It’s an elective, certainly, but let us not allow that fact to emancipate us from thinking the choice over. From one perspective, shouldn’t the elective demand the most deliberation? This piece is about how I evaluate the issue. It’s not to admonish those who disagree. So feel free to, and feel freer to say why.
Animals eat other animals. As animals, we are granted that right. I only call it a right, by the way, because it’s a term in which this debate is often had, but as far as nature goes, it’s not a right –- it’s just a fact. Stronger animals eat weaker ones, and the weakest ones eat plants. I hope I’m not breaking Einstein’s rule about simplicity, but that’s what’s left after boiling.
I won’t disagree – we in fact don’t need to eat animals to survive. We don’t even need their products. Vegans who do it right are very much alive, and happy for it. Just ask Pres. Clinton, Carrie Underwood, Mike Tyson, Alec Baldwin, Carrie Ann Moss, Casey Affleck, Lea Michele, Joaquin Phoenix, Olivia Wilde, Tobey Maguire, and Jason Mraz (full list on Ellen Degeneres’s website). But it wasn’t too long ago that we did need it.
I’ll splice a bit of text from an NPR article:
Our earliest ancestors ate their food raw — fruit, leaves, maybe some nuts. When they ventured down onto land, they added things like underground tubers, roots and berries.
It wasn’t a very high-calorie diet, so to get the energy you needed, you had to eat a lot and have a big gut to digest it all. But having a big gut has its drawbacks.
“You can’t have a large brain and big guts at the same time,” explains Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist and director of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City, which funds research on evolution. Digestion, she says, was the energy-hog of our primate ancestor’s body. The brain was the poor stepsister who got the leftovers.
Until, that is, we discovered meat.
“What we think is that this dietary change around 2.3 million years ago was one of the major significant factors in the evolution of our own species,” Aiello says.
That period is when cut marks on animal bones appeared — not a predator’s tooth marks, but incisions that could have been made only by a sharp tool. That’s one sign of our carnivorous conversion. But Aiello’s favorite clue is somewhat ickier — it’s a tapeworm. “The closest relative of human tapeworms are tapeworms that affect African hyenas and wild dogs,” she says.
So sometime in our evolutionary history, she explains, “we actually shared saliva with wild dogs and hyenas.” That would have happened if, say, we were scavenging on the same carcass that hyenas were.
But dining with dogs was worth it. Meat is packed with lots of calories and fat. Our brain — which uses about 20 times as much energy as the equivalent amount of muscle — piped up and said, “Please, sir, I want some more.”
Who we are today, our mental life, and the mind we use to judge against eating animals, as a matter of fact, have come as a direct result of us having eaten them in the past. This is staggering, isn’t it?
It’s very pervasive that animals eat other animals, and we’ve come as far as we have by doing so, so what’s the problem in continuing?
I think the problem is solitary: while it is pervasive to eat meat, it certainly isn’t pervasive to grow other animals to be eaten, or manipulate other creatures’ lives before we eat them. Well, you ask, how about killer wasps that invade caterpillars and commandeer their bodies for the benefit of growing larvae? How about bacteria that hijack mouse brains to make them unafraid of cats, in whose bodies are the enzymes necessary for the bacteria’s propagation? These adaptations certainly do tread the line, and are as such good examples. So how might we better define the boundary? In these examples, and many hundreds more, there is still room for mutations in the victim’s genetics that will eventually enable the species to escape its predator. Nature has left room for that. We haven’t. In fact, we’ve not only quarantined the animals from birth to death, we’ve actually modified their genetic code so that they better suite our preferences. If this were a game, we’ve tampered with the coin. We’ve cheated. When a gazelle is chased by a cheetah, it can die, or it can be faster, stronger, or braver than its ancestors and pass on those qualities to its young. In our factory farms, there isn’t that chase. A calf might as well be born with a bar-code on it. It can’t pass anything to its young but a small fraction of its lactate.
There are hosts of environmental issues I haven’t addressed. Growing animals to eat uses morbid quantities of water, land, and other resources. Morbid quantities of animals in turn expel morbid quantities of toxic substances. This is bad, not because of what environmentalists often say — “because we need to pass down a clean planet to our children” — but because in factory farming animals, we are ruining the world they have to inhabit. What do we care? We have air conditioning. It’s the equivalent of forcing someone to dig a hole deeper and deeper into the earth until they cannot come out.
I believe if we are to continue eating meat, it has to be hunted for, so that the animals are free to live before they are killed, and their genetics ought not to be tampered with. The playing field has to be made level, so they have a shot at growing and changing. It’s not life that needs to be preserved –- that’s in my mind a kind of naïve notion – but the power of life to rise above its circumstances, as we had the chance to do millions of years ago by eating meat in the first place.