Evolution “failure mode”: chickens

This post uses sev­eral di­rec­tions in the re­cent (about 100 years) evolu­tion of do­mes­ti­cated chick­ens (mostly, broiler chick­ens) to be a chilling illus­tra­tion of the sce­nario “The Mind­less Out­sourcers” in The Fu­ture of Hu­man Evolu­tion (Nick Bostrom, 2004).

Ac­cord­ing to Nick Bostrom, there are two pos­si­ble ways for fu­ture evolu­tion of hu­mans to re­sult in a bad end for hu­mans, be­cause what end up be­ing evolu­tion­ar­ily fit is not “nice”. Two pos­si­ble bad out­comes:

Sce­nario I: The Mind­less Out­sourcers.
Com­pet­i­tive up­loads be­gin out­sourc­ing in­creas­ing por­tions of their func­tion­al­ity: “Why do I need to know ar­ith­metic when I can buy time on Arith­metic-Mo­d­ules Inc. when­ever I need to do my ac­counts? Why do I need to be good with lan­guage when I can hire a pro­fes­sional lan­guage mod­ule to ar­tic­u­late my thoughts? Why do I need to bother with mak­ing de­ci­sions about my per­sonal life when there are cer­tified ex­ec­u­tive-mod­ules that can scan my goal struc­ture and man­age my as­sets so as best to fulfill my goals?” Some up­loads might pre­fer to re­tain most of their func­tion­al­ity and han­dle tasks them­selves that could be more effi­ciently done by oth­ers. They would be like hob­by­ists who en­joy grow­ing their own veg­eta­bles or knit­ting their own cardi­gans; but they would be less effi­cient than some other up­loads, and they would con­se­quently be out­com­peted over time.
We can thus imag­ine a tech­nolog­i­cally highly ad­vanced so­ciety, con­tain­ing many sorts of com­plex struc­tures, some of which are much smarter and more in­tri­cate than any­thing that ex­ists to­day, in which there would nev­er­the­less be a com­plete ab­sence of any type of be­ing whose welfare has moral sig­nifi­cance. In a sense, this would be an un­in­hab­ited so­ciety. All the kinds of be­ing that we care even re­motely about would have van­ished.
Sce­nario II: All-Work-And-No-Fun.
Per­haps what will max­i­mize fit­ness in the fu­ture will be noth­ing but non-stop high-in­ten­sity drudgery, work of a drab and repet­i­tive na­ture, aimed at im­prov­ing the eighth dec­i­mal of some eco­nomic out­put mea­sure. Even if the work­ers se­lected for in this sce­nario were con­scious, the re­sult­ing world would still be rad­i­cally im­pov­er­ished in terms of the qual­ities that give value to life.

This is not just a threat for hu­mans. Modern chick­ens are already evolv­ing in such a state, and will be­come pos­si­bly even more mind­less as time goes on.

Pic­ture taken from
Genome-wide SNP scan of pooled DNA re­veals non­sense mu­ta­tion in FGF20 in the scale­less line of feather­less chick­ens (2012)

Feather­less broiler chick­ens are a thing, and they have some dis­tinct ad­van­tage for fac­tory farms in hot cli­mates: they don’t need much air-con­di­tion­ing, sav­ing money and elec­tric­ity.

Then there’s the blind chicken, which is also a thing, though not yet pro­moted. As de­scribed by Paul Thomp­son, in The Op­po­site of Hu­man En­hance­ment: Nan­otech­nol­ogy and the Blind Chicken Prob­lem (2008):

There’s a strain of chick­ens that are blind, and this was not pro­duced through biotech­nol­ogy. It was ac­tu­ally an ac­ci­dent that got de­vel­oped into a par­tic­u­lar strain of chick­ens. Now blind chick­ens, it turns out, don’t mind be­ing crowded to­gether so much as nor­mal chick­ens do. And so one sug­ges­tion is that, ‘Well, we ought to shift over to all blind chick­ens as a solu­tion to our an­i­mal welfare prob­lems that are as­so­ci­ated with crowd­ing in the poul­try in­dus­try.’ Is this per­mis­si­ble on an­i­mal welfare grounds?
Here, we have what I think is a real philo­soph­i­cal co­nun­drum. If you think that it’s the welfare of the in­di­vi­d­ual an­i­mal that re­ally mat­ters here, how the an­i­mals are do­ing, then it would be more hu­mane to have these blind chick­ens. On the other hand, al­most ev­ery­body that you ask thinks that this is an ab­solutely hor­ren­dous thing to do

And there’s some­thing even more far-out, brain­less chick­ens. From The Fu­ture of Eggs (1993):

The fu­ture of egg and chicken-meat pro­duc­tion will go some­thing like this. Ma­ture hens will be be­headed and hooked up en masse to in­dus­trial-scale ver­sions of the heart-lung ma­chines that brain-dead hu­man be­ings need a court or­der to get un­plugged from. Since the chick­ens won’t move, cages won’t be needed. Nutri­ents, hor­mones and metabolic stim­u­lants will be fed in su­per­abun­dance into me­chan­i­cally oxy­genated blood to crank up egg pro­duc­tion to three per day, maybe five or even ten.
Since no di­ges­tive tract will be needed, it can go when the head goes, along with the heart and lungs and the feathers too. The naked, headless, gut­less chicken will crank out eggs till its ovaries burn out. When a sen­sor senses that no egg has dropped within the last four or six hours, the car­cass will be re­leased onto a con­veyor, chopped, sliced, steamed and made into soup, burg­ers and dogfood.
The apotheo­sis of egg pro­duc­tion will have been reached. It’s go­ing to hap­pen. It’s prob­a­bly already in the works.

This idea has been taken on by an artist who cre­ated a sculp­ture as a demon­stra­tion of con­cept. From Farm­ing the Un­con­scious (2011):

I think it is time we stopped us­ing the term ‘an­i­mal’ when refer­ring to the pre­cur­sor of the meat that ends up on our plates. An­i­mals are things we keep in our homes and watch on David At­ten­bor­ough pro­grams. ‘An­i­mals’ bred for con­sump­tion are crops and agri­cul­tural prod­ucts like any other. We do not, and can­not, provide ad­e­quate welfare for these agri­cul­tural prod­ucts and there­fore welfare should be re­moved en­tirely.
The chick­ens would be ren­dered un­con­scious, or de­sen­si­tized… by a sur­gi­cal in­ci­sion that sep­a­rates the an­i­mal’s neo­cor­tex, re­spon­si­ble for sen­sory per­cep­tions, and its brain stem which con­trols its home­o­static func­tions.
There is very lit­tle that is nat­u­ral about the way the our food is cur­rently pro­duced. The mono­cul­tures and in­ten­sive farm­ing sys­tems upon which we rely are tech­nolog­i­cal land­scapes, har­vested and pro­cessed us­ing high-tech, and in­creas­ingly robo­tised ma­chin­ery.
The brain stem of the chicken which re­mains in­tact, is re­spon­si­ble for the metabolic sys­tems in­volved in mus­cle growth. The mus­cles will need ex­er­cis­ing in or­der to grow and this could be done phys­i­cally by… us­ing elec­tric shocks as in ‘in-vitro’ meat pro­duc­tion.

Out­sourc­ing ev­ery­thing: nu­tri­tion, ex­er­cise, defe­ca­tion… all to hu­mans. All that’s left for chick­ens to do, is to grow meat. They would be­come truly veg­e­ta­tive, no longer an­i­mals.

Some philoso­phers have writ­ten about it too, as in Why We Should Ge­net­i­cally ‘Disen­hance’ An­i­mals Used in Fac­tory Farms (2018), which is ex­actly as the ti­tle says.

Peo­ple with con­cern for an­i­mal welfare can make a pos­i­tive case that dis­en­hance­ment alle­vi­ates the suffer­ing of an­i­mals cru­elly brought into an ex­is­tence that guaran­tees sig­nifi­cant pain, and that this does not con­tra­dict efforts to re­place the sys­tem that gen­er­ates this suffer­ing.

Let’s see: no feathers, no eyes, no brain… yes, the Mind­less Out­sourcers!

And there’s Win­ston Churchill, Fifty Years Hence (1931):

With a greater knowl­edge of what are called hor­mones, i.e. the chem­i­cal mes­sen­gers in our blood, it will be pos­si­ble to con­trol growth. We shall es­cape the ab­sur­dity of grow­ing a whole chicken in or­der to eat the breast or wing, by grow­ing these parts sep­a­rately un­der a suit­able medium.

At this point, the dechick­eniza­tion of chicken would be com­plete.