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Friday, July 6, 2012

Acceptable Cannibalism

Our reactions to the taboo of cannibalism is probably one of the most visceral. Although the very thought of cannibalism invokes either a murderous Jeffrey Dahmer or a convicted Alfred Packer, humans eating other human tissue is not something always outrageous. Milk, for example, is exuded by mothers specifically to feed their children, but a taboo is invoked when adults consume human milk (say, for example, in the form of breast milk ice cream - prepared by a Lady Gaga impersonator no less). 

Not leaving males out of the donor pool: semen is certainly no stranger to being consumed. But in both these cases, the material is easily ejected and unbloodied. The practice of placentophagy (eating placenta), is more involved. Among mammals in the wild, mothers regularly consume the afterbirth, and the practice is not uncommon among human cultures. Recipes are not difficult to come by, and some midwives extol the benefits of eating the placenta for the recovering mother. I don't think that has been scientifically studied, but this practice trips enough cultural nerves as is. Some practitioners sanitize it by dehydrating the placenta, powdering it, and packaging it as capsules. 

But scientific advance blurs borders. A recent article of making recombinant human gelatin by splicing in human collagen genes into yeast triggered an enormous amount of speculation. The popular dessert Jell-O is made from gelatin; if prepared from the collagen making yeast (human or otherwise) is now a vegan item? And cannibalistic at the same time?

But we don't have to resort to genetic engineering. Technology is advancing the production of meat in culture vats. Combine that with stem cell technology for building transplantable tissue, and we can forsee a day when we can grow human tissue for epicurean purposes. When that day comes, what solid premise does the taboo hold?

Note: this article was originally published earlier, but is reposted due to a glitch.

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