I wrote this essay a few years ago for a futurist publication after I gave a talk about the future of in vitro meat – now smartly rebranded as clean meat.
Lately clean meat has been in the news because it’s making huge strides in development and market uptake. For example, chicken clean meat is now sold in Singapore. Chicken, an Israeli test kitchen, is feeding free clean meat to diners in exchange for feedback.
I strongly endorse clean meat- it seems the best way to reduce animal suffering available. But, I have always been concerned that our evolved disgust sensitivity to food, especially meat, might ipede its development and uptake. Some of the specifics of clean meat, like its production (e.g. fetal bovine serum) and price, are from 2015- but the core message about the costs of conventional meat production, the benefits of clean meat uptake, and the potential psychological obstacles are very relevant today. I also discuss clean meat in my recent animal ethics and evolutionary psychology chapter.
I’ve been married to Geoffrey Miller, just over a year. Our first anniversary was November 29th, 2020. In this first year we honeymooned in China, Indonesia and Singapore, locked down together, gave talks together, renovated and sold a house together and took a road trip from New Mexico to the East Coast where we are now. We figured out a lot about each other and how to live together.
This is first blog I’ll write about our wedding. We were inspired to share by our friends Eben Pagan and Annie Lala, who wanted their wedding to be “open source” and posted their extraordinary vows online.
Sex is consistently underrated as a driver of innovation. Yes, space exploration helped us develop the technology for things like cochlear implants, powdered (machine) lubricants and scratch resistant lenses. Lust has furthered the development of cash transfers, point-of-view filming and video chat. I predict that historians of the development of artificial intelligence are going to see sexual gratification as one of the phenomenon’s great motivators. Evolutionary psychology can give us insight into how sex robots are going to develop and the ramifications they’ll have on society.
In summary, Practical Veganism was about what animal foods cause more and less suffering- information that people very rarely consider when they’re deciding what to eat. The “suffering footprint” is a way of quantifying the amount of suffering caused when you buy animal products. 53% of people in a nationally representative US survey said they were trying to consumer fewer animal based foods (and 63% thought everyone else should consume fewer animal based foods!). But when people reduce their consumption of animal products they usually shift from eating pigs and cows to eating fish, chicken and eggs. The claim I make in the piece is that this shift actually increases the suffering footprint relative to something like a diet of only red meat. This is because chickens and fish are much smaller than pigs and cows, which means there is more suffering per calorie and chickens and fish have worse lives on average than cows and maybe pigs. There were some criticisms of the piece that I’ll unpack further here. See for example some interesting critique on Reddit and on Twitter. See answers to questions about the environment, fish sentience, whether domesticated animals actually have it really good, aliens and human farming after the jump.
Last month I had this discussion on free will versus determinism with Gena Gorlin, a clinical psychologist who expressed a great deal of skepticism about an evolutionary approach to clinical psychology and mental health in our conversation. I was reminded that, in the therapeutic community, an evolutionary perspective is often considered wrongheaded, counterproductive and offensive to human dignity.
Good Reasons for Bad Feelings is essential reading for anyone interested in how an evolutionary perspective improves our thinking about mental health. And skeptics will appreciate that it’s honest about stuff we really don’t understand.
I have a chapter coming out on animal ethics and evolutionary psychology for the third volume of the SAGE Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology edited by Todd Shackelford. This volume on applications of evolutionary psychology will cover a wide range of topics that are rarely tackled from this perspective, like artificial intelligence, climate change, dangerous driving behavior, incarceration, meditation and cyberwarfare.
Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology (read the whole chapter here) attempts to untangle some of the evolutionary reasons why have such inconsistent attitudes towards animals. Below I quote parts of the chapter- for full references, check out the original.
In John’s April 21st blog he talks about 8 possible moral revolutions that could come out of this pandemic: hyperutilitarianism, the end of work, a renegotiated social contract, the new death of privacy, the uncertain fate of universalism and cosmopolitanism, a return of disgust based morality, an increase in concern about animal ethics and an increased concern with existential risk. In our conversation, John specified that moral revolutions don’t necessarily mean societies are becoming more progressive, moral or civilized; Moral revolutions can cut both ways.
Sudden progressive changes in moral ideals are pretty rare. When they do happen it’s because the change in morality conferred some status, reputational or economic benefit, or at least prevented punishment from a high status moral minority. Civil rights for Black people in America was a moral revolution and the acceptance of gay marriage, gay relationships and trans identity was a much faster American moral revolution. But, in part because meat eating is so normal and animals (especially farm animals hidden from view) are not generally capable of conferring a moral revolution for animals has really never taken off, as I describe in a forthcoming chapter (and I’ll be writing a few blogs on this chapter).
So, is Covid19 going to have an effect on morality? Here are my thoughts about the intersection of Covid19 and a popular idea in evolutionary psychology, the parasite stress theory. I conclude by discussing the possibility that Covid19 will change our susceptibility to existential risk. There are two follow up blogs, one on how Covid19 might change attitudes towards animals and another on how Covid19 might change our attitudes to government and work.
In this blog, I first discuss the aspects of in vitro meat that are still potentially unethical. Then I talk a bit about how disgust, and the groups that are most disgust sensitive, may reduce the impact that in vitro meat will have on the reduction of animal suffering.
I wrote this paper for an evolutionary psychology seminar run by David Buss back in 2007 when I was working towards my PhD. Around that time David had published many papers and The Murderer Next Door, a book that outlined his thesis that murder is an adaptation. This was contrary to Martin Daly and Margot Wilson’s thesis that murder is a byproduct as outlined in their masterful book, Homicide. David’s papers both on homicide and on conflict between the sexes had a big influence on my thinking here.
A couple of months before I wrote this paper I had only ever heard Skinner strongly criticized by evolutionary psychologists and social psychologists, who made up much of the department at UT Austin. When I picked up Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I expected that I’d write a strong critique. It ended up being one of my favorite books. Reading it was so rewarding that it’s probably caused me to read more stuff I thought I would disagree with over the years. Meta. I assigned the first chapter, A Technology of Behavior (you can read it here), to over a thousand undergraduates in the UK over the years, with pretty polarized responses.
I don’t agree with everything in this essay anymore, of course I hardly knew anything about behaviorism at that time and had only read Skinner on behaviorism. By 2007 behaviorism had dealt with many of the critiques I lay out here, for example, equipotentiality. But this is a good insight into the origins of the book and other projects I’m working on now. I’ve edited it a bit and added commas, which I’m terrible at using now, and was even worse about using then. I’ve added a few links to clarify some concepts and save the reader a google.