Futurologist Ian Pearson recently predicted that by 2050 it will be possible to implant devices into our pets and other animals to give them the ability to speak to us.
This raises the interesting question of whether such a device would provide animals raised and slaughtered for food with a voice, and whether this voice would make us think twice about eating them.
It’s important to first get straight what such technology would and would not enable animals to do. It’s doubtful that this technology would enable animals to coordinate their efforts to overthrow their captors in some Orwellian fashion.
Animals already communicate with each other in ways that are meaningful to them, but they do not communicate in ways that would allow them to intricately coordinate their efforts with each other. Such large-scale strategy requires additional abilities, including a firm grasp of grammar and a rich ability to reason about the minds of others.
What this technology would probably do is provide some semantic overlay to animals’ current communicative repertoire (for example: “bark, bark!” rendered as: “intruder, intruder!”). It is possible that this ability alone might be compelling for some people to stop eating meat, that we can’t help but “humanise” talking cows and pigs or see them as more like ourselves.
There is some empirical evidence to support this idea. A group of researchers led by Brock Bastian asked people to write a short essay outlining the many ways in which animals are quite similar to humans. Other participants wrote about the ways in which humans are quite similar to animals. Participants who humanised animals had more positive views of them than those who animalised humans.
So if this technology had the ability to make us think of animals more like humans, then it could promote better treatment of animals.
Food trends in 2016
Food trends in 2016
1/11 Celeriac root
We had a kale obsession in 2015, but 2016’s vegetable sine qua non is predicted to be the knobbly celeriac root. Celeriac milk (Tom Hunt at Poco in Bristol serves it with winter mussels and wild water celery), celeriac cooked in Galician beef fat (from Adam Rawson of Pachamama, hot new chef in the capital) and salt-baked celeriac (to be found in Matthew and Iain Pennington’s kitchens at The Ethicurean in the West Country) are just a few examples.
2/11 Middle Eastern food
The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook (£24.95, Phaidon) by grand-dame Salma Hage, author of the bestseller The Lebanese Kitchen (whose halva is pictured here), is out in April
© Liz & Max Haarala Hamilton
3/11 Non-alcoholic cocktails
Grain Store mixologist Tony Conigliaro has created Roman Redhead, a riot of red grape juice, beetroot, pale ale and verjus, and Rose Iced Tea (black tea, rose petals, anise essence, pictured here)
The discerning will be slurping Hepple gin – from chef Valentine Warner and cocktail guru Nick Strangeway – which is punctuated with bog-myrtle nuances
5/11 Argyll and Bute
Restaurant followers are getting in a froth about Pam Brunton in Scotland, who opened the Inver restaurant in Argyll and Bute to acclaim last year
6/11 Andy Oliver’s Som Saa
One of the most eagerly awaited restaurants of 2016 will be the permanent incarnation of Andy Oliver’s remarkable pop-up Som Saa opening very soon in east London. Oliver, who worked at Thai god David Thompson’s Nahm in Bangkok, raised a whopping £700,000 through crowdfunding, and is renowned for his piquant Thai flavours and obsessive attention to detail, including in his home ferments and DIY coconut cream
© Adam Weatherley
Another ruminant in vogue is venison, with Sainsbury’s doubling its line for 2016. It provides a protein-packed punch, with B vitamins and iron, and it’s low in fat. Its entry into the mainstream is in part thanks to the Scottish restaurant Mac and Wild, just opened in London, whose Celtic head chef Andy Waugh (who also runs the Wild Game Co) has been touting it as street food for years (his venison burger pictured here)
From Brett Graham’s The Ledbury to Angela Hartnett’s kitchens at Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest, Cabrito is the go-to goat supplier among the chef cognoscenti (roasted loin of kid pictured here) – but this year, domestic cooks can get in on the action, as Sushila Moles and James Whetlor of Cabrito offer their meat through Ocado
Mike Lusmore / mikelusmore.com
Coffee sage George Crawford is launching the much-anticipated Cupsmith with his partner, Emma. Crawford believes that 2016 is the year purist coffee will finally meet the masses; Cupsmith’s mission will be to make craft coffee as popular as craft beer on the high street. The company roasts Arabica beans in small batches, improving its quality – but sells it online, at cupsmith.com, in an approachable way: expect cheerful packaging and names such as Afternoon Reviver Coffee (designed for drinking with milk – no matter how uncouth, most of us want milk) and Glorious Espresso
10/11 120-day-old steak
Hanging meat for extremely long lengths of time has become an art. In Cumbria, Lake Road Kitchen’s James Cross is plating up 120-day-old steak (pictured here). The beef is from influential “ager” Dan Austin of Lake District Farmers, who is currently investigating the individual bacterial cultures that go into this maturing process
11/11 Lotus root
Diners can expect root-to-stem dining - cue the full lotus deployed by the Michelin-starred Indian Benares in its kamal kakdi aur paneer korma
Meat is murder
But let’s imagine for a moment that the technology could do something more – it could reveal more of the animal’s mind to us. One way this could benefit animals is it would show us that animals think about their future. This might stop us from eating animals because it would force us to see animals as beings who value their own lives.
The whole notion of “humane” killing is based on the idea that as long as you take efforts to minimise an animal’s suffering, it is okay to take its life. Since animals do not consider their lives in the future – they are stuck in the “here and now” – they do not value their future happiness.
If technology could allow animals to show us that animals do have future aspirations (imagine hearing your dog say: “I want to play ball”), and that they value their lives (“Don’t kill me!”), it is possible that this technology could stir in us deeper compassion for animals killed for meat.
However, there are also reasons to be sceptical. First, it is possible that people would simply attribute the speaking ability to the technology and not to the animal. Therefore, it would not really change our fundamental view of the animal’s intelligence.
Second, people are oftentimes motivated to ignore animal intelligence information anyway.
Rationalising our diet
Steve Loughnan of the University of Edinburgh and I recently ran a series of studies – part of a project which is yet to be published – where we experimentally varied people’s understanding of how intelligent various animals are. What we found is that people use intelligence information in a way that prevents them from having to feel bad about participating in the harm inflicted on intelligent animals in their own culture. People ignore information about the intelligence of animals when an animal is already used as food in one’s culture. But when people think about animals that are not used as food, or animals used as food in other cultures, they do think an animal’s intelligence matters.
So it is possible that providing animals with the means to speak to us would not change our moral attitude at all – at least not for animals that we already eat.
We have to remember what should already be obvious: animals do talk to us. Certainly they talk to us in ways that matter for our decisions about how to treat them. There is not much difference in a crying frightened child and a crying frightened piglet. Dairy cows that have their calves stolen from them soon after birth are believed by some to bemoan the loss weeks afterwards with heart wrenching cries. The problem is that we often do not take the time to really listen.