Archive for January, 2011
I used to be of the opinion that we are naturally omnivores. I am not so sure anymore. There is both archeological and physiological evidence to the contrary.
It may actually be the case that our omnivorous nature has been acculterated — meaning that we developed it as our species created civilization, and it is not therefore “natural” any more than the tar sands or nuclear weapons is “natural” (that is, occuring in nature).
We know that we evolved in what is now Tanzania roughly 1.2 million years ago, and were primarily plant-eaters then, as the other great apes are now — they eat over 95% plants, and the rest is grubs and maggots and small animals.
Here is reference to the scientific evidence that human beings — like the other great apes — are primarily vegetarians, not primarily omniovores, as we have been led to think:
Our bodies still reflect these largely vegetarian origins. Our bodies are simply not meant to digest meat. See this entertaining video, which makes this case:
See some more evidence to this effect, from Nick Dalzell, below.
Is this even a relevant question?
But whether this is true or not is itself not an argument for or against a practice, because naturally we also murderers, so the “naturalistic” argument is not the clincher. Rather, the moral and environmental and health arguments are most convincing.
From a health perspective, our bodies are not built for it (it causes heart disease and infects us with pathogens), and now the planet cannot absorb the costs either.
The more compelling arguments: health, environment, ethics
Factory farms are a leading cause of climate change and water waste and contamination and soil erosion.
If we can do without animal products, which we can, easily, there is a very strong moral argument against it, just as there is against murder of other human beings, because human beings are animals and in nature there is no “higher or lower” in evolution, no moral superiority (as evolutionary biologists, from Darwin onward remind us).
But what of indigenous / aboriginal peoples, you may ask? Hunting is a relatively new invention for humans, in our history. It goes back tens of thousands of years, but human history goes back over 1 million years to whatever we were before we became the species we are now. Hunting, on this time scale, is a new invention.
Subsistence hunting is not necessary any longer in most places in the world, to survive. If we who live in cities and towns, close to agricultural food sources, have a choice, it is only logical that we opt for the more environmentally friendly, morally good and healthier option: a plant-based diet.
Many people persist in thinking that meat-eating is “natural” because our ancestors hunted. Hunting is the product of technology and culture. Spears and knifes are not natural to any other animals. We acquired them over time and created civilization and culture.
Farm animals are, through genetic selection, also the result of technology. But these farm animals, of course, are living feeling individuals, and not cars or houses, and thus it is morally wrong to harm them. The manipulation of their bodies is the unfortunate by-products of our civilization, but their lives and minds and feelings are their own. To rob them of basic comforts and communion with their offspring, and to take their lives violently and to make them into slaves for our uses, is wrong — just as it would be to do it other human beings.
Morality and biology
And what is the moral case based on? Against, science: biologically we are no different than other animals and there is no rational basis for claiming superiority over them. Evolution does not mean there is a hierarchy of superior and inferior; as Stephen Jay Gould notes, it means we are equal to other animals, not better or worse. If we would not harm one another, we ought not to harm them either.
The social contract
In a civil society, we do not harm others — this is called a social contract. Animals needs to be part of that contract, as passive moral agents, like children are, because they can be harmed by us, and because they are individuals who deserve respect and have rights.
This is why I consider the question of whether we are naturally vegetarians or not, irrelevant, or at least of secondary importance to the ethical question. We are naturally murderers and rapists too, if you want to put it that way, but in a civil society we choose not to do that to one another. There is no good moral argument for doing the same to non-human animals. The entire practice of killing them and consuming them rests on assumptions of privilege and power, not what is morally right. That is the strongest argument of all.
More from Nick Dalzell (from FB) re: the physiological evidence:
The human abdomen, ovaries and testes completely exposed and, potentially, fatally vulnerable. Whereas standing and walking are very energy-efficient for humans, running is not.
We are extremely slow runners and have very poor stamina. We have a carbohydrate-digesting enzyme in our saliva called salivary amylase.
The human esophagus does not handle poorly chewed food very well. Over 90% of the people who choke to death each year choke on meat.
Human body length (head to tail bone) is typically 2.5 to 3 feet. Thus, at >25-30 feet in length, the human small intestine is clearly designed for digesting plant material.
Only herbivores have an appendix. No matter how much fat and cholesterol you feed carnivores like dogs and cats, they NEVER develop coronary artery disease.
In places where people eat a high fiber, whole food diet, appendicitis and diverticulosis are unknown.
Studies in western countries have shown that on average, vegetarians have smarter children, suffer significantly lower rates of chronic disease, obesity and dementia, and live longer than their meat-eating counterparts.