“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw
Forget Zoom quizzes and Netflix binges. As we race to beat Covid infections with vaccine injections, 2021 is the year to step away from the screen and burrow down with a few good books.
Below I have selected two books that changed my mind in 2020 and made me see things from a fresh perspective. In our polarising times the capacity to puncture our confirmation biases and allow us to think outside the filter bubble is one of the great gifts of books.
1. Sex Robots and Vegan Meat, Jenny Kleeman
What if we could have babies without having to bear children, eat meat without killing animals, have the perfect sexual relationship without compromise or even choose a time for our painless death?
That’s the topic of Jenny Kleeman’s fascinating new book Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. The book examines four areas of human life that are being transformed by technology. Food, Sex, Birth and Death. I had read books previously that argued capitalism’s exploitation of our basic instincts was a dangerous trend. However this book was the first to fundamentally change my view on the ethics of lab grown meat.
One of the most illuminating chapters features artist and pioneering research scientist Oron Catts. Founder of the Tissue Culture and Art Project in 1996 Catts is considered one of the first researchers to successfully develop lab-grown animal tissue.
Up until reading the book I believed lab-grown meat to be an unequivocally positive development. New technologies will allow us to create delicious chicken wings and juicy steaks without the animal suffering and carbon footprint that traditionally go with it. Sounds ideal, right?
Catts is worried. He says humans driven by profit maximisation are not ready to control biological systems:
“If the cells of the corneas of a rabbit are still alive hours after the heart has stopped beating, is the rabbit still alive? Is it semi-alive? We have 50 words in the English language to describe shit and only one to describe life. So we can’t even put into words what we’re doing with in vitro meat..”
This lack of philosophical understanding when we tinker with the properties of life could lead to disastrous consequences warns Catts. ‘We suffer from cultural amnesia when it comes to our control of living systems. What we choose to do with life we will end up doing to ourselves.’
He warns that the systematic breeding of animals led to the eugenics of the twentieth century. The systematic growing of animal flesh in the twenty-first century will almost inevitably lead to the growing of human flesh in the near future.
The problems we face with animal agriculture could be solved by reducing meat consumption and introducing more ethical farming methods. Instead we are falling for a seductive ‘win-win’ capitalist narrative that we can eat as much meat as we like without negative consequences.
2. Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman
I’m not going to lie I was sceptical. I thought, oh no here comes another book seeking to be contrarian and present a romantic view of hunter-gatherer societies to suit the author’s predetermined narrative.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. From what happened in the real life ‘Lord of the Flies’ when shipwrecked schoolchildren banded together to support each other for fifteen months before they were rescued, to debunking the fraudulent Stanford Prison experiments which purported to show a thin veneer between civilised society and brutal savagery, this is a meticulously researched book that persuasively argues our understanding of human nature is wrong.
Bregman dives into some of the most well known philosophical texts and psychological experiments in history that supposedly provide the basis for the belief humans are governed by self interest. From Hobbes Leviathan to to Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment, Bregman picks apart these popular stories with countervailing evidence, compelling argument and storytelling flare.
The book changed by view of human nature. It builds upon the work of Yuval Noah Harari who revealed the role of cooperation in the evolution of homo sapiens. I finished the book with a much more optimistic view of who we are and how the systems around us can either cultivate or denigrate the decent nature of the human spirit.