This is the companion piece to my short story, The Moralbiont. It will discuss some of the references and science from the story. If you have not read the story yet, I would highly advise reading it first.
The conversation between Olivia and her grandfather about his thesis supposedly being covered in cow skin is a reference to a question from the Voight-Kampff test. In the Blade Runner franchise, the Voight-Kampff test is administered to those suspected of being a replicant, a human-like android lacking empathy. By monitoring the physiological responses to questions about shocking or repellent situations, you are able to tell if the subject is a real human or a replicant. I have neither seen Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner film nor read the original novel by Philip K. Dick but I did play the 1997 video-game which is where I became aware of the question.
Like my briefcase? Department issue, baby hide. 100% genuine human baby hide.
Apart from linking to classic sci-fi, I also chose to use it here as the original question and the one in my own story is meant to elicit an emotional, empathetic reaction. As with Blade Runner, I wanted to have Olivia react to a situation which she would find emotionally repulsive given her upbringing in a more compassionate world and so show her humanity. Incidentally, animals were seen as more important in the Blade Runner universe but I believe that was largely because real animals were all but extinct.
The mycelial leather which forms a key point of discussion is not a fictional technology. There are actually multiple companies producing one or another form of mycelial leather, such as Mylo and Reishi. Depending on how mycelial leather is produced, it can have equal, or even better, properties to traditional leather while lacking the ethical concerns and having a smaller impact on the environment. (Unfortunately, the review in the previous link is not open-access but see here for a potential fix.)
It’s a bit strange that people are so comfortable with leather while objecting to fur even though, in both cases, animals are killed to produce the material. One might find it less objectionable because the cows are killed for meat anyway, because cows are less sympathetic than foxes and minks or because questioning killing cows for leather would also require questioning killing cows for meat. But perhaps it just has something to do with an old joke, the origin of which I do not know.
Why are people so much more opposed to furs than to leather? Because it’s safer to harass rich, old ladies than biker gangs!
Near the end of the story, Olivia’s grandfather remarks that all it took to end so much suffering was for a fungus “to overexpress one extra protein.” This is a reference to the Impossible Burger (which I have not tasted) but which reportedly replicates the taste of meat thanks to a genetically-modified yeast producing a haem (or heme, if you’re American) protein. The leghaemoglobin protein in the Impossible Burger is an iron-containing molecule from soybeans which, like the haemoglobin in animal blood, binds to and transports oxygen.
One would hope that vegan food which more closely mimics the taste of meat and the ability to create mycelial leather from fungi could end our use of animals for those purposes. It’s a little shocking how many people justify eating meat with a (very dismissive) comment about how it tastes good. If one thinks there is any value to that argument, I would recommend reading about the hypothetical Fred and his puppy basement in Alastair Norcross’ 2004 ethics paper Puppies, pigs, and people: eating meat and marginal cases.
As a short aside, I do want to say that the South African government is currently on some stupid crusade to stop vegan products from using “meat terms” like sausage or burger. I would think they have many more important things to focus on, so this does not fill me with hope for my country of birth. But perhaps having a plant-based braai for Heritage Day would be one small way of making a difference.
It’s also worth noting that microbes can be used for much more than is mentioned in The Moralbiont. Aside from the traditional microbial uses, they are now being used as an environmentally-friendly replacement for plastic-based packaging. Mycelium Materials Europe produces a foam made out of fungi and provides a growing substrate which you can combine with a mould (in this case a container to shape the growth) to create whatever you want out of fungi. If you want to learn more, this post gives a nice overview of using fungi to create packaging.
In The Moralbiont, Olivia is distracted by the conversation when she is told that the cows are in a nearby field. This topic is touched on due to the insistence of some people, when hearing arguments in favouring of vegan diets, to complain about what we will do with all the cows and other farmed animals. I think this question is purely a distraction. No one thinks that the whole world will agree to stop eating meat all at once; any reduction will be, unfortunately, gradual and the population of farmed animals will decrease along with that demand. In the story I offer my view as to what will happen when we finally abandon eating meat.
Assuming we abandon meat for ethical reasons, the history of carnism would leave a collective stain on our consciousness and a sense of guilt as a species for having participated in so much death and suffering. When the final slaughterhouses close, I would imagine us turning the final animals free, either fully or in sanctuaries, and caring for them to atone for our actions. In the story, the cows are roaming freely around the town but are cared for by humans; a situation which should maximise their freedoms while minimising potential harms (see this paper about the welfare trade-offs of pet versus street dogs).
Finally, we move to the title. Olivia’s grandfather muses that the effect fungi had on us was “beyond the holobiont.” An individual, like a human, is seldom actually an individual. We exist with many microorganisms, primarily bacteria, that live on or inside of our bodies; this is called our microbiome. These microbes can help produce vitamins we need, help digest the foods we can’t and keep us free from pathogens. The extent to which they do so differs from host to host but the key point is that most individuals are made up of multiple species, the host and it’s associated microbiome is referred to by the term holobiont. In the story, fungi did not inhabit our bodies but their involvement in society and the opportunities they enabled did result in a complete change of our society, our mindset and our morals. This combination of fungi influencing the values of humans is something that I have termed the moralbiont.