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)

Exercise for the Brain

Plato was given his nickname by his wrestling coach due to his broad shoulders. (Platon = broad)

“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity.  Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together.  With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

-Plato

Apparently even those iconic Ancient Greeks needed to be reminded to get to the gym from time to time.  As I stated in my blog post on the recent USDA/NHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans,  we seem to be an extremely health conscious people; we just seem to have the (potato) chips stacked against us when it comes to the quality of food and information made available to us by the one-size-fits-all establishments.  We depend on the allied health authorities such as the AMA, USDA, ACSM, and ACE to not only inform us of the proper way to exercise but also to continually give us evidence based reasons to exercise.  It is useless to know how to do something effectively if you have no good reason for doing it in the first place. For better or for worse, the inspirational message from both our governmental and health authorities as well as the commercial fitness industry is any one or combination of the following; “Get fit to get healthy, live longer, have more sex, look great, or get up off the floor”  Though these threats to our safety and appeal to our primal urges seem powerful enough to get us active, they are not good sources of permanent and meaningful behavior change motivation.  All of these factors deal largely with the physical body.

What Gets Measured….

A healthy conceptualization of exercise is one that sees the adaptation of the physiology and physique of the body merely as side effects of a life in motion.  Exercise should be seen as a medicine for the entire being, not just your buns and thighs.  It is no surprise, however, that these objective indicators are the focus of both our esthetic and health goals.  They are measurable.

More than a Runners High

Dr. John Ratey is a practicing Clinical psychiatrist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who is working to quantify this mind/body connection.  He successfully prescribes exercise for everything from ADHD, mood disorder, addiction, menopause and Alzheimer’s.  His therapy is based off the latest in  medical research that links the physiological benefits of exercise to real psychological improvement. He articulates this mission in his latest book, Spark:

“What I aim to do here is to deliver in plain English the inspiring science connecting exercise and the brain…  I want to cement the idea that exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health.  It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”

When people think of the effect of exercise on one’s mood, they often think of the transient rush of endorphins known as “runners high”.  Dr. Ratey maps out exactly how in addition to these feel-good chemicals running through the movers blood, there is also a great increase in utilization of proteins like IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) , BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) and VEGF (vaso-endothelial growth factor) for lasting positive effect.  Although these hormones are always present, Dr. Ratey explains how exercise effectively blasts these through the blood/brain barrier and causes psycological adaptation; just like exercise causes muscular adaptation.  The suggestion is that the primary objective of animal movement is to “work-out” the brain and improve functions of learning, reasoning and emotional affinity.

This is a very interesting concept when you think of it on an evolutionary level.  There was a period of time when all living species only had a sophisticated spinal cord.  Why did mother nature, through natural selection, decide to develop that mass of nerves rather than give the organism legs, or fangs, or something else a little more useful?  NYU neurophysiologist Rodolfo Llinas asserts that only a mobile creature needs a brain.  In his book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, he tells the story of a sea squirt that starts life mobile then, once it roots itself in some coral, eats its own brain.  Llinas interprets from this that, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”

A New Conclusion

When it comes to exercise, the end is not as important as the means.  You can move your body for whichever reason it is that suits you.  As a rule, I usually counter all health advice by saying that no one thing is good for everybody.  Exercise is probably the only exception.  It makes absolutely no difference your reasoning for starting an exercise program as to how your health will improve.  Once started, however, the adherence to the program does suffer as those superficial motivators either become less important or the initial goal is achieved.  When done properly, exercise changes the psychology of the person so much so that you actually want to work out.  Realizing that our main purpose for having the ability to move is to nourish the brain can not only be new motivation to become a mover but also may serve as a more permanent carrot at the end of your stick.  Let us hope we just don’t “over-think” ourselves with our improved cognition and snap the stick in half to get the carrot.