Is Eating Synthetic Human Flesh Cannibalism? 

By Whitney Kimball on at

A disgusting factor which separates consuming human flesh from consuming muscle tissue of non-speaking animals is that you can’t separate eating dead humans from eating live humans. In the way that you call a baby cow “veal” or a pig “pork,” human flesh is just human flesh—you wouldn’t think about eating Dave’s “rounds” or his “snout,” you would think about eating Dave’s ass and face.

But what about consuming cloned, lab-grown human flesh? The very idea is fictional (specifically, in Brandon Cronenberg’s 2013 sci-fi horror Antiviral, for example) and we are far from the future where this is possible. But is eating cloned human tissue technically cannibalism?

And, hypothetically, what about synthetic human meat, grown without a genetic human donor? Even lab-grown animal meat hasn’t reached that goal yet. As of this summer, lab-grown beef still originates from “fetal bovine serum”—the blood of cow fetuses removed live from their slaughtered mothers and have their blood drained from their beating hearts until they die. (Hampton Creek claims it is attempting to approximate meat cells from its “plant library.” Mark Post, co-founder of Mosa Meats famous for introducing the first cultured hamburger, tells Gizmodo cryptically that researchers are looking at “harmless cells,” for example cells from feathers. “My guess is that they we will gradually move towards an animal-free way of producing meat, but thus far this is not possible with the current state of technology without using gene technology.”)

But imagine that lab-grown human calf muscle appears in a petri dish without involving a human fetus. Is consuming a synthetic human burger cannibalistic? Or does it become just a burger?

William Miller

Author of Anatomy of Disgust, professor of law, expert in Icelandic studies

I think a real cannibal would be appalled at eating such crap. A cannibal has to, or wants to, or is obliged to eat flesh from a real human. That’s what we call a cannibal. At least, I’m thinking of two cultural types of cannibalism recorded in the anthropological literature: One where you kind of take in the soul of your enemy [a wartime custom practiced by various peoples], and the other where you actually eat your relatives as part of a religious obligation and it would be rather ritualized [such as the Wari’ from Brazil].

In either case, there’s a reason for you doing it that gives sense to what you’re doing that is not just of the cheap thrill variety, you know? This test tube human flesh you propose to serve up is just a kind of moral cop-out, It’s [a moral cop-out] like using potato flour for Passover to make pastries that mimic fully the very food you are not supposed to eat.

One of the reasons that your question creeps me out is you’re just faced with the fact that you’re somehow taking yourself out of the natural world by eating that... A lot of the things that I find kind of gut-wrenchingly disgusting are sci-fi futures that are kind of a restructuring what the normal is in human existence because medical and biological science has gotten so sophisticated that it can do things that we were never meant to be able to do and really should not be done.

...I think it’s like what people sneer at as first world problems. These are the kind of very trivial moral issues that too bored, too rich produce, because our technological know how has outstripped, or is even harming, our already decaying moral sensibility. That said: It’s not like people didn’t worry about what they ate once they had enough to eat. I mean, culture itself, our first cultural rules, are basically to regulate who you can screw and what you can eat, right?

Jacob Appel

Bioethicist and author of The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up

The question of whether or not such a practice would be cannibalism is probably best left to a linguist or a culinary authority.

The only ethical concern would be that the appeal of this faux human meat might lead psychopaths with adventurous palates to pursue human meat on the bone. On a more practical level, it is hard to imagine consumers lining up for lab-grown human meat, even if there are no ethical objections. Cultural norms often prevent us from engaging in perfectly rational or moral activities. For example, fresh road kill might be as tasty as hunted meat, but few of us comb the streets scavenging recently run over deer and opossums. So I am not too worried about the faux meat producers putting Frank Perdue out of business any time soon.

Oron Catts

Co-founder of SymbioticA, researcher and artist who works with semi-living tissue as material, such as an artist-grown “leather” jacket

The question touches on one of the issues that have been keeping me busy for more than twenty years.

…This [case] in particular [demonstrates] what Ionat Zurr and myself refer to as the semi-living. The semi-living are fragments of complex bodies (read: tissues and cells) that are maintained alive and growing within a technological context. There is still no consensus regarding where these technological life forms fit. Lab grown meat is a great example of that, and when it comes to human cells grown outside of the body, we need to ask if these cells are still considered to be human at all.

In 1991 Van Valen and Maiorana proposed that the first human cell line, the now famous HeLa cells should be considered “a new microbial species.” In the article published in the “Journal of Evolutionary Theory,” they state: “Species originated in diverse ways. HeLa cells are the best-known cultured cells of human origin. We here propose, in all seriousness, that they have become a separate species restricted to a particular environment.” (Van Velen and Maiorana 1991).

If we accept their logic, we can conclude that eating human derived in-vitro meat should not be considered cannibalism, as long as the cells that are grown have been changed in one way or another so they become “a new microbial species.” I.e., the cells would have to go through an X number of cell growth cycles before they are made into meat.

Then what would you consider a lab-grown, thinking (semi-living) human-derived brain confined to a 375 degree lab environment? It would be a different species—but would consuming it be considered an act adjacent to cannibalism?

Can we create sentience in a dish? Not any time soon. As with most tissue types/organs, there is still a long way to go before they can be grown in 3D, as no one solved yet the issue of internal plumbing; how to provide nutrients deep into thick tissue. This is one of the reasons we need to be skeptical about claims about 3D printed organs and tissue. So no thick brains in bottle any time soon. But even if that is going to happen, I’m personally leaning to the side of embodied cognition; if you grow human nerve cells without a body you will not get human consciousness. You might get a form of awareness and sentience, but I would not consider that to be human. This is not a clone, as clones have bodies–they [clones] are human in the same way that identical twin are.

But let’s speculate on the future existence of sentient beings grown in the lab, or in silico (i.e artificial intelligence/artificial life) and the type of ethical consideration that is needed to extended to them…

As much of the effort in the field of growing lifeforms is driven by commercial interest, engineering mindset of utility and human wants, it might be difficult to see a way where our relationship to these lifeforms would be anything but exploitative. In other words, as biology becoming a technology and life becomes a raw material to be engineered, ethical concerns would be seen as a roadblock to so-called innovation.

Interestingly, one of the arguments of the proponents of lab grown meat is based on the ethics of growing non-sentient slabs of meat rather than killing sentient beings.

Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina

Professor and IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University

Lab-grown meat that resembles, not that it is derived from an actual human person, does not meet the criteria to regard it coming from “human being.” Hence, the question you raise has an analogy in cloning, for instance, heart valves that resemble in strength and durability of a pig’s valve (scientifically used for transplant in human heart). “Human meat” produced through scientific method rather than human person is actually non-human in physical sense. It is human only in biochemical composition. The question of soul arises in human beings as created by nature and that is within the power of divine not human science. Science can create conditions (like cloning), but ensoulment is still in divine jurisdiction in Islam.

Then in your opinion would eating a cloned, fully formed human being—not simply lab-grown human meat—be considered cannibalism?

As long as the entity is fully grown human being, it will be cannibalism to eat his/her meat. No, as long as the cloned human being acts like other human beings (reason, emotions, love, hate) then he/she even as a cloned being qualifies as another human being.

Bill Schutt

Professor of biology and author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History

I find it funny that this is the second time I’ve been asked that in the last three days (and never before that). I define cannibalism as an individual consuming part or all of an individual of the same species. This question seems to fall into a gray area along with things like eating one’s own fingernails. I suppose if these are cultured humans cells we’re talking about, then I’d have to say yes, I’d consider this cannibalism.

I spoke with an artist who says that he considers lab-grown in vitro human meat as of an entirely different microbial species, confined to human-controlled environments. A theologian said that he would consider lab-grown tissue without a soul, and therefore non-human. Would you say that the difference is mostly semantics? That if it smells and tastes like a human fingernail, then it’s a human fingernail? Then it’s technically cannibalism, just to varying degrees? 

...If those cultures you mentioned were derived/grown from human cells, then I could see consuming them (which is certainly not likely) listed this as a sort of fringe version (gray area) of cannibalism.

Also if it’s a human tissue culture than it isn’t “an entirely different microbial species.” Microbes are single-celled organisms. This is a cell culture or a tissue culture. It isn’t an individual any more than an isolated neuron or muscle fiber is an individual.

Mark Post

Professor of the University of Maastricht, co-founder of Mosa Meats famous for introducing the first cultured hamburger

That never almost never comes up in adult audiences, but it pops up frequently when I talk to kids about cultured meat. People see it as cannibalism and given the taboo, I think it is unhelpful to start the discussion at this stage when consumers still need to get their head around the idea of non-human cultured meat.

The most frequently asked ‘moral’ question is how cultured could change the world: what happens to farmers, the land, the animals?

Why do you think kids’ minds go there, and what other questions do they typically ask? How do you answer them?

For kids the whole cannibalism thing is not so much a taboo as it is for us post-pubescent folk. A German design-professor once pointed out to me that Freud talked about the taboo on cannibalism functioning to suppress our innate desire (as ultimate sexual experience) to eat ourselves. I have never checked that to be honest. Kids also ask about cloning, specifically of their lost pets.

Psychologists have a name for this disconnect between the emotions around a living animal and its suffering (or in extreme situations of human suffering) and the benefits humans reap from it: cognitive dissonance. Having a name still does not explain how this works, but it is a pretty universal human (and perhaps also other animals) trait. It could be seen as a basic survival instinct with apparently a hierarchy in it: killing other animals for food and only killing other humans in the event of threat (we even have self-defence in our laws as a valid excuse to harm other people). The hierarchy itself also fits well with the survival instinct: few cows, pigs or chicken kill people so there is little retaliation to be expected.

Nando Parrado

Author, entrepreneur, survivor of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes, in which he and fifteen other survivors were forced to eat the meat of the victims, including their friends, in order to survive 72 days in the snow

First of all, people... should be educated to know that the word “cannibalism” is wrongly used most of the time. What we did is antropophagy. Cannibalism is when somebody kills to eat. We did the most beautiful thing in the world, which is donating in complete consciousness our bodies to our friends. We were the first official conscient donors on this planet. How many persons donate their organs now? Actually, because of our experience, every Uruguayan that is born, by law, is a donor in our country. Can you imagine how many lives have been saved?

Hunger is the most primitive fear of the human being and it will be never be experienced in its fullness, unless the stakes are real.

Anyway, I never had to explain anything to anybody, as being the most important experts in this matter in the world, we know that any person, in the given circumstances, would have done the same. Even you.

I do not have any idea, if it would be considered antropophagy. I still think that humanity is the same as ever.