The Farm Animal’s Dilemma

There are 9.1 billion farm animals, raised on 2.1 million farms. Animal rights advocates are quick to point out not only this terrifying ratio, but that 95% of these animals are raised using “factory farming” techniques. These are methods which, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “focus on profit and efficiency at the expense of animal welfare”. And, according to them and to most humans, that is a bad thing.

Wait a minute — animal welfare? — I mean that’s a weird idea right? How come these animal rights activists get to decide what “welfare” is — have animals told them when they’re doing “well” and when they’re not?. I’m not playing dumb here — I know that scientifically, animals can express emotions that are quite similar to humans, that they can feel happy and sad. I also know that animals can require social interactions, that they can care for their young, and that they can be depressed when a loved one dies. In fact, I’m working on a startup that’s helping researchers capitalize on these and other similarities between animals and humans (find out more here).

But does being “happy”, or “comfortable”, mean that an animal — or even a human for that matter — is doing well, or, considering well-being is scalar, well-enough? And for that matter, how well is well-enough?

If this is starting to sound like an arbitrary discussion around semantics, its not. That’s because nature has a created a very real threshold for how well is well-enough, no matter how you choose to define the concept. See, wellness can be a set of any number of things — from happiness, to comfort, to physical strength, to agility — but the laws of natural selection tell us, as long as any animal survives and reproduces, it must be doing well; at least, well enough to contribute its genes to the following gene pool.

And so, we can go back to these animal rights activists and show them they’re wrong, that these farm animals must be doing well for they are both surviving and reproducing. Obviously they are, otherwise how would any livestock company be making any money. In fact, these “factory farming” methods are designed to optimize for maximal reproduction. Turns out most pigs want to stay with their mothers for nearly twice as long as they need to to survive, and factory methods prevent that, freeing up more opportunities for mothers to reproduce. Farm animals don’t have to worry about food, water, or shelter, either; from a survival point of view, they have it pretty good.

But…but…but… despair, discomfort? Don’t these count for anything? What good is survival if it’s a life spent in pain? We ask these questions because these feelings matter to us, because we understand these emotions and as a society — centuries ago, when Renaissance deified the human condition and Thomas Jefferson made the case for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — gave them importance.

But before that, they were simply tools. Algorithmic outputs that allowed wild pigs to respond to the world around them. Pigs that didn't stick together died off, so only the ones that felt the need to stick together — felt pain when they didn't — survived. And now their offspring, isolated from companionship in cages less than a meter wide, are forced to feel the same pain that kept their race alive in the wake of predators and natural forces.

If natural selection had its way, the pigs that felt the most pain wouldn't reproduce. They would die too early and a hundred years from now we would be left with a species that, in general, would love being isolated, and would in fact feel pain in the company of other pigs. But that’s exactly the problem. Natural selection doesn't have its way; we won’t let it. Every pig has to survive, every pig has to reproduce, that’s the only way to maximize profits. And who cares about pain anyways?

It’s quite the dilemma isn’t it? We have a human-designed system that’s working in direct opposition to another system deeply rooted in nature. “Factory Farming” vs. Natural Selection — and at the center of it, the poor pig, who is well-fed yet would love nothing more than to walk a few meters outside to its meal, reproduces yet spends not nearly enough time with its young, survives, and hates every minute of it. These emotions are the outputs of an algorithm designed for a different world, one it has evolved to thrive in, if only it existed. It’s even an algorithm that’s designed to change with the world, but not for a world that doesn’t reveal when it’s wrong.

Sucks for that damn pig. Remind you of anyone?

I asked my brother what the most valuable thing in the world was. He’s in 8th grade. He responded “A human life” (this is actually true, if you know him you can ask him). His mindset is common, and one that is valued in a post-humanist society. It’s also the mindset that encourages keeping near-death patients on life-support at tremendous emotional and fiscal cost to their family. It’s the mindset that’s spurring Silicon Valley — my birthplace and hometown’s — obsession with immortality. In a time where we’ve doubled our lifespan in less than a century, its important to remember, we aren’t that different from pigs.

There are certain pressures that have lead us to this point in human development — “war, plague, and hunger”, as cited by Yuval Noah Harari in his “Homo Deus” — are a few that come to mind. We’ve evolved to respond to these pressures, but much like the pigs we eat with breakfast every morning, we’re finding that the world may have changed too quickly for us to change with it. Market forces have responded to our obsession with human life in the only way they know how — by giving us everything we could have ever wanted, faster, easier, and cheaper than ever before. Fast food made it possible to get a high calorie meal at any minute of the day, social media — to feel connected, electric heaters — to feel warm. We’re lonelier and more depressed than ever, yet all our needs are satisfied. We’re just like that damn pig, finding ourselves in a world where we have everything we want, only to realize we were designed to chase those things, not to have them.

Our emotions aside, in a way natural selection has done its job: its created a gene pool that is optimized to keep humans surviving and reproducing — regardless of how we feel when doing so. Feelings are just chemicals anyways; with drugs, they can be manipulated and engineered like anything else. So now what? If, through engineering, humanity can potentially get everything its ever wanted, where do we go from here? For centuries we’ve defined what it means to ‘be human’ by our needs — emotional and physical; if these disappear, does our identity disappear along with them?

Maybe these very questions are why, as we continue to engineer a world that can provide us with everything, my generation is starting to feel lost. I don’t want to become a doctor, because in a planet with close to 8 billion people, is saving more lives really beneficial? I don’t want to become a engineer because I can’t understand if technology connects us or alienates us, if it makes us more human, or less. I don’t want to become a scientist, because how will defeating death change how we value life? Government is becoming less and less relevant as billionaires take the helm, leading us towards space and immortality, goals that we have set for ourselves without taking a moment to consider their implications. Its one thing to say the world too quickly for natural selection to do its job, but we’ve created a system where we’re changing the world too quickly to even understand where we’re headed, and why we’re headed there.

We need to stop and think. But we won’t. Because stopping and thinking doesn’t make anyone any money. Because stopping and thinking is the job of philosophers, writers, and historians; but college students are told if they want a job, they need a STEM degree.

I envy the animals; their fate isn’t their own doing. At least they have us to cause, consider and debate their condition. When humans begin to find themselves in a system that “focus(es) on profit and efficiency at the expense of animal welfare”, who’s going to worry about us? It really is tragic, because some day very soon we’ll have conquered the stars and live forever, with all our needs fulfilled. But when that day comes, we won’t be wasting any time trying to define “human welfare” — or even “human”, for that sake. Love, pain, despair — what difference will these feelings make when we have everything we could ever need? Perhaps robots won’t take over the world in the apocalyptic way we see on television and in movies, perhaps someday we’ll just become them; who knows, maybe some of us already have.

Co-Founder @ FMB Technologies | Bioengineering @ Berkeley

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