30 May 2008

Vegetarian Shadow-boxing

Rahul from Ponticulus Indica posted a criticism of a recent article in Seed magazine by Paul Roberts on the future of sustainable meat production, or lack thereof. Briefly, Rahul summarized Roberts's argument thusly:

Seed Magazine printed his article titled Carnivores Like Us, wherein he attempts to build the case that we need to shift the discussion from meat vs. no-meat to ‘how to make meat less resource intensive, less toxic, and less destructive’. His case for the inevitability of this shift in the argument is based on three premises:

  1. demand for meat rises as incomes rise

  2. meat has played a critical role in evolving us into homo sapiens from our Australopithecus ancestry, and thus

  3. we are probably wired to really like the taste of meat, making mass shifts away from it somehow unnatural if not impossible

Hopefully, the rest of this will make some sense.

Rahul, I think you may be mischaracterizing the Seed article. For example, to the first point you say,

The context that Roberts’ first point misses is the social status that is overtly and covertly marketed with the notion of meat consumption. Since the dawn of civilization, meat has been a resource-intensive, wasteful means of eating reserved for the wealthy, or for very special occasions, by virtue of its prohibitive cost. The social prestige associated with meat thus became what many families coveted as their incomes grew, while powerful forces aligned to sell the notion that meat was a desirable way to display their financial strength. This was the case in the United States, and is the case with China as well.

Saying that demand for meat increases as incomes increase is like
saying that demand for SUVs increase as income increases.

The problem is, Roberts is not just talking about modern-day China or the US of the 20th century. He's talking about a long-term trend starting well before the dawn of civilization and the entire concept of "wealth". To paraphrase, we've been experimenting with meat-eating since we dropped out of the trees, and that trend has increased, not decreased, when more meat has become available.

Next, for point two, you say,

Stopping short of claiming that meat made us into modern humans, and even citing that hundreds of millions of healthy vegetarians around the world prove that we do not require meat, Roberts build a tenuous case for the importance of meat to the human species.

Roberts cites loosely connected evolutionary facts to attempt to build non-existent correlations between brain evolution and meat consumption. His argument amounts to suggesting that meat consumption was an evolutionary force on humanity that lifted us from savage nakedness to intellectual sophistication. Though many other silly assertions are rolled into different aspects of this argument (none of which are worth repeating), the case is invalidated by the complete lack of scientific evidence suggesting that meat consumption is an evolutionary force.

If meat did evolve early humans, it would continue to evolve modern humans. On the contrary, many studies have pointed out that modern humans are simply not designed to consume animal flesh, except in extraordinary circumstances.

OK, now I really think you're reading a different article. Roberts clearly stated that he was not saying that meat is what makes us human. He was making a connection between brain size and caloric- and nutritient-rich food, and then to the calorie- and nutrient-dense food that is meat. He does make connections to evolutionary pressures, but calling his points "silly" or "loosely connected" doesn't address the science behind them. Perhaps he cites more sources in his book, The End of Food, from which the Seed article was derived; I'm not sure. But it would be worthwhile to track down those sources or provide your own before calling his claims baseless. That would seem more fair.

Also, just because meat was once an evolutionary force doesn't mean it still has to be, or that it still has to be a strong one. Much like the need for good eyesight, because of modern society, it doesn't continue to exert the same evolutionary pressure on modern humans. I think that this line of reasoning is therefore specious.

As to the poor digestibility of meat: the point is that meat may have offered more advantages (density of calories and nutrients) than disadvantages (scarcity and indigestion) at the time that it affected our evolution. That's the point Roberts was making, I think.

Finally, as to the third point, you say,

Yet what is natural is also what is innate. If you placed both an apple and a bunny rabbit in front of a toddler, and the child ate the rabbit while playing with the apple, it would be safe to call animal consumption natural for humans. Instead, that behavior is natural for a tiger cub rather than a toddler, and this fact ought to shed some light on the true natural order of things. Most meat-eating persons find the sight of animal slaughter (and even animal cruelty) to be disturbing if not traumatizing, and slaughterhouses are often conveniently zoned far from cities for this reason. When the flesh finally does arrive onto plates, it usually has to be specially prepared and seasoned to become palatable and mask the unpleasant taste of raw animal. This too should shed light on the natural tendencies of humans.

This reasoning doesn't hold up, either, on two counts. First, we eat a great number of plants that we must cook, prepare, and season before they are even digestible much less palatable. Just because it requires effort, doesn't mean it's not natural to eat it. I don't even know what "natural" means in this case. I don't think Roberts was saying that meat is any more "natural" than non-meat foods, but just that we may have evolved a taste for it that may be difficult (but not impossible) to resist.

Second, a toddler also doesn't wipe it's own bum, and will put just about anything into its mouth, for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons could be explained evolutionarily. Should we then start eating dirt? Of course not. A toddler with a certain amount of experience would shy away from fire. Should we avoid cooking? No. What is innate is natural in the sense of usually being regular, predictable, and explainable, but not necessarily right. What is regular, predictable, and explainable is sometimes innate, but not always.

Finally, your last paragraph reveals that you're really shadow-boxing, and Roberts is only standing in for your real opponent:
Roberts’ argument, and his book, amount to a waste of time on an issue we can’t afford to waste time on. Rather than figuring out how to make meat consumption ok, the urgency of the moment demands that we figure out how to curb the appetite for meat and restore the natural tendencies of humanity. Just as a smoker finds cigarettes normal by virtue of addiction (despite coughing their way through their first pre-addiction smoke), our collective energy is better utilized by waking more people up to the deadly consequences of the very unnatural habit of human animal consumption.
I hate to ask, but have you read Roberts's book? (I haven't.) Even if you're convinced that eating meat is not "natural" I don't think that attacking someone like Roberts who is saying that Americans should eat drastically less meat is the right way to go. If you were going to get a smoker off of cigs, I would suggest tapering off as a possible strategy, as well as going cold-tofurkey.

In the end, I think Roberts could be much more of an ally to your cause than you give him credit for.

Go ahead and post what you think. Don't worry; my mom is the only other person who reads this.


  1. Kohl, I actually wrote a long and detailed response, both to your post and to my complaints about Roberts' article, but after deeper reflection, feel like Roberts work isn't worth this much energy. It also does nothing to effect the change I'd like to see, as I respond to his largely impressionistic article with my own impressionism rather than journalistic rigor. I've decided to pull down my original post for that reason.

  2. Hi, Kohl. "Natural" means what it usually means. In my experience, the word announces that a spotty argument is soon to follow. Even many of us who generally are serious about considering our positions are peculiarly content to accept ideas without much justification is they are sufficiently "natural."

  3. Hi, Michael. Yeah, I'm refreshing my memory of logical fallacies with White's Crimes Against Logic; the first chapter details how you actually don't have the right to your own opinion. Very nice.