by Eric Bies
Everyone is talking about artificial intelligence. This is understandable: AI in its current capacity, which we so little understand ourselves, alternately threatens dystopia and promises utopia. We are mostly asking questions. Crucially, we are not asking so much whether the risks outweigh the rewards. That is because the relationship between the first potential and the second is laughably skewed. Most of us are already striving to thrive; whether increasingly superintelligent AI can help us do that is questionable. Whether AI can kill all humans is not.
So laymen like me potter about and conceive, no longer of Kant’s end-in-itself, but of some increasingly possible end-to-it-all. No surprise, then, when notions of the parallel and the alternate grow more and more conspicuous in our cultural moment. We long for other science-fictional universes.
Happily, then, did the news of the FDA’s approval of one company’s proprietary blend of “cultured chicken cell material” greet my wonky eyes last month.
“Too much time and money has been poured into the research and development of plant-based meat,” I thought. “It’s time we focused our attention on meat-based meat.”
When I shared this milestone with my students—most of them high school freshmen—opinions were split. Like AI, lab-grown meat was quick to take on the Janus-faced contour of promise and threat. The regulatory thumbs-up to GOOD Meat’s synthetic chicken breast was, for some students, evidence of our steady march, aided by science, into a sustainable future. For other students, it was yet another chromium-plated creepy-crawly, an omen of more bad to come.
“You could make the case,” I shared with my third period, “that this stuff is vegan!”
A hand shot up. “Mr. Bies, could they do this with human meat?”
I knew that my students would learn about supply and demand in Econ their senior year. I also knew that many of them had watched the recent Netflix series about Jeffrey Dahmer.
“They could,” I replied. “But I can’t imagine any companies would. There isn’t a market for human meat.”
The following week, we read “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Roald Dahl’s superb short story about a pregnant housewife named Mary Maloney who murders her police detective husband, Patrick. Motivated by Patrick’s decision to leave her—perhaps for another woman; it isn’t clear—she clobbers him with a leg of lamb, hard as iron from the deepfreeze, and dutifully tucks the murder weapon away in the oven. Later, after calling the police and observing their fruitless search for evidence, Mary offers (practically begs) the detectives to eat the lamb she planned to serve to her poor dead husband. Sympathetic to her loss, and shaken by their occupational connection to the deceased, they agree to take a break and sit down for supper. The result is one of the great ironic conclusions in modern fiction—so effective that Hitchcock decided to adapt it for an episode of his popular television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
She could hear them speaking among themselves, and their voices were thick because their mouths were full of meat.
“Have some more, Charlie.”
“No, we’d better not finish it.”
“She wants us to finish it. She said we ought to eat it up.”
“That’s a big bar the murderer must have used to hit poor Patrick. The doctor says the back of his head was broken to pieces.”
“That’s why the weapon should be easy to find.”
“Exactly what I say.”
“Whoever did it, he can’t carry a weapon that big around with him.”
“Personally, I think the weapon is somewhere near the house.”
“It’s probably right under our noses. What do you think, Jack?”
And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to laugh.
Rarely does an ending so effectively exceed the promise of its premise. Some critics would have us think of such credible, logical, enjoyable endings as “cheap.” But the truth is that it is easier to think up a story that starts on a compelling note than one that ends on one. (Think now of how frequently you find yourself saying something started well, only for it to “peter out.”) Whether one is writing a story, an essay, or a poem, painting a painting or deliberating the termination of a relationship, endings are hard because they are beset by two nontrivial problems: when and how. For example, when Charles Lamb wrote his hilarious “Dissertation Upon Roast Pig,” did he know how or when he would end it? No matter how loose the outline, we are often thankful that our novelists and screenwriters have not solely proceeded by the seat of their pants. Yet the essay remains of so much interest to those who write and read them precisely because of this unfixed fluidity.
Lamb’s “Dissertation” begins with ancient history, hearkening back to a more primal era in which we ate our meat raw. Absolving himself of any real authority on the subject, pointing instead to “a Chinese manuscript, which [his] friend M. was obliging enough to read and explain to [him],” Lamb proceeds to rattle off a short farce about a Chinese swineherd whose son, having accidentally set fire to the farm, discovers that he is unable to control his cravings for the deliciously charred corpses of his father’s hogs.
Most readers who have encountered the essay remember it for this delightfully offbeat opening. If you had to say what makes it so lovely, you might point out how Lamb taps into something fundamental, something that most of us miss: that rich curiosity we experience during childhood. The question of how and when our species decided to devour our meat cooked instead of raw—right up there with the question of how we arrived at the resolution to chew on chunks of fermented milk—is a question of the type that lots of kids ask. Unfortunately for most of us, the older we get, the more we learn, the more we seem to feel we know enough—enough, at least, to get by. Even then, what we miss is not precisely the acquisition of new information. What we miss is the fun of asking questions.
No one reads much Lamb anymore, anyway. But neither does anyone read much of William Hazlitt, his contemporary. If I were to predict a literary revival for one or the other essayist, my heart would say Lamb. My brain would say Hazlitt, whose calling card was the acerbic, the cynical, not the whimsical or childlike.
Here is how Lamb ends his essay. Well, almost. I like the second-to-last paragraph more than the last.
I remember an hypothesis, argued upon by the young students, when I was at St. Omer’s, and maintained with much learning and pleasantry on both sides, “Whether, supposing that the flavor of a pig who obtained his death by whipping (per flagellationem extremam) superadded a pleasure upon the palate of a man more intense than any possible suffering we can conceive in the animal, is man justified in using that method of putting the animal to death?” I forget the decision.
If I were Lamb, that is how and that is when I would end my dissertation. I am not, of course, so I can’t. But I can dream of electric sheep. They will be on supermarket shelves once the USDA gives the OK.