Why Thinking Meat?
I’m not sure I remember exactly when I first started to use the phrase “thinking meat”. It might have been when I was reading an article about whether or not exposure to video display terminals causes miscarriages. I was struck by the way people want to know why something happens, so that they can take action to avoid having it happen to them, or perhaps even comfort themselves by thinking “That couldn’t happen to me because…” A surprisingly high fraction of pregnancies just don’t work; the embryo just isn’t viable. But a lot of people don’t want to accept that we’re subject to the vagaries of biological chance. Because we’re conscious and become emotionally attached to each other, we suffer more from things that leave plenty of other creatures untroubled. In nature, lots of creatures have far more eggs or offspring than can survive, and the mother turtle, for example, doesn’t grieve because a lot of the young die. But it’s different for us.
So the thinking meat dilemma began with a curiosity about how people live with being meat, subject to all of the infections and injuries and wear and tear and deterioration that meat can suffer, while being conscious loving beings with feelings and vivid imaginations, who want to be here and fear having to leave, who grow attached to others just as vulnerable.
It can be scary to be a mortal animal walking around an uncertain world. You probably saw some of the horrifying images from the aftermath of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, not to mention the images of people leaping from the World Trade Center to their deaths on September 11. And as awful as those things were, what can happen to the brain is worse. Think of Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Recently, the finance manager of the city of Phoenix came to a horrifying end, climbing onto the top of his car while he was driving down the street and then falling or jumping to his death. By nature a quiet and reserved man, he behaved this way because of parasites in his brain, the result of an improperly cooked meal he ate in Mexico. If you see the brain as the source of our consciousness, our memories, our feelings, and our personalities, and you realize the brain is so fragile, our vulnerability can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow. And if our own vulnerability is hard to take, the vulnerability of those we love is even more poignant.
Religion is one obvious way that people have dealt with their vulnerability and their subjection to natural laws that seem capricious. The dualism at the heart of much of Western religion sidesteps the thinking meat problem by claiming that we are something besides just meat, that we possess immortal souls that live beyond whatever happens to the body that we inhabit temporarily. I see no reason to believe in this dualistic view, but whether you believe it or not, religious belief obviously plays a large and complicated role in people’s attempts to resolve the thinking meat problem.
I believe that our brains and our minds are one and the same. In part, the Thinking Meat Project is about the journey from thinking in terms of a mind-body split to thinking in terms of embodied cognition, embodied consciousness, embodied feeling. I began this journey years ago when I left the church, and am still figuring out how to find meaning and purpose in a world where we are animals that think and where our deepest passions and values, which feel so personal and chosen, are partly a result of our biological makeup. As science learns more and more about our physical being, thoughtful people everywhere are having to make the same journey.
One of the hardest things to give up when I left the church was the idea of life after death. If our minds arise from the activity of our brains, then when we die, we’re gone. But another part of the thinking meat problem has to do with how we’re in some ways not entirely gone. When my mother died four and a half years ago, my sister’s mother-in-law said to me, “She’s not really gone, you know.” Well, I can’t call her on the phone, or send her a birthday present, or tell her about her grandson going off to grad school. But in another sense, she is still here. My siblings and I are carrying part of my mother’s genotype. We and everyone else who was close to her have been shaped in countless ways by her presence in our lives, and you can still see the imprint she left even though she herself is gone. She left behind memories and turns of phrase. Cultures around the world have beliefs about the continuing presence of the dead in the lives of the living. This is one of the things we have to understand, as thinking meat.
It’s not all sadness, being thinking meat. We’ve found ways to cope, besides religion. Several years ago, after 9/11 and after my mother died, I was at a world music festival, listening to the performers explaining the sources of their songs. A Cajun band sang about homesickness for Acadia, and a Mongolian woman sang the stories from her female forebears who missed their men-folk when the men were out on long journeys to bring back salt. It occurred to me then that maybe art is one answer to the thinking meat problem. We want our experiences to mean something, and we also want to know that other people have felt the same way; art tells us that we are not alone. In the process of sharing our experiences, art lets us take unpleasant facts and transform them into something beautiful, or funny, or thought-provoking. Maybe we can learn from other people, at least that they survived painful situations if not how they survived. Sharing meat, my son Greg said when I tried to explain this part to him.
Art also eases the pressure of finitude a bit. Life is too short, but if you can squeeze in other people’s experiences in addition to your own, at least you’re getting the most you can out of your time here. You can reach into the past by experiencing the work of other minds and other imaginations, and some of us are lucky enough to leave behind words or images or music that will reach into the future. The origins and functions of art are part of the Thinking Meat Project. This takes the project into such rich topics as cognition, memory, language, narrative, and metaphor.
And there is endless entertainment and intellectual exercise in being thinking meat. Our minds can get up to things that we don’t really understand (yet). Years ago I was trying to remember the name of a sandwich shop in Phoenix that I used to go to; I kept thinking “Sweetwater” but I knew that wasn’t it. I finally looked in the phone book and found that it was called Bitter Creek, a cockeyed antonym for “Sweetwater”. Similar quirks—collective and individual—of memory, language, and cognition can provide all kinds of fodder for studying how we think. My brain seems like a black box sometimes; I turn a crank and something comes out, but sometimes I have to wonder “Where did that come from?”
There is amusement to be had in the ups and downs of the meat too, if you look hard enough. (“If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane,” sang Jimmy Buffett, and sometimes you just have to laugh.) Anyone who has survived puberty, pregnancy, illness, injury, or aging is aware of how mysterious the ways of the body can be. Maybe my body seems fundamentally mysterious to me (in a way that my mind is not) because I’m very verbal, so I pay more attention to the part of me that creates the stream of words that constitutes my conscious life, and far less attention to bodily cues about what’s going on. But I think to some degree everyone has felt like multiple beings. Konrad Lorenz describes a life as a “great parliament of instincts”, and while I’m not sure which instincts he was talking about, the phrase resonates for me because sometimes I can hear the individual voices in the parliament. The mouth savors a flavor and wants to go on eating, but the stomach says, “Enough.” Or mouth and gut agree (“More!”) but the mind, having recently digested some dietary advice, says, “This is not doing my cholesterol levels any good.”
And that leads to questions of identity. Which of our many manifestations represent who we really are? Women who suffer from PMS refer jokingly to “the evil twin” who takes over sometimes, and some of the self-help books of the 1980s advised you to mind your Inner Child. And we certainly show different parts of ourselves to different people; my parents see a different me than my children do, and my co-workers see someone else again. They’re all linked by many shared characteristics, but they’re certainly not the same persona. So which one is me? Or am I an amalgam of all of them? Maybe there’s a higher “me” that chooses which one to be at each moment.
The question goes beyond different behaviors, down to the biochemical level. It’s increasingly common these days to invoke neurochemistry or various substances to explain some of our behavior: a grump is serotonin-deprived; some people should not be talked to in the morning until after their second cup of coffee. Or maybe we joke about someone inheriting a tightwad gene. The Thinking Meat Project is about how our biochemistry, inherited and induced, combines with our environments and histories to create our behavior and our personalities.
Assuming that a mix of biology and environment has shaped us, what is “natural”? Where do we find our balance between respecting and cherishing nature (our physical natures, our emotional natures, Nature out there, all those sunsets and mountains and such), and working to improve it? I wear glasses and I take blood pressure medication, but I would hesitate considerably before taking an antidepressant if one were ever prescribed for me. If I could have identified the heritable glitch that causes my hypertension, would I have wanted to make sure my sons didn’t inherit it from me? Sure, I think, except that how would I know we understand everything about the complex factors that go into regulating blood pressure, and that eliminating this problem wouldn’t cause something even worse? And the questions get even tougher as we think about things like personality traits or emotional conditions.
In the wider world, I want some wild places left undisturbed, and I love to see natural beauty in its wild state, but I also enjoy the beauty that people can create in the areas where they live, in gardens and buildings that fit into natural settings but also in some sense improve upon them. I say that I value life as precious, but I don’t hesitate to end the life of a mouse in my kitchen. Everyone needs to decide on a place on the spectrum between total acceptance of nature and total rejection of it. This is part of our dilemma as thinking meat, as beings that are a part of nature and yet somehow apart from it.
Animals are commonly perceived as being closer to nature than we are, and we think of that in two ways. On the one hand, we envy the animals their innocence and simplicity, and we admire the fact that they don’t lie awake at night fretting over their place in the universe. We long to be as free as the animals to express our physical yearnings and pursue our comforts. In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, we want to let the soft animals of our bodies love what they love. Animals don’t build guns or bombs.
This view is, of course, exaggerated. Some animals commit infanticide, for example. They’re not as innocent as we imagine.
So we don’t want to be “just animals”, on the level of the beasts. We want to rise above our animal selves and be something more: civilized, altruistic. Animals eat other animals, but some humans argue that we should be better than that. Predators often pick out the weak or the sick and the young to prey on, and I can see that a breed of creatures becomes smarter and stronger and quicker under that kind of pressure. Yet I am moved by the haunting story that Loren Eiseley tells of a prehistoric human who lost an arm somehow, a dreadful and by all rights deadly loss in that time and place. The skeletal remains of this person showed that he had survived the injury and lived on afterwards, presumably tended lovingly by someone who valued his survival beyond his use as a food provider. I am touched at that defiance of the physical laws that bind us.
The view of ourselves as morally elevated is also exaggerated. Some animals are capable of altruism, for example; we’re not as far removed from them as we’d like to think. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
We do have an amazing ability to discover things about the universe we live in and about ourselves. Although our minds didn’t evolve in a world that required them to calculate the distance to a star or deduce facts about the genome from long complicated chains of evidence, we can do these things. There’s no particular reason we should be able to understand every last thing about how things work, and I’m curious about where the limits are. But mostly I’m enjoying what we’re finding in the meanwhile: the knowledge of the earth’s history and our own, lost in deep time but uncovered to some degree by patient curious humans; the images of the universe returned by the Hubble Space Telescope; the details of the human genome that we are only beginning to understand. Just in the past ten years or so, we have discovered planets around other stars. This gives us fuel for speculation on the age-old question of whether or not we are alone here in the universe. I am inclined to believe in the hypothesis put forth by Ward and Brownlee in Rare Earth, that life may be common but conscious life much less so. When I think of the many factors that had to come together to make our presence here possible, I am one happy hominid to be walking around on this planet.
The concept of thinking meat thus grew out of news stories, family situations, and lots of reading. When I started compiling a reading list last year to organize my efforts, I started to think in terms of the Thinking Meat Project. As broad as the project is, there is a core idea, or maybe a Gestalt, that links the many ideas together. After thinking in terms of Thinking Meat for awhile, you can recognize that Gestalt as you’re browsing the bookstore or reading the paper or cruising the Web. This site is an attempt to provide resources for others who are interested in thinking meat, to present some of the writing I’ve done on the topic, and also, I hope, to gather an online community of curious meat.
Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ll come back often.
(Originally posted February 28, 2005, when I first launched the Thinking Meat Project)