 30,000 years ago, our ancestors adorned the walls of Chauvet Cave in France with images of the beasts of their world- some familiar today, others impossibly exotic. These portraits of horses and cattle, of panthers and bears and hyenas were preserved by a cave-in and were left for millennia until by chance they were rediscovered, and later filmed by Werner Herzog in an extraordinary documentary.
This secret bestiary of the ancient world contained a curious anomaly that has puzzled scientists for almost 2 decades- in all the dozens of portraits on the walls of the cave, there was not a single depiction of any canine- no dogs, no wolves, nothing at all to suggest that man and his best friend had met. Yet the muddy ground of the cave told a different story- preserved for millennia, the tracks of a young boy of 10 or so years and the paws of a dog ran side by side the length of the cave.
We’re not sure when we first domesticated dogs, but the muddy evidence of this cave floor (coupled with the facts the tracks do not cross, and the lack of bones and slow gait do not imply the child was prey) suggest an idea I will use to frame the history of domestication- we did not paint the portraits of dogs in this cave because even then, this species was considered part of the human realm and not the wild one.
The animals on this cave wall can be roughly divided into two camps- those herbivores we domesticated, and the carnivores we hunted to irrelevance or extinction. The animals that are today clearly part of the human family- dogs, horses, cows, bison, represent some of the most populous species on our planet today- cave sloths? not so lucky.
The last 30,000 years of human history have slowly removed more and more animals from the walls of this cave and into the human family- and in all the time we have been domesticating animals, the family has only grown. Even animals who’s first role in the human family is no longer necessary (most of us don’t keep cats to prevent grain contamination by rodents, for instance, or horses for ploughing fields) have found a role as companions, and moved even deeper into the core human family. Today, a healthy chunk of the planet are lucky enough to have companion animals; an even bigger chunk of humanity enjoy meat, eggs and dairy produced by mutualistic relationships with other animals that sustain our species.
The portraits on the walls of this cave depict very different versions of the animals in the human family- somewhat like an old family photo, we have trouble identifying certain relatives who have grown in strange directions. The cattle of the cave have horns and ferocious glares- the horses look nervous and flighty. These animals have been changed by their departure from the cave wall- I’m keen to explore how.
Anyone who tells you that genetic engineering is a new pastime for humanity must be reminded of the history of herd animals. The cow, the chicken, and even the humble dog have passed through an incredible millennia of gradual manipulation to yield a species that conforms to our needs as humans. Our species optimized each one of these genetic codes with the patience of generations to perform the function we most desired of them- this is the reason why there are “egg chickens” and “meat chickens”, why there are “guard dogs” and “hunting dogs”, why horses can either run like the wind of haul several tons of cargo.
Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, we started to run into the limits of genetic manipulation by breeding, and began to look for even more clever ways to render the animals in the human family more efficient in what we desire of them. Antibiotics in meat animals is a perfect example of our thirst for optimization- when we first grasped the relationship between low-level antibiotic use and growth rates of meat animals, we were so enamoured with the new pharmacological manipulation that it quickly spread through the whole of north american meat production, heralded as a triumph.
Even these new ‘farmaceuticals’ were not enough to keep up with the insatiable demand for meat that arose during the 50’s and 60’s, and so we took a step further into industrialization. The modern meat production system further abstracted the animals role in the production of the meat we wanted- we removed the idea of their central role in the process and began to see the role of these animals not as a mutualized, give-and-take with our species, but as simply a catalyst- input grain, antibiotics and time, output meat, eggs, and dairy. The journey from the cave wall into the human family benefitted enormously the animals who made the journey, and until the latter half of the last century, we as a species maintained a mutualistic relationship with those species included in our family.
Anyone who has ever toured a modern CAFO will tell you that the degree by which our relationship with these animals benefits them is now called into question.
I will not dwell on the horrors of industrial meat- the subject has been covered extensively, and frankly, it depresses me. The important consideration is not the sin, but the evolution of the relationship- down from the cave wall, into our family, into our industrial system, into our medicine cabinet, and now, into new systems of control and manipulation.
In 2016, there exist today methods of creating meat that do not involve animals. This evolution is inevitable- the logical conclusion of our relationship with these animals we domesticated so long ago is to let go of the parts of the animals we do not need, and embrace a perfect industrial method of obtaining the outputs we desire.
Breeding was not enough. Pharmacological manipulation was not enough. Industrialization was not enough. Our desire for meat, eggs, dairy, and all the delicious and ritualized foods of our various cultures that developed alongside these animals for millennia will lead us to a oh-so-logical conclusion- a block of animal protein, a perfect cube of manipulated tissue, fed by saline solution and exercised by electric shock.
The feeling of discomfort and dread that seizes me when I consider The Flesh Cube is the thing that most interests me in the future of food.
My two questions are this-
Why would I be scared of this process when the morality of The Flesh Cube is so obviously superior to the industrialized misery that is the lives of a good portion of the animals we once painted on the walls of caves?
Do we as a species owe anything to these animals?
When I weigh the pros and cons of The Flesh Cube, I think about the negative externalities of the modern meat production system. I’ve written extensively about the coming explosion of demand for meat across the globe, so I will not re-tread that ground- suffice to say that we’ll need to evolve the relationship between humans and the animals that sustain us in order to avoid cataclysmic problems in climate, human nutrition, and animal welfare. The optimization to date will not be enough- The Flesh Cube is coming, and if 30,000 years of human history speak to anything, it is the inevitability of this next step.
Many folks I speak to who consider themselves enlightened foodies recoil at the thought of The Flesh Cube. The question we must ask ourselves is this- if we allowed our modern relationship with animals we eat devolve to the state that it is today, how can we stand on any moral high ground and hate on The Flesh Cube? It has no brain! No feelings! It does not yearn for grassy pasture, it does not seek companionship, it doesn’t run around and frolic in the spring time, it does not care for its young. The Flesh Cube is blissfully unaware of the industrial system it belongs to.
We took those animals off the cave wall, and into our family. Incrementally, year by year, we betrayed that mutualization by forgetting that those animals even existed in our thirst for delicious calories. We deserve The Flesh Cube, and so do the animals we have domesticated.
I want to propose a radical outcome to the coming age of artificial meat- we may have the opportunity to care for the animals we moved into the human family in a redefined role. We took the time, somewhere in the middle of the 17th century, to breed dogs to give and receive love and affection. We bred cats to belong in our hearts and homes. We bred horses to give us sport, friendship, even therapy. We have no concrete use for chickens other than meat and eggs- no Bison will end up as house pets, no off-leash cow parks will form in our cities. It is our moral imperative, eventually, to start to think up new places for these animals to thrive in the human context, when we no longer require their bodies as a catalyst for protein.
We need to start thinking about breeding pigs who eat invasive species. We may need cows who can revitalize degraded landscapes by creating uphill nutrient cycling. We need to start thinking about chickens as vehicles for teaching our kids about the natural world. We need goats who sequester carbon. In other words, the incredible efficiency we have found in these animals when we needed them for protein is not the end of the story- we must keep considering the role of these animals in solving human problems, so that the bonds of mutualization are not forgotten.
Our human family is going to need each and every species we domesticate to move our mutual future forward. We are arriving at the limits of industrialization, and will soon separate the animal and the output. This gives us an opportunity to see the animal anew, to redefine the mutual contract, and to transfer the animals we once needed for food into new roles that are truly mutualized.
We must not fear whatever final step protein production will take this generation; we must instead decide to create new bonds of trust with the animals in the human family by repurposing them, just like dogs and cats, into securing a better future.
Far in the future, archeologists will dig up the ruins of a modern industrial feedlot, or a modern industrial pig farm, and marvel at how far away from the cave wall we took things. By fulfilling the potential of these animals to help assist humans in solving new problems, we can honour the journey these species took with us while gently separating them from the inevitabilities inherent in 6 billion humans eating their body weight of animal protein per year. My final point- don’t fear The Flesh Cube, and embrace a new era of symbiosis with the cave wall.