Cannibalism: you might say "yuk", I prefer to say tasteless

Moral philosophers conventionally mention cannibalism when they want an extreme example of something that nobody would advocate. In the course of Mary Riddell's interview with me (NS Interview, 26 March) I followed this convention, making the point that "yuk reactions" are not in general a sound basis for ethical judgements. Even in the extreme case of cannibalism, I argued, we must back up our revulsion by reason.

The context was the widespread visceral reaction against human cloning. To make my point more forcefully, I doubled the yuk potential by choosing not ordinary cannibalism but the hypothetical consumption of cloned human tissues. I could have added an example that was not hypothetical. In a 1998 Channel 4 television stunt, a famous chef and food critic served up a pate of human placenta at a dinner party. Present were the new parents and 20 of their friends. Apparently none of the journalists who reported the event in a spirit of frivolous jocularity realised that they were witnessing an act of clonal cannibalism. The placenta is a true genetic clone of the baby that it has lately nourished.

The Channel 4 chef flash-fried strips of the human clone with shallots, and blended two-thirds into a puree. The rest was flambeed in brandy, then sage and lime juice were added. The father found the clone of his child so delicious ("like a Mediterranean beef dish") that he had more than a dozen helpings. The mother declared that serving placenta would become a family tradition. Whether you find this revolting, as I do, or lightly amusing, like the journalists who reported it, the point I was making was that personal yuk reactions are insufficient. They must be replaced by reasoned arguments. I adduced the famous "slippery slope" as the kind of reasoned argument I had in mind. Our taboo against cannibalism is the strongest we have, and we should not breach it lightly.

Given that this was the clear context of my remarks, your tasteless cover cartoon of a mad scientist serving up a replica of his own head garnished with an apple in its mouth was, to say the least, inappropriate.

Richard Dawkins

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words