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. 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.