If you eat vegan or vegetarian, the same few poorly reasoned arguments crop up incessantly from omnivorous friends, coworkers, and family members. I think it’s important to debunk these myths, in order to clear the way for more meaningful debate about healthy, sustainable, and ethical food choices.
We’ve already addressed the misperception that humans need meat for protein. Another fallacy commonly asserted as fact by non-vegetarians is that eating meat is ‘natural.’ This broad and unexamined opinion is often used to summarily (and conveniently) dismiss the whole topic. However, it’s a premise that can’t withstand any kind of reasonable scrutiny.
Refrigerators Are Unnatural
First of all, I think it’s important to point out that huge swaths of modern life in developed nations involve ‘unnatural’ things: shoes, cell phones, toothbrushes, computers, prosthetic limbs, buttons, silverware, cars…
None of these things occur in nature, yet we embrace them without complaint — because they make life better.
Cavemen didn’t have access to text messaging, or dentistry; does that make in undesirable or ‘unnatural’ for me to text, or get a filling? Paleolithic humanity lacked the option of working from home via wireless internet; should I reject this option, then, as ‘unnatural?’ Since flushing toilets aren’t ‘natural,’ shall I then opt for the outhouse or cat-hole?
Those who argue for the ‘natural’-ness of meat in the human diet need to recognize the selectiveness with which they pick and choose their enthusiasm for ‘natural’ things.
Factory farming – using animals who can’t sexually reproduce; animals who never go outside; animals confined so tightly that they can’t turn around or move; animals never allowed to nurse their young; grass-eating animals fed ground-up other animals; chickens unable to stand up without breaking leg bones, due to orchestrated obesity; food animals pumped full of antibiotics, arsenic, and synthetic hormones; animals stuffed in tiny cages and stacked on top of each other in warehouses that produce more toxic waste than small cities — the diet most American omnivores embrace represents the most unnatural ‘food’ system ever created by humankind. Justifying the standard American diet with the ‘natural’-ness argument requires absolutely (often deliberately) inconsistent reasoning.
Sometimes when people assert that eating meat is natural, they mean ‘humans have always done it.’ By that yardstick rape, murder, incest, and child abuse are ‘natural.’ Public urination is ‘natural.’ Lying is ‘natural.’ Do we then embrace these things as good and just and right?
No Hocus-Pocus in that Hambone
Folks who argue for the ‘natural’-ness of human meat-eating often assume that there are nutrients humans need that we can only find in meat. Vitamin B12 is the big thing to watch if you follow a vegan diet, but even that is available in non-animal-based foods. Soy milk, almond milk, cereal, nutritional yeast, and other fortified vegan foods contain B12; and it’s very easy to supplement B12 from vegan sources.
B12 doesn’t come from meat; it comes from bacteria. By supplementing, you just skip the part where you run it through an animal before eating it — thereby also skipping the cholesterol and fat, without compromising on nutrition. Vitamin B12 is also available in eggs and dairy products. So vegans and ovo-lacto vegetarians — who never eat a bite of meat — still have plenty of options for meeting all their nutritional needs, including B12. There is no magic meat ingredient.
Meat: Not All the Cool Kids Are Doing It
People sometimes assert that eating meat is ‘natural’ because other animals do it. Well, some animals do; but many more do not! In any ecological system, there are many more herbivores than carnivores. There are always more zebras than lions, more deer than wolves, more antelope than cougars.
It’s no more natural to eat meat or to eat plants; other animals do both, but more other animals are plant-eaters than meat-eaters. Even many animals at the top of their respective food chains are herbivores: elephants, gorillas, and giant pandas all eat plants. Why not say it’s ‘natural’ to emulate those animals?
Based on human physiology, we tend toward the physiology of a plant-eater far more than a meat-eater. Wolves don’t develop coronary artery disease if they consume too much cholesterol; there’s no increased risk of colon cancer or premature mortality for tigers from excessive meat consumption.
Why? Because these creatures are natural carnivores. Based on our observable increase in disease and early death from excessive meat consumption, and our ability to thrive on a plant based diet, we clearly are not. So when we seek to glamorize ‘natural’ behavior, why not cite the examples in the natural world that match us most closely? Why pretend it’s more ‘natural’ for us to emulate the wolf than the elephant?
Even by comparison to other primates who evolved as omnivores, humans have several physiological traits marking them as primarily herbivorous creatures. For example, our closest cousins the chimpanzees — with only about a 1.6% genetic distance from humans — boast dramatically more meat-friendly teeth than ours.
And guess what? Based on extensive study by Jane Goodall and Nancy Conklin (among others), chimps’ consumption of vertebrate prey makes up only about 1-2% of their diet! Counting insects as well as other animal-derived food, non-vegetarian things represent less than 5% of chimpanzees’ diets. Based on relative dentition, then, humanity’s ‘natural’ diet should be less than 5% meat!
In all the years I’ve heard the ‘meat-eating is natural for humans’ argument, it has NEVER been from anyone who ate a diet of less than 5% meat: logical consistency seems glaringly absent!
Why Slaughterhouses Don’t Have Glass Walls
Human psychology also ‘naturally’ tends away from carnivorism. Consider your own response when you see an injured animal on the side of the road: do you think, ‘Mmmmm, I want to rend that creature into bloody bits, and feast on its flesh!’… if you were a cougar, you would. Wolf: yep. Tiger: absofreakinlutely.
But when a human being yearns for, and rejoices in, the tearing apart of other creatures limb from limb, we recognize that impulse as an unnatural and repulsive abnormality – precisely because we are not ‘natural’ carnivores.
Humans generally want their bloodletting and butchery done as far from sight as possible. Not only do we not want to do it ourselves, we don’t want to see it; we don’t want to know about it; we change cow to ‘beef,’ pig to ‘pork’, and birds to ‘poultry’ to distance ourselves from the reality of the killing. Most people want their meat cleanly sanitized into nice geometric shapes under cellophane, with all traces of what it used to be washed away.
If it were ‘natural’ for us to eat flesh, then bits of bone, hair and gore on our ‘cutlets’ would make it MORE appetizing, not less!
Instead, human cultures throughout history have invented religious rituals to sanctify the act of killing animals for food: because without divine intervention, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable! And when it comes to eating already-dead things, our discomfort grows even stronger — if you call someone a jackal or a vulture, odds are good you don’t mean it as a compliment. Carrion eaters aren’t glamorized the way carnivores are, within most human cultures. Though that’s the role most modern meat-eaters play, we’re innately disgusted at the idea of eating dead animals.
If we were ‘natural’ consumers of dead flesh, the vulture would be quite a beautiful and relatable creature in our myths and stories — and to call someone a scavenger would be a compliment!
Yes: humans can process meat. We evolved as omnivores, using hunting to fill the gaps in a primarily gathered diet. It can help us stay alive long enough to reproduce, when other food is scarce. But: because we CAN do something, does it automatically and ‘naturally’ mean that we SHOULD?
As demonstrated by various tribal cultures, as well as during conditions of extreme duress throughout human history, we clearly posess the ability to consume the flesh of other humans. Does that make it a good idea? Does that mean it’s ‘natural’ for us to be cannibals?
Meat-based diets kill us early, slowly, and painfully. In developed nations where animal-based diets are the norm — a very recent evolutionary fluke, by the way, for which our bodies are ‘naturally’ unsuited — our main purveyors of early debility and death are caused or exacerbated by a meat-based diet. Coronary artery disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer: risk for all our top killer diseases increase with an animal-versus-plant-based food paradigm.
What’s ‘natural’ for humans to do is to think; to reason; to plan. What makes us distinctive creatures is our ability to ask not only ‘Is it possible?’… but ‘Is it right?’ And to ask, ‘In a world of possibilities, is this the best course of action?’ Humans have been evolutionarily successful by the force of our cognition. When the ice ages came, we didn’t look at our flat square teeth and wimpy nails and say, ‘Well, crap — we’re all gonna die!’ We thought it over, and imagined spears.
That strategy suited our need, at the time.
In industrialized nations, it no longer suits our need; it only suits our self-defeating whim. Like the Roman gladiator games and vomitoriums, we indulge in excess for its own sake, for our pleasure, for our convenience — and in so doing lay the groundwork for our own ruin.
What’s ‘natural’ is for us to think over this state of affairs, and imagine a solution.
Factory farming isn’t our ancestral heritage. Killing in the absence of need is not intrinsically human. And, nope: a standard American meat-based diet is anything but ‘natural.’