Science Channel - InSCIder

4 Apr

Have a Bite of Brainless Chicken

Chicken CREDIT: Mark A. Johnson/CorbisWarning: If you're about to gnaw on a big juicy plate of Buffalo wings, you may want to put off reading this.  British artist André Ford has come up with a bizarre vision, which he calls "The Centre for Unconscious Farming."  In an installation at the Royal College of Art, Ford imagines a horrific chicken farm of the future in which the fowl have the most of their brains removed surgically and are grown inside tangles of tubes that provide food and remove waste. Meanwhile, their muscles are electrically stimulated to promote growth until the moment they are ready for slaughter.

As Ford writes in his explanation:

As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be produced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious.

Surgeons at Work CREDIT: Tim Pannell/CorbisJaded science scribe that I am, when I saw Ford's project, the first thing I thought of was one of my one of my favorite cartoons from Gary Larson's The Far Side — the wonderfully absurd 1983 depiction of a "boneless chicken ranch," in which the bewildered fowl are strewn about the ground droopily, akin to the clocks in Salvador Dali's surrealist painting "The Persistence of Memory." 

Ford, though, isn't going for laughs. You might suspect that he's just engaging in another piece of animal-rights agitprop, designed to shock and outrage viewers, and get us to contemplate the macabre conditions in which broiler chickens are raised on industrial-scale farms. After all, the exhibit refers us to a report, "The Welfare of Broiler Chickens," by the Compassion in World Farming Trust, a UK-based animal rights organization. (I'll spare you the details, except that in the end, they meet a fate similar to that inflicted by Italian partisans upon deposed fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.)

But no. As Ford explains, he actually is proposing that chickens be subjected to brain surgery as a humanitarian measure:

Earlier in the project I was proposing the chickens would be rendered unconscious, or desensitized by complete removal of the head but this has since been revised. Desensitization will be achieved by a surgical incision that separates the animal's neocortex, responsible for sensory perceptions, and its brain stem, which controls its homeostatic functions. The head remains intact. So in short, I would refer to this solution as pragmatic, not cynical and if the project does cause anyone to reflect on his or her dietary habits then that's great.  

Ford, in fact, describes his concept as the future of farming, which he sees as being carried on in a totally artificial environment, where food is systematically harvested and processed by army of robots--possibly equipped with synthetic skin, mechanized facial expressions and voice synthesizers programmed to sound folksy, so as to resemble the late Frank "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" Perdue. (Okay, I just added that last part.) 

I'm relieved, actually, because that makes my job as a snarky science blogger a lot easier. I don't have to ponder the complex, troubling question of whether killing animals and eating their flesh actually was essential for the cognitive and social development of modern humanity--as anthropologist Craig B. Sanford argued in the 2001 book The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior. Instead, I get to punt from the 40-yard line, and simply look at the practicality of performing brain surgery on billions of domesticated fowls and then raising them in a fashion vaguely similar to how humans are enslaved by a computer network that utilizes their body heat for energy in the Matrix trilogy. While those movies were entertaining, of course, the energy-harvesting notion made little sense thermodynamically; as I pointed out in this piece for the Discovery Channel, it would require the resting body heat of 30,000 times the number of humans who have ever lived just to power the five boroughs of Manhattan, plus Westchester County.

I would opine that unconscious farming is even more impractical than that, but it wouldn't do justice to the utter ridiculousness of Ford's concept. So instead, I'll say that it is about as impractical as dressing a chicken in a chicken-sized long leather coat and sunglasses and trying to teach it to emote like Keanu Reeves. I haven't been able to find a current estimate of the global chicken population, but back in 2002, the Federation of American Scientists came up with a figure of approximately 15.9 billion. Scientists haven't yet developed a surgical robot capable of performing delicate brain surgery on humans, let alone birds, so the procedure would have to be done by hand. If we assume that the world has several hundred thousand veterinarians (the U.S. has about 79,000), and we put them all to work day and night removing chicken craniums and guiding the tiny patients through post-op recuperation...well, you do the math.

Moreover, if we're concerned about ethical, humane treatment of animals, disconnecting chickens' neocortexes and reducing them to the avian equivalent of a vegetative state isn't exactly what Mahatma Gandhi had in mind when he said that a society's moral character can be judged by how it treats animals.

Chicken Wrangler CREDIT: Michael Bader/Westend61/CorbisChickens, whose neuroanatomy has been studied extensively in recent years, turn out to have a lot more going on inside their heads than we ever thought. This 2005 article from the website of the Dana Foundation, an organization that helps fund brain research, explains that chickens and other birds lack the large, multilayered neocortex of humans and other mammals. But even so, recent research has revealed that the feathered creatures possess an array of non-instinctual cognitive abilities and behaviors. Even newly hatched baby chicks, for example, are able to perform a cognitive process called amodal completion, in which they recognize an object as whole even when it is partly behind another object. Human infants, in comparison, aren't able to do that until they are four to seven months old. Birds actually can outperform adult humans at certain mental tasks, such as matching rotated objects or symbols. And even chickens' squawking turns out to be a much more complex form of communication than what we once believed.  Chickens may possess thousands of different vocal combinations, and they can learn new ones in adulthood, demonstrating a surprising degree of brain plasticity. Additionally, chicken calls can have specific purpose and content. In experiments, for example, chickens that spot a potential predator will cry out only if other chickens are in the vicinity, showing that the cries are an effort to alert other members of the flock. And according to this Australian radio broadcast, one neuroscientist argues that chickens in the wild have problem solving abilities that aren't apparent when we raise them in cages.

Here's an intriguing article from RedOrbit on researchers' effort to create a mathematical model that emulates chickens' brain circuitry, and another article from Biological Bulletin on the comparison between mammalian and avian neuroanatomy and the question of whether birds possess consciousness--that is, awareness of one's self and surroundings.

To me, all this suggests that removing those marvelous mechanisms and tossing them in the wastebasket is no more humane than beheading chickens or choking them to death. But Ford also misses another promising solution to the problem of supplying humans with the animal protein that they so often crave. I'm talking about cultured meat cells--sometimes called "test-tube meat"--that would be grown in large vats. From SmartPlanet, here's an article about a Dutch researcher, Mark Post, who plans to unveil a synthetic hamburger this year, grown from sheets of cow muscle in a laboratory. (Granted, the first test-tube burger will cost an estimated $290,000 to produce, but if the process becomes practical the price is sure to drop.)

So what do you think? Express your opinion below.

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