Is Eating Meat Ethical?

Gorilla. Close Up.

"I wonder if that branch has feelings?" (Photo credit: vladdythephotogeek)

The following is my essay submitted to the New York Times for their contest on the ethics of eating meat:

There are few acts more intimate to a person than eating. That which we choose to build our most recent versions of our selves needs to be carefully selected and responsibly cultivated. We must consider, as all civilizations have before ours, not only what our meal will do for our bodies but also how to ensure sustainability of the process for the generations to come. In the end, it all comes down to transferring the harnessed solar energy on your plate in to the powerhouses of our 7 trillion cells.

At this point in the history of the world, humans have been able to run every type of dietary social experiment imaginable. We have managed to draw enough energy from nearly every terrestrial habitat to allow for generations to thrive on every corner of this planet. We not only know how to survive on the natural resources of any given region but we can do it without sacrificing our human desire for gustatory diversity.  Modern medicine has confirmed what vegetarian cultures before us have exhibited; that humans do not need to eat meat to survive.

But are we as humans meant only to survive?

All spirituality aside, we are still more than just more highly evolved apes. Whether they are products of man-made constructs or divine inspiration, human beings have exhibited virtues, ideals and abstractions either absent or unarticulated in the rest of the animal kingdom. There certainly is something unique to being a member of the homo sapiens sapiens species.

Enter the carnivore. Anthropologist Leslie Aiello points out that, “You can’t have a large brain and big guts at the same time.” Many scientists like her say that it is our discovery of fire and, consequently, more widespread consumption of meat that served as the evolutionary catalyst to the creation of what we now call a human being[1].  The premise is based on our study of the GI tracts of our vegetarian cousins in the simian family. Gorillas and other mostly-plant-eaters have massive intestinal tracts. This is obviously necessary to breakdown all the tough cellulose in their diet. This means the Gorilla evolved to be able to sustain itself on the ever-present plants around them. Food scarcity is now pretty much eliminated as a threat of extinction amongst the Gorillas, but all that energy used in the digestion and absorption of their food left the Gorillas with relatively small brains. It’s too bad too because since the Gorilla must remain sedentary most of the time to allow his leafy meals to digest, he could be doing some serious thinking; if only he had a larger brain.

The accepted theory is that our very division from that branch came about largely due to the diversion of nutritional capitol towards cognition (our brains) rather than absorption (our intestines). The brain is incredibly expensive to run from a biochemical perspective. It needs a supply of certain macronutrients (mostly fat) that a plant-based diet cannot easily provide.  In other words, one of our early ancestors decided to spend more time thinking up a clever plan to ensure her next meal rather than sit around all day and wait for her body to breakdown and absorb the ubiquitous grasses below her. Our evolutionary advantage is our ability to reason, feel nuanced emotions and have the capacity to even make ethical decisions.  If not for the consumption of meat, we would eventually render ourselves physiologically unable to even think in terms of ethics and justice.

Reward: $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of this murderer. (Image credit: Herbert Johan)


[1] Stringer and McKie (1996) African Exodus, page 35, quoting Leslie Aiello (Ev)

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11 thoughts on “Is Eating Meat Ethical?

  1. Love the essay, and best of luck in the competition. Really interesting conclusion about a topic I know very little about. The necessity of certain macronutrients in the development of mankind’s evolutionary advantage is a really interesting perspective on the ethical debate. I think another angle that still needs to be considered is that quantity of meat that we do need. Consuming meat is all well and good to an extent. But then, when we reach higher levels of meat consumption we require major changes in the food production system (with resultant effects on the natural world) to sustain our booming appetites. That’s when the sustainability debate kicks in. Food for thought indeed!

    • I agree completely. The parameters for the essay were restricted to just the basic question of should we, or shouldn’t we eat meat. There are a lot of other qualifiers that go in to sustainability.

  2. You may be interested to know that recent research claims to have refuted the so-called “expensive-tissue hypothesis”. Here’s the article in Nature:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v480/n7375/full/nature10629.html
    And if you can’t access the full article there, here’s a summary of the issue:
    http://paleovegan.blogspot.ca/2011/11/its-curtains-for-expensive-tissue.html
    I don’t know what the truth is, but how we got our big brains seems to me to be irrelevant from an ethical perspective: now that we have big brains — however we got them — we can make choices about how we ought to live.

    • Thanks for the read Mijnheer. I’d be interested in getting a hold of the full text. My first question is why would the researchers include mammals of other orders other than primates? I hope they didn’t stray too far from humans in this regard as there would be no way to control for the amount of biodiversity outside our own order. I’d like to see the raw data and calculate a regression using only the primate data. It seems this would have been more appropriate (assuming my suspicion of being too liberal with the inclusion criteria is correct). From a biochemical perspective, the ETH is pretty solid thus far. It will take more than an analysis of “a sample of 100 mammalian species” brain size and organ mass data to refute what Aiello & Wheeler suggested and modern histology, physiology and molecular biology seem to support.

      It seems the case against ETH also relies on a pretty narrow view of the biochemistry of the nutrition component to the hypothesis. “Though Aiello & Wheeler proposed it as the probable source of the necessary calories, they hinted that other high-quality foods, like sugary fruits, tubers, or oil-rich nuts and seeds, could also have done the job.” The brain not only requires more calories but it, and all the metabolic processes that precede and follow brain activity also require a myriad of enzymes, cofactors, micronutrients and macronutrients in a particular proportion. I concede in my essay that we are well aware that we don’t NEED to consume meat, however, the anthropometric data from the people who have tried to thrive sans meat indicate a decline in stature and brain size. I simply state that just because it is possible, doesn’t mean it is ideal.

  3. Hey Bobby,

    Long time, no talk haha 😉

    Just wanted to personally let you know that I mentioned you in my most recent post at healthdemystified.com, because I just wanted to thank you for what you’ve done to both support my blog and inspire the world.

    I’ve also included a backlink over here to your blog, so that hopefully more people will be able to be inspired by your posts.

    -Eric

  4. Interesting. I actually wrote a paper on this same topic (but a different side) in reference to factory farmed meat for a Biblical studies class with the argument that to abstain is loving. I don’t have an issue with ethically sourced meat, but the stuff that we’re producing in CAFO’s…. that definitely is bad for the planet, and seems to be bad for us.

    • Thanks for reading. you certainly are correct that if our only choice was CAFO meat, it would deffinately be wrong and unhealthful to consume animal products. There is no way to build health from from sick animals.

      As for my essay, the parameters for the contest restricted mention of the ancillary factors such as local farms, organic, grass-fed, hormone-free, humane slaughter, etc.

  5. Pingback: Forcing feeding false premises and other lies | Across the Back Fence

  6. Pingback: What is Ethical Eating?… Is Eating Meat Ethical? « Biocadence

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