Mind

Eugh!

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticAug 7, 2010 5:50 PM

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For want of a more interesting topic, the case of the cloned cow currently has the British media in a tizzy.

The idea of eating a cloned cow is apparently Wrong. Now personally, as a vegetarian, I agree, but that has nothing to do with the "cloned" part. However, for those who don't see a problem in eating cows, eating cloned cows should be no biggie because a cloned cow is, by definition, a cow.

Even if something did go wrong, and the cow ended up mutated, eating a mutant cow is not exactly a death sentence. It's not as if its DNA gets incorporated into yours when you eat it. DNA gets digested pretty quick for one thing, and for another, unless you're a bacteria your cells don't just go around incorporating bits of DNA that they find lying around. You are what you eat, but not literally.

So why is this such a hot topic? Because it's rather disgusting and unnerving. Probably because a cloned animal occupies the uncanny valley: it's a living creature, but it's also "artificial" - it was created in a lab. There's little rhyme or reason to this. Eating lots of red meat poses a finite risk of heart disease and cancer, or more immediately, you could choke to death or die on the road on the way to buy it. Neither's very likely, but they are known risks.

But then, no-one said disgust makes sense. No-one is silly enough to build a moral philosophy based around waxing lyrical about the "wisdom of repugnance" or ... oh hang on. Hmm. Go get a glass of water. Spit in it, and drink it. Eugh, that's a disgusting idea. You didn't do it. I wouldn't. Even though our mouths are full of spit and we're drinking it, 24/7. You can't trust disgust.

Ultimately cloned-cow-gate is just a silly season story, but disgust can mislead us when it comes to much more important matters. How much of the opposition to, say, organ donation is based on a rational weighing-up of the costs and benefits - the consequences, or in other words, what actually exists - and how much is based on "eugh" - what's in our own heads?

A couple of years ago there was a scandal in the UK when some organs were transplanted from deceased people who had registered as donors but who may not have given permission for those specific organs to be taken. This was a scandal, not because anyone was actually harmed (if anything lives were saved) but because the idea of harvesting organs without permission is just, eugh.

Still, this kind of thing isn't limited to "conservatives"; people of a liberal disposition like to think that their opinions on things like end-of-life medicine and biotechnology are based on reasons rather than emotions, but liberals have emotions too. I opposed the invasion of Iraq, I marched on February 15th, and in the light of what's happened since I stand by that, well 90% of the time.

But I confess that my opposition was based less on weighing up the overall consequences (to Iraqis and others), and more on "Eugh - we shouldn't drop bombs on Iraqi kids". That's a pretty powerful Eugh. But if I'm going to be consistent, I'll have to admit that this was not a case of practising what I've preached in this post.

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