February 19, 2014
This is about what we eat, as a species. Somehow I have the feeling I've written about this before on the blog, but it might be that I've only alluded to aspects of the problem. Problem? you ask. What's the problem? Let's have pizza! Well, go right ahead. Extra cheese and pepperoni for me. And while you're eating a slice, I'll chat.
One of the things about humans that has made us so successful (in the short run at least as the history of the world goes) is our adaptability. We can live almost anywhere on earth, from the frozen poles to the jungles of the equator to the lone and level sands of the desert, and everywhere in between. Give us something to eat and wear and something with which to shelter ourselves and we're good. Of course there are other species that can and do adapt to all sorts of climates--rats and dogs and certain insects come immediately to mind, and they don't even have to make clothing. It's our ability to imitate other species and use them for our own purposes that allows us to be damned near everywhere. We are predators of the highest possible order, in that we not only prey on other species but have developed ways, on a vast scale, of managing them, changing them, and molding them to our needs. We hunt, we fish, we gather, but more importantly we develop and refine. In some places and at some stages of social and economic development we do simply grab what's at hand. But in most areas we do far more than that, and for most of us, historically, each phase of development has led to a more complex one, from subsistence to full-blown agriculture.
Where human habitation has been unsuccessful on a large scale that has been due to the fact that folks have been unable or unwilling to adapt--to get with the local program. (The Vikings in Greenland come immediately to mind here--they knew there were Inuits who had adapted well to that environment by fishing and hunting aquatic mammals, but instead of copying them they chose to transplant the agricultural model of their native Scandinavia, which, when the going got rough climatically, just didn't work. So they died or went back home.) But almost everywhere we've not only gotten with the program, but have improved upon it and developed it. Where there were once herds of wild bovines we have converted them into domestic cattle; where there have been schools of wild fish we have learned to net them or better yet have enclosed them into fish farms; where there were once fat wild edible birds we have converted them to tame chickens, ducks, and geese. We use their meat, their hides, their feathers, their milk, or their eggs, as the case may be. We not only prey on other animals, but we actually improve the quality and quantity of our prey, often on a mass scale, for our own consumption. And of course we do the same with plants.
The human level of predatory behavior goes far beyond the cunning and opportunistic habits of those predators we most fear and admire--lions and tigers and bears, for instance. It is not entirely unprecedented in the rest of nature for one species to, as it were, farm another. Certain wasps are known to keep bees under their control in order to have a steady supply of honey. But the average meat-eating king of the jungle appears to just lie in wait and take what it can from the weak and the slow of the herd rather than killing the fattest and strongest of them as we do. Lions are kind of a garbage disposal for their prey. In human terms, they're dumpster divers. Lions do make it a point to kill competing predators when possible--no baby cheetah is safe from a lion, and a lion will eat a human when it can, with relish. They're opportunistic, as I say, but not particularly forward-thinking, just highly adapted in a narrow way. It's worked okay for them for quite some time, except where they've come into contact with us, because we're more efficient as predators than they are, however much stronger they may be than us, however much we like their sinuous ferocity. We reduce their habitat for our personal use, and we kill not only them, as competitors and potential predators of us, but we also kill their prey. So while we admire their pure bloodthirstiness, reflecting as it does our own, we also know how to get rid of them if necessary.
Because humans live all over the world, we've learned to get by with whatever food is at hand, for the most part, and to avoid what's not good for us. Where meat or seafood is potentially tainted or harmful to us, we've developed rules against such foods, usually dressing them up in the elaborate proscriptions of religion. Where plants are practically nonexistent, we eat meat only, deriving whatever necessary nutrients we can from body parts. And where meat is scarce, we eat only plants, getting as much nutrition out of them as possible. But mostly, when we can, we eat just about anything and everything, because our digestive systems have developed to allow us to be omnivorous. It all seems to work pretty well. Folks in some parts of the world eat things that people elsewhere would consider revolting or perhaps a bit wacky. Raw blood, insects, guinea pigs, even dirt. Nature seems to provide pretty well for us wherever we find ourselves. And if not, we move on or die.
This brings me to people who are vegetarians by choice, rather than by necessity or under the insidious influence of some religious mumbo-jumbo. This particular subset of our species is dedicated to the proposition that even though we live in the midst of plenty and are enjoying ever-longer lives (in part by having successfully exterminated or reined in the species, from large to microbial, that prey on or compete with us) we are doing something drastically wrong to ourselves by consuming animals. And here I'm talking mostly about American and western European vegetarians who have the luxury of choice in this area. These vegetarians seem to have, as their primary motivation, the promotion of human health, and maybe also some concerns about the cost and waste of eating high on the food pyramid. But those opposed generally to the eating of meat usually observe a kind of natural, and telling, set of priorities. They are, to put it bluntly, species-centric, and concerned with the welfare of their own kind--good old homo sapiens. They are vegetarians because eating no meat appears to them to be the best thing for humans, above all.
Then there are vegans--those who don't eat anything that comes from an animal, even things that don't involve the killing of animals, such as milk, cheese, eggs, or honey. They seem to be vegetarians who have moved to a different level, motivated by a more extended agenda. This agenda has more political and social overtones. For the vegan mere dietary and health considerations are perhaps important, but human self-interest appears to have taken a back seat to altruism. They profess to object to the killing or even the exploitation in any manner of other animals. It's these folks I worry about, because, without seeming to realize it, they still practice self-centeredness, or at least what might be termed, biologically, kingdom-centrism. Perhaps without meaning to, the species whose consumption both vegetarians and vegans most abhor are the ones that most closely resemble us, or our own conception of ourselves. Thus the smarter an animal is, or the larger it is, or the cuter it is, or the more useful or attractive to us it is in some capacity other than as meat, the more likely they are to oppose the butchering and devouring of it, either on grounds of human health or in the interest of kindness to our fellow-creatures. Whales, and especially dolphins, have big brains, so they're high on the list of the forbidden, since we believe we have big brains. Cows and horses, fellow-mammals, are also a no-no. And puppies, even the tenderest and most potentially succulent of them--well it would be just unthinkable to eat one of them. Vegans of course don't stop at objecting to the consumption of mammalian flesh. They oppose the eating of birds, fish, insects, reptiles--anything that is within the animal kingdom, and anything produced by members of that taxonomic group. Their objections seem to arise from a general sense of solidarity with the rest of the beings within our kingdom--the swimmers, the quackers, the mooers, the growlers, the buzzers, the singers of the mournful songs of the sea.
I said I was worried about vegans, so let me clarify what I mean. I think, in their zeal, they've drawn the line a bit too high, taxonomically speaking. It's all well and good to be considerate to animals (and to make ourselves feel better, in a sort of self-sacrificing way, at the same time), but can we afford to ignore the feelings of plants? Why should the sufferings of species that are rooted in the ground be absent from the consciences of these otherwise well-meaning folks, as if things that have flourished on earth for millennia longer than animals are less deserving of our thoughtfulness? And why should we exploit them for our selfish uses, forcing them from wild to tame and planting them in uniform rows to serve our needs? Have vegans never heard the death scream of the carrot as it is untimely ripped from the womb of Mother Earth? What about the cry of agony of the broccoli plant as its flowers are amputated? Or the grief of the fruit or nut tree as its offspring are plucked from its branches or gathered from the ground beneath its protective shade? Have these vegans no hearts, no souls, no consciences? Shouldn't we, as thoughtful humans, be more circumspect? To spare our fellow biological species, we should, by rights, eat nothing but dirt and minerals. And for that matter, who are we to presume that rocks have no feelings? Where will it end? We should, I think, in the apotheosis of the vegan mentality, simply go out of existence.
Of course I'm being deliberately hyperbolic here. Almost all of us draw the line somewhere, in terms of what's okay to eat and what's not. Most people don't consider plants to be sentient beings in the same sense that animals are, and most of us even imagine a hierarchy of sentience within the animal kingdom. This is mostly to make ourselves feel better. Hook a fish through the lip with a pointed piece of metal, throw it in the boat and let it suffocate, what's the harm? The fish has a tiny brain, after all, not a large one like ours. Toss a live lobster into a pot of boiling water and bring on the clarified butter. It's just a giant insect anyway. But cut the still-beating heart out of a cute little lamb or eat a house cat? Well mister, you're going straight to hell.
Somehow it doesn't bother either vegetarians or their more unhappy cousins the vegans that other animals eat nothing but meat, often while it's still alive: the soaring eagle, the crouching tiger, the graceful killer whale. Or that others are omnivorous: the pig, the rat, the chimpanzee. It only irks them that we humans have these same eating habits. This discomfort with our nature, amounting to self-loathing, is what really worries me. How full of hatred for all that we are and have been in our comparatively short run on this planet must someone be to hold himself to such drastically different standards of behavior than any of his fellow animals? Does a deer think more or less of itself because it eats only grass and other plants, and does it worry about ruining trees and bushes? Does a mountain lion feel guilty about eating the deer until they are no more? I think not. Why, then should we care? It suggests, simultaneously, that we are both inferior and superior to other species: inferior in that our carnivorousness is somehow more evil than that of other animals, and superior in that we are, or ought to be, the caretakers of the rest of creation. And how self-consciously pro-animal and anti-vegetable these vegans are.
Shakespeare's Hamlet comes to mind here, as an example of mankind in its most befuddled state of indecision and misplaced priorities:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of thought.
For Hamlet and his story that quote cuts more than one way. The poor guy just doesn't know what's right. Should he kill his uncle and avenge his father's death--a fairly natural human response to murder and usurpation? Should he send him straight to hell, or should he let him say his prayers first? Should he punish his mother for marrying his father's killer and make her a widow, or, for want of being able to make any damned decision, should he just kill himself? What to do, what to do? By the end of the play pretty much everybody gets killed, deliberately or accidentally, in a real tragedy of errors. Hamlet gets it from a guy with a poisoned sword blade who is avenging his own father's and sister's deaths caused by Hamlet's mistake; but oops, Hamlet's killer dies from the poisoned blade, too; Hamlet's mom accidentally drinks poison intended for Hamlet; and Hamlet finally does kill his uncle, which, had he done that in the first place, would have shortened the play considerably and saved a lot of lives. You students of great literature might disagree here, but I think Hamlet's tragic flaw is that he's a ditherer, unable to accept the reality of what's right in front of him. He doesn't trust his natural impulses, or recognize what ought to have been pretty obvious to him from the beginning--(gee, dad died and Uncle Claudius immediately married mom, wonder what's going on?). He remains supremely self-centered from beginning to end, even while imagining that he's being thoughtful and careful. What passes for compassion on his part is only momentary indecision. He keeps wondering where and when to draw the line.
I'm convinced that if such a thing had been on anybody's radar screen back then, Hamlet would have been a vegan.
To put it more bluntly, shut up, eat, enjoy.